Peer Pressure

My husband and I got to talking about peer pressure the other day, specifically discussing that as a teenager I didn’t think it really existed. That’s because the way it was portrayed in the media and in that ridiculous “Just Say No” campaign bears very little resemblance to the real thing. But, for us science fiction writers, peer pressure is a very real force that needs to be at work in our worlds.

Unlike what we saw in Punky Brewster, peer pressure is rarely overt. Let’s be honest, have any of us ever said to a friend, “If you don’t drink alcohol, I won’t like you”? And despite the connotations the phrase got during the ’80s, peer pressure is not inherently positive nor negative. Certainly the peer pressure to engage in reckless behavior like adolescent binge drinking is an example of negative peer pressure, but as a society we largely shower and control our personal odor as a result of peer pressure, and I feel very strongly that this is a positive.

But of course, I can almost hear you saying, body odor isn’t a good example. I don’t know about you, but I shower and control my personal odor even if I’m not going to encounter another human being in the foreseeable future. I just feel icky if I’m not clean, and so I prefer to be washed and odor-free. But that’s actually the point I’m making about your worlds. I’ve internalized the peer pressure.

Most of us have had the experience of someone walking up to us, recoiling, and crying, “Whoa! I think you need a shower, there!” Perhaps as a growing teenager you weren’t body-aware enough yet to have noticed on your own before then, but as adults most of us can feel, even before the peer pressure is actually applied, what it feels like to be that rank. I would assume the majority if not most are like me in that we want to clean up before someone has that reaction to us. It’s that societal training — the fear of someone reacting negatively to us — that instilled us with that feeling. Many cultures throughout history did not have any aversion to personal odor (and some even regarded combating odor by bathing to be unhealthy). There were not large numbers of people in these cultures striving to rid themselves of B.O. Clearly this desire is not fundamental to human nature, but rather is a construct of our culture. And yet, to those of us who hate being smelly, it feels innate.

Well, folks, to characters who are a product of a different culture, there are things that are contrary to the way we do things that would feel innate to them, too.

Anything we do because we want to be liked, or we want to command respect, or we want people to think well of us when we’re gone — these are examples of peer pressure. Yes, we internalize them. I don’t live in a neighborhood where we’ve got rules about how much and how often you must mow your grass, but I do my best to maintain an attractive lawn not because I innately enjoy slicing a plant down to an unnatural stub, but rather because our society exerts peer pressure on us to maintain our properties looking “nice.” Remember the old rule of “dress for the job you want to have”? Well, those guidelines of appropriate attire are an example peer pressure. People who set up foundations to do good work with their millions? Yep, peer pressure.

So how would these phenomena work in a society that doesn’t care what a dwelling looks like, that wraps itself in furs only to keep the cold out, and where doing “good” is seen as a weak person’s folly? Can you imagine a human society where the peer pressure is to hoard instead of to share? Or where the peer pressure is to be unkempt? What sorts things in a culture’s history would create that sort of pressure, and what would it do to the people raised in it?

Of course, making any culture too alien has the problem that readers can’t relate to it. This is a persistent problem for science fiction writers who don’t share a commonly held vision of the future. (No, in point of fact, I don’t think that someday we’ll all be uploading copies of our brains into computers and living forever in virtual reality.) It’s even worse when you’re turning something we think is inherent to our very nature (such as the desire to be free) on its ear. But if you’re aware of the challenge, it’s manageable.

Because, after all, we writers understand peer pressure better than anyone. After all, when we write for an audience, aren’t we succumbing to peer pressure?

4 thoughts on “Peer Pressure

  1. Very thought-provoking post! And helpful too, as I’ve just been trying to come up with an alien society for a story and hadn’t even considered that kind of angle.

  2. My parents taught me to bathe regularly, but your example had me remembering a girl in my fifth grade class. One of my friends nudged me in math class and pointed to this girl, whispering, “She doesn’t shave her legs! I bet she doesn’t shave her pits, either!”

    I just nodded, even though I hadn’t started shaving at the time. You can bet I started that night, though!

    TMI, FTW!

    • Of course, my first thought is, “Oh, that poor little girl!” But, of course, we’ve all been there. This is why I’m thankful I’m no longer living in that small town I grew up in, because nobody here remembers me in fifth grade. šŸ™‚