Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fitting In and Group Think, Part 1

My recent readings on happiness repeatedly emphasize our human need to be part of a social group. We are social animals who need the healthy company of other humans from birth. Babies denied human touch, for instance, develop abnormally, while babies who receive plenty of touch grow more active brains. Much of childhood involves learning how to interact with others: first with our family, then with larger groups like church or school or athletic teams.

The best advice I received when I headed off to college was to join a group. Any group would do; it just had to be a collection of people with a common interest and sense of community within the larger community of the university. My high school class numbered in the seventies; my freshman class at Duke numbered over 1,100. That’s a big change, and finding a group helped me feel a sense of belonging.

My group was Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity founded by an Eagle Scout who felt that once he went to college, opportunities to continue his commitment to service had thinned considerably. The fraternity went  co-ed in the 1970s, but all members are called brothers, regardless of gender. Its motto is "Be a Leader. Be a Friend. Be of Service." I pledged first semester freshman year, and it was one of the smartest things I did at Duke.

Pledging APO was radically different from pledging a traditional Greek fraternity or sorority because APO isn’t exclusive. If you do everything required of a pledge, you are in. No one sits in judgment of how well you fit with the group, and you can't be rejected because your nose is too big or your mommy wasn't a sister or you don't drink.

APO’s purpose is to serve the fraternity, university, community, and country with volunteer activities; all willing hands are welcome. Pledges make a paddle and get it signed by the brothers, interview the brothers to learn about them and bond with them, attend meetings, and participate in a certain number of hours of service. That's it.

And yes, while I pledged, I was kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken blindfolded to an undisclosed location. Nothing scary or hurtful or humiliating happened, though. We just laughed a lot and had fun.

In my years as a brother, our chapter only denied one pledge membership…and we encouraged him to re-pledge. For reasons that I don’t recall, he hadn’t attended many meetings, hadn’t interviewed more than a few brothers, and hadn’t met the hours of service required. Most of us didn’t know him at all. It took several hours of debate for us to decide his fate, and most of the brothers felt horrible about the need to deny his membership.

Isn’t that a pretty cool group to be a part of? Even then, I was all about inclusion.

Anyway, I made friends in classes, but my APO brothers were my family-away-from-home, a great comfort and support and encouragement for me through a rough time in my life. Together, we helped Girl Scouts sell cookies, threw parties for underprivileged children in the Durham community, winterized battered women’s shelters, painted public housing, tutored in the Durham city schools, and raised money for important causes.

We also laughed—a lot. One day, a brother named Wilder and I went through boxes in the APO office and found an old award plaque for, of all things, potato chip sales. We decided to award the extremely pointless plaque to a random brother for a random reason each meeting. Whoever received it one week would then make up a reason to present it to someone else the next.

Wilder, a fellow English major, presented me with the plaque after giving a gripping analysis of its phallic imagery. He noted that since I was married and thus the only APO brother who could legally have sex in the state of North Carolina, I deserved such a richly symbolic plaque.

The following week, I cleverly analyzed the plaque for Christ symbols and awarded it to our resident Christ-figure: the only brother with a beard.

These are the sorts of trivial, stupid activities that encourage esprit de corps. We need silliness and fun in our social lives, don’t we?

I wrote here that we get what we give in life, and that is certainly true of our membership in groups. I gave APO a lot and got more in return. Just having the pin didn’t mean anything; what mattered was day-to-day participation. I encouraged my fellow brothers, and they encouraged me.

Ever since my time in APO, I’ve recognized my need to be part of a group, part of something bigger and better than myself, one person among many with a common purpose. Over the next few weeks, I will ruminate about groups and belonging, as well as what it feels like to be excluded and marginalized. This week, however, I’d appreciate your sharing which groups—other than family—have contributed to your happiness. Did your group have any silly ritual or inside joke that helped to bond them?

For me, right now, church provides the best social groups, especially in a long-term Bible study and Stephen Ministry. Our Bible study has a running joke about how we never finish all the topics for discussion each week. For Stephen Ministry, the jokes are often about boxes of tissues and how much we need them each week; we're a bunch of sappy weepers.

Now it’s your turn! Please do share!


  1. This is an interesting topic. From the time I was a teen until my mid-40s, I was a group joiner, mostly doing volunteer work within a church or the community. At different ages and stages, I hosted coffee hours, took care of the altar, taught Sunday School and VBS, worked in a thrift shop, edited a newsletter, did PR work for non-profits, led a youth group, did Meals on Wheels, volunteered with the American Cancer Society and Special Olympics, taught writing workshops and assisted teachers at my children's school, and helped with countless fundraisers and other things I can't remember. I must confess I don't have any warm, fuzzy memories of belonging or camaraderie. I have never felt fully at home in any group, and today I don't belong to even one. Personality tests indicate I am an introvert and my zodiac sign marks me as an independent personality and unconventional thinker. Lately I've been debating and investigating group membership again, so I'm looking forward to reading what you and others have to say about it.

  2. Veronica, thanks for sharing your perspective. The whole introvert/extrovert continuum definitely makes a difference in a sense of belonging to even the best of groups. Everyone needs social interaction, but some need just a little and others a whole lot.

    Also, though I say above that the group type doesn't matter (that was the advice I received), the group's purpose still has to align with a person's personality and ideals and preferences. The group needs to be a good fit for a person to feel true belonging. APO was a very good fit for me. I've tried to belong to groups that reflected what I WANTED to be, not who I was. It didn't work so well!

