Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Peer Pressure Is Not Okay

A good friend of mine says that if a person says no to something 49 times and the 50th time you ask them, they say yes, that's not consent; that's pressure.  I couldn't agree more, yet a lot of people think that it's okay to pressure someone into doing something that they don't want to do if the thing itself is positive.  But I make no distinction between pressuring someone to try drugs or get a haircut or join a volunteer group if the person has said that they do not want to do it.

Part of the problem here is that we have learned to associate peer pressure with negative behaviors; when we learned about peer pressure in elementary school, the scenarios we discussed usually involved one kid pressuring  their friend to do something wrong, such as stealing.  While it is important to teach children right from wrong, the message of the story is that the kid shouldn't go along with their friend because stealing is wrong.  As we get older, peer pressure is all about drugs, alcohol, and sex, but the peer pressure education is still the same.  Anyone who teaches you to stand up to people who push you to try drugs or do sexual things assumes that those things are wrong, the same way that stealing is wrong. They don't emphasize the "if you don't want to do it" part; they tell you not to do things. Our whole concept of peer pressure is so intertwined with what society tells us is right and wrong that we have never been taught about handling peer pressure that doesn't involve something wrong, pressure to do neutral or positive things that you just don't want to do.

Peer pressure is often disguised as encouragement.  The only time I believe in encouragement is if a person knows what they want, but is having trouble getting there.  If a friend told me that they really wanted to try out for the track team but were nervous about not making it, I would encourage them to go for it because they have made it clear to me that it is something they really wanted to do.  But if I asked my friend if they want to join the track team, and they say no, that they would rather get home after school and watch TV, then any further encouragement is negative peer pressure because my friend has already said no, regardless of the benefits they may (or may not) receive from joining.

In order to not pressure people, you have to pay attention to what they want.  When my college friends asked me for advice about things, like whether or not they should take five classes instead of four, I turned the question around and said, "Well, do you want to take five classes?"  I asked a lot of questions that would help them think about the pros and cons of taking five classes and figure out what they wanted to do.  But most of the time, if someone asked everyone at the lunch table whether they should take five classes or four, almost everyone encouraged them to take five, without asking questions or trying to figure out what the person wanted.  That to me is a subtle form of peer pressure.

Finally, consider that if a person wanted to do something, they would probably do it or work towards it. It's fine to recommend things to a friend that they might not have known about, but if they say they're not interested, that's the end of the discussion. If a person wanted to cut their hair, change their style, join a club, join a gym, join a social network, get drunk, get a hook-up, apply to college, look for a job, or educate themselves on a particular topic, they probably would have done so already. Or at least expressed interest.

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