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How to not give a shit



Belinda Vigors on how to throw off the expectations of others…


When I hear people say they “don’t give a sh*t” about what other people think, I never believe them.

That you don’t have a niggling voice in the back of your head balancing your decision-making with “but what will people say”? is an alien concept to me. Well, it was until I met my husband. Through a series of events which I found mortifying and he found normal, I had to accept that here was a person who genuinely does not give a sh*t about what other people think. 

Caring what other people think, how they might judge you, modulates your behaviour in social situations. My other half doesn’t worry about that — if he expresses himself truthfully and others don’t like it “that’s their problem”. Part of me finds this level of authenticity deeply admirable, I wish I could be like that too, but mostly I note how deeply uncomfortable his “not giving a sh*t” makes me feel. Once, while attending a show in the Gaiety, I noted how the young girl sitting next to me was struggling to see the show because the woman in front of her kept standing up to cheer (when no one else was). Without missing a beat, he leaned forward, tapped on her shoulder, and told her directly how her cheering was inconsiderate of those behind. We didn’t even know the young girl, or the woman in front. “The mortification”. I sank down in my seat, wishing I could disappear, and spent the rest of the show planning how quickly we could leave at the end before she turned around and saw our faces in the brighter light. “She’s going to think we’re absolute w****r’s”. “Not our problem” he says, “they shouldn’t have been so inconsiderate”. 

By assessing my own responses and discomfort in these sorts of situations (of which there are many!) I’ve come to realise that while he sees their judgement as “their problem”, I see it as “my problem”. This is what frees him up to “not give a sh*t” but holds and traps me in “giving a sh*t”. 

What is that all about? Why do I internalise that someone else’s judgement of me is my problem too? 

The answer came when I was interviewing one of my close friends as part of my research into the life histories and experiences of women of Ireland. She told me how her French mother had always instilled in her that it was OK to say no and decline doing things which fundamentally she did not believe in or didn’t want to do. But growing up in Ireland she found that this message “was muddied a lot by other people. I wasn’t getting that message from school, I wasn’t getting that message from my peers and friends, that you can do what you like; you can do what you want and the worst thing that people can say is no. But that is not the worst thing people can do; in Ireland they shame you! They shame you if you do not behave the way that is acceptable. And I got the brunt of that a lot until I learned to shut up really”. 

Shaming, negatively judging, punishing, or expressing general disapproval of behaviours that go against the ‘social norm’ is a hallmark of something known as cultural tightness. “Tight” cultures have very strong norms — there are clear rules for how you should and should not behave, and what you should and should not do in social encounters and situations. Conformity with norms is valued more than self-expression and individuality, so, just as my friend experienced, any deviance from the norm tends to be met with disapproval and some form of negative judgement or even outright punishment (gossiping, confrontation, belittling). Our socialisation into such cultural expectations means we are continuously exposed to cues about what is expected of us and how we are supposed to behave. Overtime, these become part of our own psychological processes, informing how we think. 

No wonder then, the phantom of “what will people think”? is constantly lurking in the back of my mind, passing remarks on what I’m doing. Growing up in Ireland, I have been socialised into a culture that has, on many an occasion, made me implicitly aware that there are penalties for not factoring “what will people think” into my decision-making. If I don’t conform to what is expected of me (by society), then I can be fairly sure that some negative vibes are going to be sent my way. “Giving a sh*t” about what people think has kept me safe, helping me modulate my behaviours so I can stay below the radar and avoid social disapproval or even punishment. My husband, who grew up in the perhaps “looser” cultures of Britain and South Africa, seems free of these concerns. My mortification at his overt “not giving a sh*t” in social situations is our cultures clashing head on — I can barely fathom how unperturbed he is by the potential risk of social disapproval. “That’s their problem not mine” he repeats, while my body quivers with the almost primal sense of threat potential negative judgement from another seems to evoke in me. 

I know I am not alone in having an inner voice that agonises over “What will people say”? or worries about expressing themselves or behaving in a manner that goes against social convention. When another interview participant reflected on her life, as a woman of Ireland, she described how “I’m kind of at the moment in my life, I’m at this place that I want to let go of all that kind of mainstream society pressure, of having to look a certain way, or having to act a certain way, or buy things, or be sociable in the way that people expect you to be sociable. There’s a part of me that wants to let go of a lot of that, and there’s another side of me that is still kind of clinging on to that a bit…. So, I’m kind of torn between this inner rebel who wants to leave that all behind, and then still there being that like, achiever “good girl” who wants to lke meet all the norms of life that are about goals or achievements…. I think I’m getting much better with not caring so much about what other people think of me but it’s still there, and it probably always will be there”.  

Ireland, if the two scientific studies which have tried to measure it can be believed, is culturally “looser” than it is “tight”. This means it has a greater tolerance of deviation from the norm, is more accepting of self-expression and individualism, and a broader range of behaviours are accepted in social situations. I find this hard to match up with what women have told me of their life experiences. They tell of times they have been negatively judged, punished or shamed when they have deviated from social norms, how they have learned to self-regulate and moderate their own behaviours to keep others happy and demonstrate “good behaviour”, and the pressure they feel to conform to and meet the expectations placed on them. All this points towards Ireland being “tighter” than it is “loose”, at least for women, and especially women over the age of 30 who have experienced the “tighter” times of Ireland past. 

Ireland is now a place where diversity, self-expression and individualism are embraced in a way like never before. What was once “tight” is becoming “loose”. Yet, it remains a society with strict and clear social expectations for women —for body image, care-giving responsibilities, being high-achievers, prioritising the needs of others, being seen to cope, ‘buy-a-house–get-married–have-kids’, and the priest screaming from the pulpit, or the gossiping outside the shop, has been replaced by shaming and begrudging on social media. When you are raised in such a space, where for so long shaming and judgement has been the natural response to those who deviate from the norm, it can be hard to vanquish the spectre of “What will people think”? and set foot on the emancipating path of “not giving a sh*t”. But, if what I’ve learned from the women I’ve interviewed is anything to go by, it’s not about learning to “not give a sh*t” it’s about getting comfortable with expressing who you are. For them, being authentic is what matters, because authenticity liberates you from the pressure to live up to the expectations of others.