August 15, 2011    Psychology

What Is “Weird”?

Being in high school I often hear “she’s weird” or “that’s weird.” I always like to ask why. What makes something or someone weird or normal? Something is weird when it breaks societal norms. For example, if someone puts his hand over his mouth while talking (in everyday conversations), you would probably consider that trait as weird (but not necessarily him as a person). But why? Because people don’t normally put their hands over their mouths while talking.

A good way to illustrate this point is to look at different cultures. What’s weird in one, may be the norm in the other or vice versa. For instance, slurping your noodles or soup would be considered weird in the United States, but not slurping could be weird or offensive in some Asian countries.

This is how a trait is considered weird, but now what makes a person weird? Ultimately there’s no set way to determine if a person is weird. If a person covers her mouth when she talks, she probably wouldn’t be considered weird just from that. It’s a small break of the societal norm. But if she breaks many other small norms, she may be labeled as weird. For example, let’s say she also puts her head down whenever sitting down at a table to eat, and refuses to speak when called on in a class. The combination of these traits could lead to her being labeled as weird. But it isn’t just about the number of unusual traits either; the severity of each also counts. Let’s say a person slaps himself in the face repeatedly while talking. Even if he doesn’t break any other societal norms, he could still be labeled as weird.

Although weirdness is ultimately subjective, it’s important to note that most people conform to societal norms; so, if something is weird to one person, it is likely that others in the same culture think it is weird as well. In some cases, the norm is determined by geography. For instance, a strong southern accent in the deep south is considered normal. But mostly everywhere else it would be perceived as weird. Sub-cultures and counter-cultures may have their own societal norms too. Drug use, for instance, would not be considered weird among a group of drug users. A non drug user may be weird to them.

Weird Versus Offensive

Something weird can sometimes be offensive. For example, profanity in public is both weird and offensive to most people. When something is offensive, it either hurts some people (like children), or goes against their treasured values. In some of the states in the US, being an atheist is considered offensive, because atheism goes against many people’s cherished values. When someone is considered offensive or weird, they are often shunned and alienated, although there are some exceptions (more on that later).

Exceptional Versus Weird

In most cases, unusual traits are considered weird, but in some cases, they are praised as exceptional. What makes something exceptional and not weird? Think of a professional athlete. Their ability and dedication to their sport isn’t normal, yet we applaud them, because we value athletics. Professional athletes fit in with the norm, because our appreciation for them is normal, even though they themselves aren’t normal. But what if someone is exceptional in something that the society doesn’t commonly appreciate? I once saw a lady on CNN who had incredibly long nails. Getting her nails that long required much hardship, dedication, and will, much like the traits of a professional athlete, but the average TV audience would consider her weird, not exceptional. When it comes to a trait that a society views negatively, the more you do it, or the better you are at it, the more you’re perceived as weird. In sports, what makes you exceptional isn’t necessarily determined by how much you play but by how good you are. Even if you play a lot, if you are not particularly good at it, you wouldn’t be considered exceptional.

We all possess certain traits to different degrees, like our weight. People at an ideal are looked at favorably. They are fit, relatively skinny, but not in an unhealthy way. There is a sweet spot. If you get skinnier or fatter than that, it becomes bad. The farther you get from that ideal weight, the more our society labels you as weird.

The obesity epidemic brings to light the significant disparity between ideal and reality. Even though obese people aren’t thought of well by our society, they aren’t weird anymore. It’s actually the norm to be overweight. So while obesity is frowned on, it does not make you weird. On the other hand, overly skinny people (usually with anorexia nervosa) are perceived as weird because it is uncommon.

But why is it that being fat or skinny is bad? Why is there a sweet spot or optimal point for weight? Why is the lady who grows out her nails weird, while a professional baseball player is exceptional? Finding the answer requires looking at how societal norms are formed, and what we perceive as good in our society. Simply put, different societiess value different things. Why they do, is hard to answer. The only thing I can give you is that it is probably based on how the society evolved and changed over time (natural selection?). Geography, religion, and other factors also come into play too.

For example, consider this story. David Siver was teaching a business class in Singapore. He asked the seemingly obvious question of “Who here wants to start a business?” Out of the approximately 50 students, only one raised his hand. In America, if you asked the same question in a business class, nearly all would raise their hands. David Siver jokingly pointed out that someone from the hallway would enter the classroom just to raise his hand.

So the culture decides what is weird and what is exceptional. In Singapore, starting a business is perceived as bad or weird. It could dishonor your family and such. In America, a business student not wanting to start a business is weird. A successful entrepreneur is considered exceptional. There is nothing inherently bad about being fat or skinny; it’s just the culture’s perception that makes it so. In the past, being fat was perceived as exceptional, the sweet spot.

Good Weird and Bad Weird

Even though our society may deem a certain person or trait as weird, at the level of individuals, it can still be desirable. If a girl blushes constantly, she may be considered weird by her society but some men may find it cute. For them, it is a good weird.

An obvious example of bad weird is serial killers. Almost no one on the planet thinks the way their mind works is normal. They find it incredibly weird and offensive. But if almost everyone’s mind worked that way, that would be the social norm. Serial killers would find normal-minded people to be weird (of course, they would then kill them). As disturbing as that sounds, it is only because we believe the world should be a certain way, while the norm could really be anything. Someone or something being weird isn’t absolute. It is simply a judgment based on the idea of norms.

So, is it bad to do something weird? That depends on whether the societal norm can be justified. Racism was the norm not too long ago in America. Some white people chose to break that norm and treated African Americans in the same way they treated everyone else. They were labeled as weird, but now we perceive them as normal. We need to understand that societal norms can be broken and changed, and by being weird, you may actually help in creating an improved normal.