If you’ve been in the social justice world for very long, you’ve probably heard variations on the phrase, “You were socialized to be X.” But what does that mean? What is socialization?
CN: physical abuse, mention of discrimination based on race, body type, and gender, mention of retaliation to sexual assault reporting.
Consider the following puzzle: A man and his girlfriend are going to a fancy dinner party, and the man arrives wearing the T-shirt and jeans he’s been wearing all day. His girlfriend is upset, insists he change into something else, messes with his hair etc. The girlfriend is stressed out that her partner would go to a party underdressed, whereas the boyfriend sees changing as an unnecessary hassle. Who in this scenario has the more valid set of priorities?
Was the woman being overly paranoid and self-conscious about her partner’s appearance? Or was the man dismissing an important aspect of social etiquette for which would he would experience social consequences later?
The answer is: both are right. The man and woman have been socialized to prioritize two different sets of values regarding appearance and both are correct that following their own set of values is socially beneficial to them.
What is Socialization and How Does it Work?
Socialization is the process of learning ideas through social interactions about how a person like you should or shouldn’t behave, act, dress, think, feel, and aspire to be. Socialization can come from:
- Life lessons taught explicitly by parents, teachers, or employers
- Watching those who lead by example, such as family members, celebrities, or role models
- The media, and what you see people like you doing (or not doing)
- Peer pressure from friends, romantic partners, acquaintances, and strangers
Socialization occurs as a result of positive and negative feedback we receive from people about our choices. Depending on which marginalized or privileged groups you are part of, you will be socialized to prioritize different values, modes of behavior, aspire to different goals, and even pursue different hobbies.
The girlfriend in the scenario above has been socialized to believe that she should prioritize her appearance. She receives praise and other social rewards when she caters her appearance to mainstream expectations of women. She receives criticism, rejection, and other social punishments when she does not follow these expectations. She may have even been socialized to make sure the men in her life look good too, because she may be judged harshly for allowing her partner to appear sloppy.
The boyfriend, however, did not receive the same socialization. He was socialized to believe that worrying about your appearance is trivial, a time waster, or worse, it might associate you with feminine qualities. The man has not received social punishments for dressing in shabby or dirty clothes, and he has been allowed to pursue his social and institutional goals without fear of repercussion, regardless of the clothes he’s wearing.
As a result of their differing socialization, the boyfriend and girlfriend have two conflicting experiences regarding the same incident. The vast majority of these socializations were occurring completely unconsciously, meaning they may both walk away from the interaction frustrated with the other for not following the social rules that they were taught, completely unaware that the other was taught a different set of rules.
What Is Normal?
Of the many ways we learn about how the world works, socialization is one of the most subtle and insidious ones. It is woven into all of our social interactions, our media, our relationships, even our interactions with strangers. The messages we receive from all these sources may be so consistent that they appear to be normal, common sense, or unchangeable. You may read some of the examples in this article and think, “That’s just the way things are.”
Because the way we were socialized is so normal to us, we may never stop to think that a person with a different background or different set of traits than us may not be hearing the same messages, or that different messages exist.
The effects of socialization can be positive or negative or change in desirability depending on the situation. Sometimes we benefit from the influence of others, sometimes we don’t. My own personal biases will likely be evident in my examples, but the purpose of this article is not to determine which socializations are good or bad but to identify when socialization is occurring.
Rewards and Punishments
There are two primary ways that our actions are influenced by socialization: Positive and negative reinforcement.
Any time we make a decision that’s outwardly visible to other people, like what clothes we wear or how we express our emotions, the people around us react to that decision. Humans are social creatures, so if an action brings us social rewards or social punishments, that’s going to have a big influence on us. If people react in a positive way to our actions, we’re more likely to continue engaging in that behavior. If they react negatively, we’re more likely to stop and be discouraged from that behavior in the future.
Variations on this structure are used in training dogs or teaching children how to behave, all the time. But these rewards and punishments continue to manifest throughout adulthood.
Examples of Social Rewards:
- verbal praise and encouragement
- smiles or engaging laughter in social interactions
- being greeted with warmth and friendliness
- physical and emotional safety
- increased options for community, friends and romantic partners
- being listened to, validated, and trusted
- easy access to necessary resources
- offers of support, assistance, or a helping hand
- opportunities for leadership and authority positions
Examples of Social Punishments:
- verbal criticism, harassment, or abuse
- disgusted, angry or judgemental looks in your direction
- humiliation, teasing or getting laughed at
- cold, unfriendly, or untrusting reception
- physical abuse or assault
- being avoided by others, social isolation
- fewer opportunities for friendship or dating
- being ignored, dismissed, or talked over
- access to basic resources made more difficult or impossible
- no support in a crisis or conflict
- lack of career advancement and/or institutional retaliation
In turn, which rewards and punishments we offer others are influenced by our own set of social rewards and punishments, and so on. The process is an unconscious, normal part of our everyday lives.
If you’ve read my posts on privilege, you might notice that these lists look a little similar to the examples of privilege and oppression. This isn’t a coincidence. An individual instance of a social reward or punishment is not evidence of privilege or oppression because those terms refer specifically to societal-wide, institutionally supported patterns. But people with privilege are more likely to receive social rewards for their behavior, regardless of what the behavior is, and people who are oppressed are more likely to receive undeserved social punishments, which in turn enforces the two systems.
