Sunday, 31 March 2013

Social competition

There’s this weird, ego-driven thing that divides people on things that could totally bring them together. In a nutshell, it’s social competition.

We often talk about competition like it’s a positive thing. And sometimes, in the right contexts and to the right degree, competition can be positive. But I’m finding that less and less contexts are breeding positive competition, particularly in social situations.

Traditionally, sports have been cited as a positive forum for competition, or healthy competition, as many call it. It was somewhere we could push ourselves to be better and challenge one another for the sake of health and happiness and personal growth. But I think we still need to stop and think about what competition actually means, and what it means in the area of sports. In theory, based on the root of the word, competition only means striving together. It means having a common interest, towards which we work as a group. And in many aspects of sports, this is a definition of competition that can still be seen clearly (I’m considering teams, for instance, that have to work together to reach goals). But what about all of the smack talk? What about trying our damnedest to make sure that our team wins and the other one doesn't? What about the pressure athletes feel to win, so they end up taking drugs or pushing themselves to injury? Is that still healthy competition? Or is it us needing to feel like we're stronger, better and farther ahead of the game than everyone else? (If our success is constantly defined in relation to everyone else, who is our affirmation really coming from? It doesn't seem to me like it comes from inside ourselves.)

The problem, in my view, is when we look at competition as being between people or groups of people. How on Earth can we strive together when we are, in fact, striving against one another? We have re-written what competition means, and when we do that, don’t we lose the beauty of the kinds of connections that love, support and cooperation can bring?

And there are crafty ways to phrase it, which cover up the change (or at least try to). We talk about being “in competition with” someone, for instance, as though what we mean is that if the other person is successful, then so are we. Really, there is a distance created there. Being in competition with someone really means that we’re competing against them, and that if they are successful, we have somehow lost something. You see this attitude in many, many areas of our lives. More obvious ones include the workplace (where if someone else is promoted, it's a detriment to your own opportunities), school (where the kid with the highest mark in the class is keeping you from getting the scholarship) and most definitely in sports (where there is a very clear win/lose dichotomy where win adds to your value as an athlete and lose detracts from it). In these situations, the other is an enemy of sorts, and definitely not considered an ally or asset that furthers your success. But there are quieter, more subtle examples of competition that are permeating our everyday lives and creating a similar disconnect with the people around us. 

It’s this ego-driven idea that we need to be better than.

I have maybe never seen more clearly the better than attitude than when spending time with a group of women. Maybe it’s patriarchy telling us that only certain things make us valuable and there’s only so much of them, so we’d better make sure we have a lot and other women don’t. Maybe it’s just that our society values women who are conventionally beautiful, thin, obedient and gifted in feminine qualities, and so our psyche knows that bending over backwards to meet these unreasonable criteria makes us meaningless in our own right and we have to find value somewhere else—and that’s from the approval of others once we show the world that we’re the Alpha female. I don’t know what causes it, exactly, but it’s kind of disgusting. Women are beaten down so badly to begin with that it only makes sense for women to love and support each other, and help each other become strong, healthy and confident.

If you’ve ever been at a party with a group of people who feel they need to prove themselves, you’ve heard a conversation kind of like this one:

Person A: “Oh my God, I just read the most amazing book. It’s called _______________.”

Person B: “Oh yeah, I read that book, like, 10 years ago. It’s old news.”

Person A: “Did you like it?”

Person B: “Sure, it was an OK book. But it was a blatant allegory of World War II, which is, like, super overdone.”

Person A: “Hmm, that’s interesting. I didn’t think about it that way.”

Person B: “How could you not? It’s, like, the most obvious thing about the whole book. I thought you said you read it?”

I’ve had identical conversations to this one. I’m almost always person A, and I always, always feel completely deflated by about 10 seconds in. Why? Because I see sharing something awesome with someone else as a way to bring people together. In a successful scenario, step 1 is bringing it up, step 2 is realizing that you’ve got that thing in common, step 3 is bonding over what's awesome about that thing and step 4 (optional) is each person sharing new perspectives that can create awesome AHA! moments for the other person, once this bond is created. In an unsuccessful (dare I say usual?) scenario, some kind of superior attitude rears its head at the beginning of step 2, step 4 is immediately (and one-sidedly) jumped into and the whole thing goes downhill from there.

It makes you wonder what makes jumping into step 4 so important that we can’t spend 10 seconds bonding with the person first and sharing some awesomeness. And I wager that the answer to that is competition. We’re not trying to bond with the other person; we’re trying to stand out. We want to pull ahead of the pack, and that means by definition, we’re not clinging to the others and helping pull them up to where we are. We're trying to leave them out in the cold.

So instead of feeling like, “I totally just bonded with this awesome human,” I end up leaving the conversation feeling alienated and condescended, because person B’s perspective was different than mine, and person B believes that also makes it superior.

In my perfect world, how would that conversation go? Something like this:
Person A: “Oh my God, I just read the most amazing book. It’s called _______________.”

Person B: “I just love that book! Isn’t the ending just amazing?!”

Person A: “I know, right?! And I know it’s just a book, but I really think it speaks to some super important issues, you know?”

Person B: “Totally. I’ve heard that it’s an allegory for World War II, and I can totally see where they get that from.”

Person A: “Wow, I never thought of it that way, but I can see that. Personally, I was focusing on the social satire, with the whole class system meant to mimic the system we’re actually living in, you know?”

Person B: “You know, that is totally true. Interesting—I totally missed that!”

Person A: “Did you know they’re making it into a movie?”

Person B: “No way! We should totally see if [mutual friend’s name] could organize a group movie night or something! It’d be cool to hear what you thought of the film adaptation.”
The second version of this conversation is essentially the same, but without this competitive idea that differences are either superior or inferior. It does away with the idea that if someone else gains, we lose. It’s lacking this idea that conversations are about winning, rather than learning from or connecting with someone.

I dream of a world where ideas can be shared openly. Where it’s not about winning, and it’s not about being right. I dream that my children, and my children’s children, will be able to connect with others, rather than feel like someone else’s success is a detriment to their own.

So next time that someone tells you they’ve seen this awesome YouTube video that you saw a year ago, I hope you will pay attention to yourself as you respond. Because you can be superior by telling them you saw it a year ago (thus deflating them), or you can skip right to the, “Isn’t it an awesome video?!” And for the love of God, the next time someone says to you, "I feel really, really pretty today, and I just got 95% on my exam," please don't tear them down. The world could use a little more happy in it, and their confidence can only threaten you if your own confidence is weak.

I'll leave you with this:
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” - C.S. Lewis


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