Do you always have to follow social norms?

In my pre-Viva life, I worked at a job with a very long train commute. Not just New York City long. Mind numbingly long. It was in a pretty remote area of Brooklyn, and therefore only accessible by two subway lines. That’s almost like being in the suburbs.

Everyone who worked with me took the same train line. There are few reasons to go as far into Brooklyn as we did, so it wasn’t like the train was crowded by the time we arrived. It was easy to notice who was on the train with you, so the awkward situation of seeing a co-worker that you know but aren’t particularly familiar with was entirely too common.

Social norms would say that it would be rude not to strike up a conversation with said person. While that might not seem like that big of a deal to some of you, it’s essentially my version of social torture.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.

But I HATE small talk. It’s not that I’m shy. I can talk to anyone. I just don’t like conversation that feels meaningless or talking just for the sake of talking.

A wise man (hey, Jor-El!) once said that there should not be noise unless it improves upon the silence. I think that’s pure gold.

That rule especially applies to a long trip.

I like to listen to music, read, answer e-mails, and just be by myself if I’m going to be traveling for a while. I know I was “supposed to” interrupt that to make small talk with co-workers I didn’t really know, but I always dreaded it. Sometimes I would plan which train car I’d be in to try to avoid it as much as possible. Don’t judge me!

Did I really have to? Who said that I did?

There are certain social norms that we probably should keep following. Saying “Excuse me” when you bump into someone is one that comes to mind pretty quickly. Returning calls and e-mails in a timely manner is also probably a good idea. I’m not sure small talk falls into this category.

There are so many “rules” that exist that can feel really intrusive. Do you really have to say goodbye to everyone at a party before you leave when you’re exhausted and are done making conversation? Does everyone in your friend group need a holiday gift? What if you don’t want to attend someone’s birthday party? Maybe you went to that coffee shop to get away from your roommates and is that so wrong?

Who agreed to all of these rules, anyway?!

A lot of the social norms that we feel pressure to meet were made with extroverts in mind. For some, it might not feel that intrusive to stop their workout to chat with a friend they ran into on the gym. It can completely ruin the experience for other people. But because we don’t want to come off as rude or inconsiderate, we grin and bear it, despite the impact to our own mental health and well being.

Everyone is different.

We all know that, and yet sometimes, we forget to practice it. If you are someone who needs a little bit more alone time, or want certain activities and/or places left untouched by socialization, I challenge you to set up those boundaries.

It IS okay if you wave at your friend who is also at the gym with you and go back to your workout without extra chatting. It’s perfectly fine if you want to keep your headphones in on the train and continue reading your book if you weren’t planning to have to socialize. If you’re exhausted or not feeling well, leave the party without the pleasantries towards the people you rarely see anyway.

And if you’re someone who falls on the other side, remember that the person who is waving you off isn’t insulting you. They’re just in their space. We all need space sometimes and this is theirs.

Bottom line: social norms are great when they keep us being considerate, civil people. They can also go too far.

You don’t have to follow any rule that negatively impacts you on a regular basis, and doesn’t have that much effect on someone else at all. You get to decide what’s right for you, and that might mean that you don’t always fit in the box of what you’re “supposed to”.

The people who matter will understand.

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