The third form of reinforcement is a neutral response: whatever you are doing is normal and unremarkable. It doesn’t seem like a neutral response would be influential but it has its own type of power.
- If you engage in an activity that you see as normal, like shopping at a grocery store, and you receive neutral responses from the people around you, your perception that the activity is normal is reinforced.
- If you engage in activity that you expect will result in a reward, like performing exceptionally well at work, and you receive a neutral response, you may feel discouraged from matching that high performance in the future.
- If you engage in an activity for which you expect a punishment, such as behaving rudely to a friend, and you receive a neutral response, you may begin to expect to get away with this behavior in the future, or even believe you deserve the freedom to be rude without punishment.
Sources of Socialization
Where does socialization come from? Who participates in teaching you these lessons and how intentional are they in the process of conditioning you towards certain behaviors and away from others?
The most easily identifiable form of socialization is lessons you are taught by people who are tasked with the responsibility of teaching you social norms. This explicit form of socialization is used to intentionally influence your behavior. Often these cause and effect lessons are laid out clearly with direct language: “You are receiving x because you did y.”
When your mother forbids you from leaving the dinner table until you’ve cleaned your plate, you’re learning the habit of finishing all your food. When a teacher sends you to detention for being late to school a 5th time, you’re learning about the importance of timeliness.
Some life lessons are more controversial. Social norms vary by culture, region, religious background, etc. but they also vary depending on which marginalized or privileged groups you are a member of. The lessons you receive will be influenced by what your background is and which demographics you belong to.
Examples of Explicit Life Lessons:
- If you are a boy, your father tells you boys don’t cry when you fall and scrape your knee, teaching you to avoid openly expressing emotion.
- Your father hugs and comfort your sister when she falls, teaching her that it’s okay for girls to cry when they’re hurting.
- Teachers and parents teach you that the only foolproof form of sexual protection is abstinence.
- An employer threatens to fire you if you go through with reporting a sexual harassment case.
- If you are black, your parents teach you how to interact submissively and carefully with police officers, to reduce the potential threat of brutality.
Life lessons are the most obvious form of socialization and the easiest to identify. It’s pretty simple to look back on your life and point to times that your family, teachers, and employers told you to never do x, or always do y, and how that influences your actions today.
Leading By Example
Because people like family, teachers, and employers have power over you, they also influence your behavior indirectly. Particularly when we are young and impressionable, we absorb information about how to move through the world based on the actions of the people who are significant in our life. We copy the actions of these people, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
We love to emulate our role models, the people we look up to. These people could be our family members, leaders in our community, or celebrities in media. When we want to be like them or be liked by them, we replicate their behaviors and adjust our actions to resemble them.
Examples of Leading by Example
- If your mother always made sure to give money to homeless people, you may do so yourself when you have your own money to spend.
- If any time your parents have a fight, they refuse to speak to each other for several days, you may stop speaking to your romantic partner when you are angry with them.
- If you are a woman and one of your favorite celebrities is curvy and looks beautiful in tight dresses, you may try to make yourself look like her.
- If you attend a performance and see someone dance or play an instrument in an inspiring way, you may leave motivated to learn how to perform like that.
This form of socialization is important to recognize because sometimes the people we admire have behavioral patterns that are harmful, which we pick up on accident because they have influence over us. Emulating our idols can be a really inspiring experience, but it should be tempered by the knowledge that no person is perfect, and that we suck up information about how to act from these people without always noticing we’re doing it.
We’re highly influenced by the people around us who motivate us and teach us, but we’re also influenced by people who are the most visible in our lives. If you are raised by your grandmother and see your mother rarely, your grandmother is likely to have much more sway over your socialization than your mother will. The bigger part someone has in your life, or the more frequently you see them, the bigger the impact they will have on your behaviors going forward.
For this reason, the media is an extremely powerful form of socialization. This category includes celebrities, politicians, the fictional stories we tell in books and movies, and even public advertisements and marketing.
Examples of Influence Through Media:
- When celebrities you connect with become successful doing what they love to do, it may inspire you to pursue your own dreams.
- When a high-level politician advocates on behalf of a marginalized group, your awareness of those issues may increase in accuracy and level of importance.
- When a writer publishes the story of their life, you may be inspired to write about your own experiences.
- If every ad you see for wedding rings says that you should spend at least a month’s wages on your ring in order to make your bride happy, you’re likely to follow their advice, and see spending less or not buying a ring as inappropriate and thoughtless.
We are exposed to media sources all the time. It’s so normal, it can be very easy to dismiss the impact these stories have on us, which makes them even more insidious. Many celebrities are taken by surprise by how much influence they have over their fans, and that their behavior needs to follow a higher standard in order to be a good influence.
When pop-star Rihanna was beaten by her then partner Chris Brown, she left him in the immediate aftermath, but later returned to the relationship. As time went on, she learned that teenage girls who looked up to her followed her example and returned to their abusive relationships too. This information was a big part of her decision to ultimately leave the relationship.
