Challenging society’s expectations

“Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?”

According to social psychologist Gustave Le Bon: “The Crowd is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual.” We are constantly pressured from the crowd in the form of expectations which are just constructs. The question is, does bowing down and imitating others result in happiness? I would argue not, in fact, I’d go as far as to say that conforming to society’s expectations prevents you from living your real life.

Societal vs social expectations

Societal and social expectations are different. They can be thought of as macro and micro or impersonal and personal. Societal expectations are impersonal and influence at group level, whereas, social expectations are personal and influence when you interact with others.

A good example of a social expectation is to queue (especially in the UK). Other examples include being polite, not picking your nose in public and not farting in a lift. On the whole, social expectations are good but I want to explore societal expectations that might be good for the government and business but not always for you.

Who are the expectation influencers?

Mass media, social media, friends, family and religious groups are all reference groups that serve as a comparison and influence how we act, think and feel. The recent ubiquitous nature of media via smartphones is a ground-shifting change. Not that long ago there was only a few TV stations and printed newspapers. Now there’s a plethora of influencing data being beamed into our consciousness every waking hour.

Humans conform

Humans conform to society's expectations

Maybe you think you’re not influenced by the media and society? Many scientific experiments would suggest you’re wrong. Experiments undertaken have ranged from people knowingly giving wrong answers in tests to fit in with the group, to the infamous Stanford prison experiment where the role-playing guards became sadistically abusive due to the influencing nature of the situation. Our lack of freedom can be quite alarming. Einstein once described the illusion of free will akin to a conscious moon choosing to orbit the earth.

Society’s expectations top 10

Here are 10 of society’s top expectations that need some thought before sleepwalking into signing on the dotted line. This isn’t to say you won’t be happy going along with some of them … but perhaps not all.

1) Get a good education

Get a good education is one of society's top expectations

Getting good higher education has been defacto advise the world over for some time. The debt burden you’re lumbered with means you have to question this advice, even more so in a post coronavirus world. I would seriously consider whether there will be an ROI in such an uncertain time. Certain jobs will mean you need qualifications but not all. Instead of going to college and university, I spent several years building websites for small businesses and learning programming languages. This experience set me up for the rest of my career. With so much information instantly available through books, websites, videos and podcasts, now’s never been a better time to educate yourself.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Mark Twain

2) Live an extraordinary life

Live an extraorinary life is one of society's expectations

Self-help books and social media encourage us to live extraordinary lives. Your weekend was a waste unless you were jumping out of a plane, skiing down a black slope or free solo climbing. Whereas this can be fun some of the time, living a non-stop “exciting life” would be too much for most people. We live in a society that expects constant dopamine-induced activities; staying in and reading a book won’t cut it.

The catalyst for much of this has been the recent phenomenon of entertaining “friends” on social media. Fulfilment comes in all shapes and doesn’t have to conform to what your Facebook feed is telling you.

3) Use social media “look at me”

Using social media is one of society's expectations

It’s got to the point where not being on social media is perceived as being unusual. While tools like Facebook have positive attributes, overwhelmingly social media is bad for you and society. George Orwell warned that we would become oppressed by an external force (Big Brother). 

However, the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, perhaps more accurately predicted: “People would come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think”. Much of modern-day technology is a drug, buck the trend, resist what’s expected of you and think for yourself.

4) Be in a relationship

“I’m single and middle-aged, which of course is against the law in America. It means you’re evil and wrong and commitment-phobic.”

Bill Maher
Being in a relationship is one of society's top expectations

Constantly being in a relationship might not be for you if you’re someone that enjoys their alone time. As Bill Maher puts it, society makes you believe there’s something wrong with single people but if you enjoy it — embrace it.

5) Get married

Get married is one of society's expectations

When are you getting married? It’s a common and often dreaded question from friends and relatives. Marriage for most of history was about practical purposes. The tradition of marriage started out as a strategic tool to establish trade ties but we now live in an age where cooked meals are delivered to your doorstep and you can find a partner by swiping on your smartphone. It’s fair to say, life is a lot easier and very different.

There are many traditions from hundreds of years ago that persist, such as shaking hands. This started out as a peaceful gesture to demonstrate you weren’t hiding a dagger up your sleeve. In light of COVID-19, this tradition is in the balance. Any social expectation that’s based on a tradition from hundreds of years ago deserves to be questioned.

6) Have children

Have children is one of society's expectations

Studies have shown that people fall somewhere on the scale of wanting children a lot to not at all. If you fall into the latter camp then you should question whether your hand should be forced. Society makes us believe that there’s something magical about having children and it will be a bed of roses but people do regret the decision. Statistics are sparse on such a taboo topic but a YouGov survey in Germany found 8% of participants regretted parenthood. We often hear “it’s the best decision of my life” but it could be the worst.

7) Pretend you enjoy your job

Loving your job is one of society's expectations

It’s taboo to talk about how stupid office work is. Ever broach the subject and it feels like a rendition of the emperor’s new clothes. If your job makes a difference then I get it, but most office jobs don’t. 37% of British workers believe their jobs are meaningless according to a YouGov poll. Who on earth likes mind-numbing meetings, office politics, PowerPoint and email? It’s all a charade, “your real job is shopping” as Adam Curtis puts it.

Despite all of this, a lot of people claim to like or love their job. I understand that you don’t want to talk loudly in the office about how pointless your work is. But don’t lie to yourself. This is what’s commonly referred to as cognitive dissonance. Wake up, smell the coffee, the chances are your job serves no purpose other than earning money to pay the bills. As David Graeber puts it “Capitalism creates unnecessary jobs in order for the wheels to merely keep on turning”.

8) Drink alcohol/get drunk

Alcohol is one of society's expectations

Don’t get me wrong, I like a drink but you’re considered weird if you decline alcohol and come the weekend it’s the national pastime to get hammered. Booze is ingrained within society (especially the UK). It’s overly prevalent. It’s the fun drug but just like cocaine or heroin, it’s addictive and gets you hooked by releasing the brain’s feel-good chemical: dopamine. In the mid-19th Century, it was possible to walk into a chemist and buy opium and cocaine. Her Majesty Queen Victoria was a regular consumer of both. We look back now and it seems ridiculous but only because society tells us these drugs are now illegal.

9) Live a perfect life

Liviing a perfect life is one of society's expectations

Perfect body, perfect job, perfect partner, perfect home. Society’s expectations are everywhere, even more so with smartphones that beam visuals of the perfect life into your consciousness 24/7. It’s an alluring story but a lie. There are numerous stories of beautiful Instagram influencers that seemingly live the perfect life but are in fact miserable and suicidal. The number of young people in the UK who say they don’t believe life is worth living has doubled in the last decade. While causation can’t be proved, the recent amplification of perfection through social media won’t be helping. The best way to opt-out of this depressing ideal is to consume less content. Let’s be honest, most of the content you consume serves no purpose other than to make you feel depressed, angry or sad. Yes, there’s the occasional funny cat video but on the whole, life is better with less screentime.

10) Follow fashion

Following stupid fashion is one of society's expectations

Nothing screams of “I’m not in control of my decision making” more than wearing trousers that are too short or getting a full arm tattoo just because David Beckham has one. Fast fashion wastes your money and the planet.


Who’s in control, you or your genes? It’s often phrased that we don’t have genes, instead, it’s genes that have us. “The easiest people to manipulate are those that believe in free will”. This is the view of Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens). Once you see this, you can question why you think the way you do and make decisions that might not be totally free but at least logical. What other social expectations should we question? I could have added more of society’s expectations; buying a home, working 9-5 …keen to hear your thoughts.

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