Want to Belong? Show Me.

Want to Belong? Show Me.

So you call yourself a cowboy, huh?

We all want to belong to groups that somehow support and reflect our interests. After all, what can be better than to engage in a detailed discussion about the superiority of Italian cuisine or baseball or philately than with fellow aficionados? But that privilege always comes at a cost. To be a real member, the group needs to know you are serious.

Walk into a country and western bar wearing your newly purchased bolo tie and breath in the culture. You know – the way the guys all walk and talk. The country energy in the women. Line dancing? Glorious. Living a dream for a few hours – as if you are a real cowboy.

Whenever we visit a culture, the true members can tell the difference. That wobbly line dancing of yours shows good effort. For a city slicker. But if you’re serious about belonging, there’s a lot more work to do. Like when we visit a different faith service, or attend our first classical music concert, there are layers upon layers to be discovered. Each step along the way is a chance to recommit. Little by little you earn trust and acceptance.

But sometimes groups want you to prove your loyalty right up front for the very privilege of associating with them. In high school, some cliques require that members shame and disparage non-clique members. Sometimes they demand that you sever old ties. You really want to belong? You really want to be one of us? College hazing inflicts discomfort and humiliation as a test. You’ll do WHAT to show us how much you want ‘in?’

You can find a positive example of costly membership rituals in the Marines and other armed services. High expectations like fitness, endurance, grooming and respectful protocols are all in the service of the group. Anything you do reflects on everybody. The payoff is being part of a team – a bigger, stronger unit – that can do what individuals cannot do.

Workplaces have unique cultural expectations – informality, vernacular, inclusivity or not. When you join a new organization, noticing and respecting the prevailing culture should be first on your list of to-dos.

One of the greatest pleasures in life is culture hopping – visiting worlds, even next door, that are foreign to us. And every now and then, if we are lucky, we get hooked. We discover something that touches us in unique ways – things we didn’t even know existed. And we’re off – to try it again.

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