Lately I’ve been thinking about how much influence our chosen social scenes affect our lives, often times in unexpected ways. For example, it’s well documented that former drug addicts usually have to stop hanging around their old, drug-using friends in order to avoid a relapse. It’s not that those friends deliberately try to sabotage the addict, it’s just that the social environment itself promotes drug use. Similarly, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, people whose friends are interested in eating right and working out tend to exercise more often and eat healthier food than other people. And again, it’s not that fitness enthusiasts pressure everyone else to live a healthy lifestyle, it’s just that the atmosphere they create when they socialize promotes physical fitness and a good diet.
Our malleable human minds seem to adapt to the social conditions we’re living in. What you see, hear, and experience becomes your version of normal. And while “being normal” is an individual choice, it seems as though normalcy itself is environmentally dependent.
Consider also, for example, the fact that everyone in every small town in America listens to country music. Everyone. Every small town. Why? It mostly comes down to the fact that country music is what gets played in small towns. These folks like to camp, and go fishing, and ride horses; it’s not because they’re genetically predisposed to enjoy these activities, but because the prevailing culture places a high value on them. We’re influenced by the people around us.
This is obvious enough at the cultural level, but less obvious at the friendship level. We’ll all readily admit to being influenced by our friends, but I think we tend to understate just how much the prevailing sense of normalcy among a group of friends defines what each individual sees as “normal.” I’ve known people who became drug users only because one or two people in their friends group became so; and soon enough, the entire group was using. It’s not all bad news, of course. I’ve known other groups of friends who all got interested in saving for retirement, and before they knew it, they were all exchanging tips and tricks to save the most possible.
Those are single-activity examples. What I’m really interested in is how choosing a particular social group for one reason influences several other, unanticipated aspects of life. For example, a lot of people get into the heavy metal scene because they love the music. There’s nothing about the music that demands that a person dye her hair or wear a metal-studded bracelet, get tattoos, and ride motorcycles. But, invariably, there’s a social culture surrounding the heavy metal music scene, and as one becomes more active in socializing over heavy metal, one becomes more interested in those other things, too.
Some of those things are fine, like riding motorcycles and dying your hair. Other things are not so good for us, such as staying out late, drinking heavily, smoking, vaping, and so on.
Again, my interest is in how choosing one kind of scene influences other aspects of your life. Or, more specifically, my life. My social scene, when push comes to shove, is the distance-running scene. I never realized how much I identify with that social scene until much later in life, when I spent some years away from that scene and then entered a race one day. I showed up, and my friends all said, “Look, Ryan. Everyone looks like you!” They were right. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, dressed like me, spoke like me, and acted a bit like me. I was “home.” Weird.
Well, distance-running is a fun sport that promotes good health; those are the good things that come with being part of that scene. What about the other things that go along with distance running, the unanticipated things, perhaps the negative things?
Well, distance runners actually drink a lot of beer, and that’s not so healthy. They obsess over their sport a lot, are a little bit neurotic, and, because distance running is an individual sport involving a lot of time spent alone, they tend to be a bit self-absorbed. When I spend too much time in the distance running community, I, too, am susceptible to those things.
There is also a sense of style that goes with distance running. Short hair, t-shirts, running shoes on every occasion, hemp bracelets and necklaces, running watches. Truth be told, I love all these things, and the only reason I can make sense of is because that’s the style within my community. Still, it’s not always a positive. Among my non-running friends, I am perhaps the least stylish one. The only people who understand my sense of style at all are those who have seen me among my running community. That’s when it clicks and they realize that I’m not just an unstylish schmo. I’m just a distance runner.
I think it is an illuminating exercise to consider what community you belong to, what positive things come from being a member of that community, and also, what potentially negative things.