Is This Normal? “I Smile and Nod Even When I Want to Disagree”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
On several occasions, I have found my social, cultural, and political views clashing with those of my family members and peers. But I struggle to express my disagreement with their opinions, especially in person and over Zoom calls. Instead, I smile and nod even when I want to disagree. In fact, sometimes I find myself unable to disagree with people on something as basic as the importance of social distancing during a global pandemic.
Is this normal? Turns out, it kind of is.
As humans, we have a primal need to belong, and our connections with other human beings are quite reliant on reciprocity — leading to the fear that disagreeing with those around us, or not obliging socially, will threaten our supportive bonds. “One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong,” and disagreeing, just like saying “no,” can feel “threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness,” Dr. Vanessa Bohns, assistant professor of management sciences at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told The World Street Journal.
Experts note that this fear of conflict can also be a manifestation of social anxiety, which induces an excessive and persistent fear of being judged — be it for behavior or opinions. This can lead people to worry that dissenting means they will be less liked as a result of confronting families or peers.
Telling people what they want to hear can also be a characteristic established in childhood, possibly from growing up around overly critical, controlling, or emotionally distant and dismissive caregivers, whose displeasure a child actively wants to avoid. Moreover, if communicating personal views or needs results in adverse reactions like anger from one’s caregivers while growing up, one can end up internalizing the fear of disagreement well into adulthood.
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In India, especially, children are brought up in a culture that teaches them to almost unquestioningly obey elders. Quite often, they’re also discouraged from rebelling. “The one lesson our society teaches us, harpooning it into the growing person from different angles, is that it’s safest to be one of the herd, it’s best to go along with the majority, that it doesn’t pay to be too individualistic, or question, or challenge the various powers that be,” Ruchir Joshi, an Indian author and columnist, wrote in The Hindu in 2018.
Further, women are more prone to avoiding conflicts and to constantly pleasing people instead, due to gender-stereotyped social conditioning. A 2010 study found that while 54% of the female participants exhibited people-pleasing behavior, only 40% of the men did. Moreover, because of the mixed messages aimed at women (say ‘no,’ but be sensitive), women are also socialized to be nice to everyone and to value other people’s needs and feelings above their own. Disagreeing doesn’t seem like a very ‘nice thing’ to do, especially since it is often associated with being impolite.
However, while the inability to voice disagreement can help one avoid the immediate discomfort that confrontations bring, it can also cause resentment and stress to build up. As a result of nodding and smiling, “I see lots of women who come in depressed, anxious, and depleted,” Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist from Connecticut, explained.
In order to overcome the fear of conflict that many others, like me, experience, experts recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy, or exposure therapy, which can help people to face situations they dread at a pace they’re comfortable with.