Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan


Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan is for anyone who has felt like they were different from typical people in their culture. Since we are all unique, we probably all feel different or weird from time to time. There are a number of research-based coping methods here that just about anyone can use. While this book is aimed at the general public, it is especially good for anyone doing counseling.

Part One: Being Weird

1. Weird

  • Olga was a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in West Texas. The rest of the people in her town were either white evangelical Christians or immigrants from Mexico. Since Russian Jews were forced to be atheists, they don’t even fit in with American jews. Her feeling of weirdness was also fostered by the fact that her parents moved a lot and always to different school districts. At home, her parents watched only Russian television and ate only Russian food. She attended American University in Washington, D.C., which didn’t help her feel any less weird. After interviews with over three dozen successful “weird” people, she concluded that it can be good to be weird as it confers a hidden advantage. It also behooves you to live and work among weirdos. Groups are smarter and more powerful when their members hold a diversity of views and backgrounds.

2. The Realization

  • Cultural norms are unwritten rules that make us think that “right” is what everyone else is doing. There is even a gene that predisposes people to be rule followers. People like it when others follow norms as they don’t like being surprised. Norms are inherently conservative and can get in the way of innovation and creativity. They also may not make sense, think neckties. Olga presents a review of how swimwear reveals the randomness of social norms.
  • Next, we have short stories of two “weirdos.” The first is a gay male kindergarten/preschool supervisor. Only 2% of kindergarten teachers are men and a female NASCAR driver who represents a microscopic fraction of the total. Their problems aren’t the same, but they both have many more challenges to face than their peers.
  • Friends are for comfort, taking it easy, relaxing, and not being challenged. By hanging out with people who are just like you, you can be out of touch with the big, beautiful, diverse world. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find acceptance and friendship in an environment where you are the different one.
  • Cultures can be tight or loose. In tight cultures, norms are strict and formal, and the punishments for breaking them can be severe. Loose cultures permit a wider range of behaviors. Weird people have an easier time in loose cultures. Tight countries like Russia are autocratic and have less free media. As you go from tight to loose cultures you go from orderliness to creativity. Rural cultures tend to be tight while urban cultures tend to be loose. The LGBTQ folks definitely need to find a loose culture to live in. People who travel between tight and loose cultures in either direction tend to be disoriented and feel weird. The stories of three more weirdos conclude this chapter.

3. The Exclusion

  • Once humans formed groups intergroup conflict was sure to start. Rather than being inborn, prejudice is a reflection of the dynamics between groups. In our hunter-gather days, social relationships were the only wealth a person had. That predisposed them to take care of other group members. Successful groups look out for each other. Rulers, money, and organized religion created subgroups and pitted them against each other. Groups are based on their differences even when they are laughably minor (think protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland). The idea that diversity can be a source of strength and advantage is a relatively recent concept.
  • When it comes to differences, gender is a big one. Historically, women have had to put their own interests after their mate’s. They needed to take their cues from their husband’s mood in order to prosper. We can thank our brains for our ability to recognize differences as it seems to be automatic. The brain also stores stereotypes. Our instincts set us up to avoid or alienate people who don’t look like us. One outsider is a deviant. As the number grows they become a threat and cause a fear of losing status. Americans are more accepting of immigrants who speak English, while the Swiss are more accepting of people who get to work on time.
  • People who have a problem with someone from a different group tend to generalize the issue to the entire group. Peripheral group members tend to marginalize someone else as pushing someone weirder to the side can make you feel normal. People who are more offended by norm violators are not likely to think outside of the box and be more creative. As a result, looser cultures are more creative. They are also sick less. Tight nations have fewer natural resources, worse air and water, more deaths from communicable diseases, and more natural disasters. Such collective threats foster tightness. Stories here include an Amish girl and an African Muslim immigrant girl.
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