THE BLOG

When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do ... or Not?

18/02/2014 12:27 GMT | Updated 19/04/2014 10:59 BST

How many times have you heard, or even said: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do?' But how many of us know what the Romans truly think, or why they do what they do?

Do the Romans know themselves, or are they just going along with the programme, even if they don't buy into it? Historically, going along with the crowd has corrupted nations, ruined communities, devastated families, and torn apart friendships.

Apartheid, for example, was not the brainchild of the majority, nor was slavery, or other atrocities throughout history. But somewhere along the way, the minority who bought into these outrages managed to get the majority to perceive them as the norm.

As such, those who were silently opposed were hesitant to speak out for fear of exclusion, persecution, and so on.

On a smaller scale in day-to-day living, such confusion dictates what happens in classrooms, the workplace, on social media, in life. Psychologists call this 'pluralistic ignorance'.

According to David McRaney, in his book You Can Beat Your Brain, pluralistic ignorance is: 'your crappy ability to predict the inhibition of others, combined with your deep innate drive to seek out the rewards of conformity and to avoid punishment for breaching social norms'.

Explains a lot if you ask me!

Remember the time you wanted to ask a question from the depths of your confusion, but everyone else kept quiet and got on with the task, so you remained quiet, albeit clueless, too? Most recently, an acquaintance, who happens to be a trainer, talked about the anxiety one feels emotionally and physically -- a welling up in the chest -- when faced with this situation.

'It takes practice to overcome, even for the most confident,' she insisted, perhaps for fear of becoming the twit in the group that asked one too many questions, and was treated like a leper at lunchtime.

On social media you've surely felt the pressure when folks spill their 'personal' guts, causing you to wrench yours. However, you refrain from suggesting a bit of etiquette (a topic for another blog) for one reason or another. Perhaps it seems rude to step in, or there's a fear of being 'de-friended', excluded.

Are you the only one who feels this way? McCraney says far from it, but like you, the others who experience the exacerbation, believe that they are alone, and fear speaking up about it most of all. To do so might feel ... well, too embarrassing, and cause social exclusion.

Let's take gift-giving, for example, on the heels of the retailers' treasured Valentine's Day. They tout chocolate, flowers, perfume, romantic dinners, engagement rings and the like. How many folk would rather keep their pocket books closed? Not I admittedly, but informal research suggests that I am in the minority.

In 2014, Britons are predicted to spend nearly £1bn on Valentine's Day, 10 per cent more than they did in 2013. Sounds like doing as the Romans do to me, even if they're not enthusiastic about it. It's just the way it is.

McCraney points out that one of the best lessons from the study of pluralistic ignorance is that everything you think and feel right now is shared with millions of other people somewhere on this planet.

After revealing an unsettling feeling we've horded for days, weeks, months, no wonder we often hear 'you're not the only one who feels that way', or 'everyone experiences that from time to time'.

Admittedly, I find such statements dismissive, but when put into the context of pluralistic ignorance, I find them rather a relief.

Anyhow, I'm pleased to know that I was not the only one on that thirty-minute bus journey to Victoria a few weeks ago who thought that the young man behaving antisocially, playing loud music and singing, was out of order.

Of course, I wasn't. In this case, it was clear that no one was amused, but our ignorance showed in that no one felt it was appropriate to speak up. So we kept quiet, perhaps out of fear that the youth would retaliate. Who knows?

But for future reference, what's a girl to do?

Speak up, according to McCraney, and get a conversation going about what people truly think about the matter. In the example of the bad behaviour on the bus, maybe a letter to Transport for London, or a discussion in another forum is more appropriate. The authorities don't advise that citizens tackle antisocial behaviour on their own, and neither do I, but it is wise to participate in appropriate platforms when given the opportunity.

An acquaintance, who rides the bus far more than I would ever want to, told me that she's come across this type of behaviour several times and sometimes, when asked to lower the music, the perpetrator readily does so, and in other instances, they carry on as if they've set a new norm. Perhaps they are unknowingly relying on pluralistic ignorance: that is, as only one person speaks out, the culprit thinks that the majority believe it is inappropriate to say something, for one reason or another.

In the case of Valentine's Day, if the sincere consensus is that you and yours love to love the popular day, including the purse-string manipulation and all, then at least know your partner's preferred gift instead of assuming that they want what the retailers believe that everyone wants. That's tackling pluralistic ignorance head on, if you ask me.

In short, when in Rome, if you want to do as they do, find out what the Romans really think; you might be surprised. Meanwhile, if what they are doing, in principle, is what you don't want to do, then don't join them.

Throughout history, those who have dared to be different, in words or in deed, have almost always found themselves in good company. What a relief!