    Finally, not all groups have a healthy subculture. Churches can be horrifyingly dysfunctional, as can volunteer groups and places of employment. As I will discuss in a later post, some groups are very exclusive and non-welcoming, and no matter how much you give of yourself to them, they will never let you in.

    But I doubt any of this is news to you, LOL! I am very independent and though not necessarily an "unconventional" thinker, I am a creative overthinker. I require copious amounts of alone time to balance all my social time...but mostly, I thoroughly enjoy my social time when I get it.

    Again, thank you for your comment.

  3. I have, over the years, joined several groups. I was a founding member of a Gardening Club, a member of the Womens Institute Market (where home made produce is sold), was part of our village's association and have come to realise that, like Veronica, I am definitely a square peg trying to fit into a round hole!
    Most of the groups I joined were exclusive and excluding; if your face didn't fit then you didn't belong although your efforts were wanted but not appreciated.
    I have come to the conclusion that I do enjoy socialising very much but not as part of a group especially, it sems to me, a long standing group where all the members have become comfortable and entrenched in their ideas and do not believe in having anything but very narrow views.
    I look forward to the rest of your musings Susan, you certainly give food for thought. Thank you!

  4. I so agree with you, Susan. I realize now I probably should have joined some group in college. I lived in a dorm so did have a "group" of friends but no outside group. By living in two different states each year, I have what I would call good friends in groups in both states. I belong to the garden club in NC and we're all always striving to make our yards and gardens better. I'm a member of our church choir in FL and we are quite close. One Sunday each month we sing at all 3 services so we're there from 7:30 to noon. BUT in between services, we eat and visit so we don't gripe (too much) about having to be there so long. I also belong to an international women's group P.E.O. It's "official" purpose is education of women through grants, scholarships and loans. But, to me, a very important second "purpose" is instant friendship. Regardless of where a member lives, there are always women who have this commonality and will envelop you unconditionally. So, bottom line? Yes, if your personality is such, a group is important.

  5. Susan, you raise some interesting questions, and I look forward to what else you will discuss around this topic.

    Being an introvert, I find spending time with large numbers of other people truly exhausting. After giving my energy to work and my family, I find it quite difficult to commit to any additional group activities without emotionally exhausting myself. That said, I do like groups, especially those ones that are supportive and inclusive.

    Five years ago, I joined an online chat forum, which was based on a common ground for the participants. Each new person who joined that group were warmly welcomed and it was safe to express all feelings (not just the happy/nice ones). All of us had come due to the same circumstance which was something that the rest of the world couldn't understand (and didn't want to talk to us about). The interesting thing about this group was that once we had spoken about and been supported in our common situation, we moved on to new topics and built amazing friendships. Despite members being all over the place (different cities, different countries), a number of us managed to meet up in person and have formed ongoing friendships. This group epitomised the best that a group can be - supportive, accepting, inclusive.

    These days, my group activity is a monthly stamping/papercrafting group. We met through our children's school and we meet with the purpose of learning new techniques, but we seem to spend a lot of time talking and laughing. I cherish our time together. :-)

    I agree with you that if you try to join a group which reflects who you WANT to be, it doesn't work. I have also spent my fair share of time trying to join a group which is exclusive. It is not always obvious that they are exclusive until you try to join because they look so friendly and happy from the outside. If they don't welcome new members, then I don't really want to be a member of that group anyway, since I have a habit of picking up new friends and including them in any group I have going at the time! LOL.

    I could talk and talk on this topic. Can't wait to see where you go next.


  6. I have a friend who recently realized how important it is to her for her group associations (church, school, work) to "overlap," at least somewhat. She realized that deeper relationships and more continuity resulted if some of her friends/acquaintances attended her church and had ties to her work at school. I thought about that, and realized that there is some value to it in that it furthers a sense of community. My friend enjoyed living in Scotland and Italy, where she experienced deeper social ties, and she misses that.

    I have friends scattered all over the city (and in other states as well) who have no connection to each other. I value each of these friendships very much. Sometimes I think I have these many and varied relationships as a defense in case one of them goes sour. And I have trained Arielle that way somewhat - making sure she had activities away from school and church so that she could make a variety of friends - again, in case relationships in one group go south. There is wisdom in both ways, I think, and I have tried to maintain more of a balance between the two.

  7. A bad experience in high school with an exclusive sorority soured me on joining, so I chose a college that did not have them. I lived in dorms all four years, and this provided plenty of friends. After eight years of marriage without any social connections other than immediate neighbors, we moved and I decided to join something again. First, I joined a knitting and crocheting class, where I met a woman who invited me to join a social club that was service oriented. There, I met women of my faith who helped me find a new church home and Bible study group. While I enjoy alone time, I am happier when I belong to a group or two, and I encourage my children to be joiners and to give of themselves to others in thanks for their blessings. It takes your mind off your own troubles, and it builds a support community that gets you over the really rough spots. The key for me seems to be finding the right group and not being afraid to move on to something new when it isn't working. I guess my husband was listening while I preached to the kids, because he joined Habitat for Humanity as soon as he retired and credited me for the idea.

    We don't have any rituals, but we often remark, when we are recruiting each other for projects, that we need to find some new friends, so we can take a break. One friend just recruited me to teach her (help her) to make about 100 butterfly cards as favors for a dinner. We spent two lovely afternoons crafting and chatting.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!