A big part of media socialization is who you see doing what. We internalize the actions of specific important people, but we also absorb overall patterns in media. For example, when we see only skinny white women playing female lead roles in movies, it stands out when the role is played by a woman who is plus-size or a woman of color. We become accustomed to the patterns presented by the media and accept that certain behaviors, actions, styles of dress, emotional expressions, and life goals are associated with certain types of people. We look to the media to tell us what is normal.
If there are people in media who are similar to you in key ways (ie: race, age, body type) engaging in behaviors that you like to do, you’re more likely to feel normal by association. If the protagonist looks like you, acts like you, talks like you, you’re more likely to connect to the story.
The flip side is that if you are not similar to the people in media, you may feel alienated. For example, it’s exceedingly rare to see a protagonist who is a person of color, gay, trans, or disabled, and practically nonexistent to see a character who has more than one of those traits.
Worse is if people like you are never included in media at all, or if when they are included, they are portrayed only as jokes, villains, or 2-dimensional characters. According to the media, people like you don’t exist.
How we see people like ourselves reflected in media impacts our own opinions of ourselves. For this reason, when the main character in a story, or even just a central person in an advertisement, is played by an underrepresented demographic, the impact tends to be really huge and inspiring for people from that demographic. Media is a highly underestimated form of socialization that actually has the power to teach us a great deal about ourselves, and the way we move through the world.
The final overarching category of socialization comes from the pressure we feel when we interact with friends, peers, romantic partners, and strangers. Peer pressure occurs when we notice the immediate feedback we get from people who don’t have authority over us, but whose opinions we care about regardless.
We want people to like us, to be admired, to be respected, so we try to adjust to the expectations around us. Peer pressure is most known for being present in our teenage years, which is when we’re perhaps the most susceptible to it, but it continues to hang around throughout our lives.
Peer pressure straddles the divide between conscious and unconscious socialization. Sometimes we know that our behaviors are being influenced by the people around us, sometimes we change without noticing. As with media socialization, we see the expectations of the others around us as normal or the default, and we strive to attain that, regardless of whether the change is beneficial to us or not.
Examples of Peer Pressure
- If all of the people in your friend circle smoke, you may start smoking too in order to share the activity with them.
- If all of your coworkers go out dancing after work every day, you may be encouraged to start going with them, even if you don’t dance.
- If your romantic partner is an active feminist, you may find yourself advocating on behalf of women and other marginalized groups in social contexts more often.
- If you are overweight, eating in a public place, and a stranger walks by, calls you names and teases you about your weight, you may avoid eating in public in future.
The popularization of social media platforms has added a whole new dimension to peer pressure. Suddenly, we are able to document and view hourly details of the lives of thousands of people, many of whom we’ve never met, and provide immediate feedback in the form of comments and react buttons. Social media is peer pressure streamlined and concentrated so that we can react to as many behaviors of other people as possible.
Any picture, any statement, any article you publish could go from circulating among just friends and family to shared by millions of people overnight. Social rewards and punishments are only magnified the more people react in the same way to the same person.
This dynamic means that if you’ve done something positive and publish it on social media, you may experience a huge shift in social and financial success, as your social rewards are multiplied by the influence of a million people. It also means, if you’ve done something embarrassing or harmful, your reputation could be severely damaged, not just in your community, but worldwide, potentially leading to job loss, harassment, and social estrangement.
We Give and Receive
It’s important to remember that socialization is not just something we receive, it’s something we participate in and influence in the people around us. We are always giving and taking social feedback to and from our friends, relatives, and random people on the street.
We may not notice that the messages we send and receive are different from the messages other people experience. Our messages seem like what is normal or, “that’s just the way things are.” But the messages we hear and that we send to others are not inherent or naturally occurring.
Barring some physical or cognitive disabilities, the behaviors, actions, styles of dress, thought patterns, emotional expressions, and life goals that we engage with are chosen.
We choose which messages to enforce, whether to participate in them, or whether to create new messages to pass along. We get to choose which behaviors we respond to with social rewards, social punishments, or neutrality, depending on what principles are important to us. We get to choose which expressions make us happy and whether we incorporate the feedback we receive from others.
Large groups of people receive the same kind of socialization, meaning mainstream society tends to reward and punish certain sets of behaviors the same way across the board. If you choose to encourage a behavior that’s usually punished, it’s likely that you and/or the person you’re encouraging will experience social punishments in return.
When we deviate from mainstream social expectations, we risk the many forms of social punishments, anywhere from mild to severe, and for many people, that risk is too great. Fearing these consequences is why social patterns are so difficult to change.
But, if you want to push back on mainstream socialization, remember the power of visibility. When your behavior is visible to other people, you are influencing their socialization. They will be encouraged and inspired by you and be more likely to push against mainstream socialization in their own ways. By making your behavior visible, you reinforce the idea that your behavior is normal. People who see you will be given the opportunity to reevaluate their stance on whether to reward, punish, or stay neutral in that instance, and they might even choose a different one.
Socialization is not something we have to be a victim of. We can use it to our own advantage to become the people that we want to be and to create the world we want to live in.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.