When we experience exclusion we we might self exclude ourself and stop trying to be a part of the group – choose the identity of the outsider. That means rejecting the social norms of the dominant group for good and for ill. Let’s think about exclusion and bullying for a bit.
You don’t get invited to stuff that is going on in the peer group. You are not invited to parties, to hang out after school, to go shopping, to the movie night, to play a game, to the meeting… A normal form of bullying is exclusion from social events.
You might think, not getting invited to stuff, getting left out… that is not bullying!
Well it sure as hell feels like it. The person who are being left out, is being left out the loop on important information. They are not being included in social events. Of course the problem with thinking about social exclusion as bullying is that you turn the relationship into an antagonistic one, even if the people doing the exclusion never intended to hurt you and that isn’t productive in solving the issue. However it is useful in thinking about the consequences of exclusion, because it really doesn’t matter to the person being excluded if it is intentional or not. It hurt all the same.
In sociology we talk about socialization and the sanctions we use to get other people to follow the norms in societies. A really common one is in fact exclusion from things.
I think that is why it hit so hard when your peer group exclude you for no other reason than they don’t particularly like you. It feels like you are being punished for something. And since you don’t remember doing anything, it must be because something is wrong with you.
Sometimes the classmates, workmates, teammates do exclude someone because they did indeed break a social norm (that can be anything from wearing the wrong clothing to telling off colour jokes). The problem is that often that norm-break isn’t communicated. The target is left feeling utterly powerless then. What did I do wrong. Did I do anything wrong. Is something wrong with me since they don’t want to hang with me?
Unlike active bullying were the bullies actively harass their target, it is harder for outsiders (teachers, employers, parents etc.) to see if something is indeed wrong or done with harmful intent. Perhaps they just didn’t invite you because they like to hang with each other so much and don’t want an extra person around. That doesn’t sound so bad does it? They are just a group of people choosing to do something together. Not actively choosing to exclude anyone. That is just the people they hang with.
The problem here is of course. What do you do about that? The excluded person is left feeling just as excluded if they made an active choice as if they didn’t.
I don’t know how this is handled elsewhere but in a school class situation, this is often handled by asking the “cool” kids to invite all of lets say the girls when you are having a movie night. Or to talk about playing with everyone. Sure that sounds fine on paper…
However in real life it can come of as terrible fake. As an unauthentic gesture of friendship. That can hurt even more. Make you feel like even more of an outsider. Let me come with a real life example.
As a child and especially as a teenager I was not a part of the cool kids. Most of the time I was actually fine with that because I had an alternative peer group. I wasn’t particularly interested in what-ever the cool kids were doing (hair, boys, hair, horses, sport, in-group-drama, boys etc.) However the cool kids apparently considered me an outsider and every now and then one of the cool girls would decide, that they better talk to me. It was never part of some cliché American teenage movie plot to get me down or lure me into some kind of elaborate trap. They didn’t do that kind of thing, not in my class anyway. However it felt very fake, because those girls never talked to me otherwise. It felt like charity, like pity. Which actually made me feel like an outsider, when I had not before they talked to me.
(Interesting I keep slipping into a passive second person’s voice when talking about this. I had to correct myself multiple times to make this an active voice about me, and not a generalised passive voice).
But my situation is one of the things that happens after long term exclusion. The excluded form alternative groups that is closed in on them self, uninterested in the other groups. IF there are other peers to bound with, which isn’t always the case in a small town environment.
It didn’t start out with me having another group of friends. I started in the new class wanting to be friends with the girls. I definitely never had as cool cloth, I had not idea how to wear cool clothing. I wasn’t interested in boys, I was interested in books, movies and other fictional spaces. Not the kind of thing that will win you a lot of friends in a new setting – at least not right away. Over time a group of us nerds started hanging out together. I started hanging out mostly with boys and just having one or two girl friends, who was actually part of my regular friends group, but were people I knew outside that context.
Oh but then it all turned out fine in the end didn’t it? Well kind of… I am in a long term loving relationship. I got friends I love dearly. I got a job that I love and a university education. That all sounds peachy doesn’t it? Well I still have trouble relating to a lot of other women my own age. I have a hard time small talking with people. I assume I will have nothing interesting to say. I feel nerves in peer-to-peer situations. I am actually more comfortable with people not my own age. I am horrible at job interviews because I feel incredibly insecure in the situation.
Those aren’t horrible consequences but definitely consequences, however I wasn’t horribly bullied as a child, just kind of kept outside and after a time I choose to be an outsider. However I still feel like an outsider today, with my job, by loving partner and my friends. The feeling of being outside never left me.
Today I choose not to have a facebook account because I do not want those fake-feeling attempt to “re-connect” from old classmates. The fact is we were not connected in the first place, so I do not particularly want to hang with them today. Two years ago I choose not to go to the class 10 year reunion after high school, because I still feel like an outsider. Mainstream parties always leave me to feel left out.
I was not planning to write a personal essay here. I was planning to write a few thoughts down about the link between exclusion as a social sanction and bullying, but now I have written for about two hours straight. This was clearly more personal than I thought it was.
- BBC article : Childhood bullying ‘damages adult life’
- Live science article: The Pain of Bullying Lasts into Adulthood
- boston.com article: School empathy first line against bullies
Edit 2023: Looking for community
In 2014 when I wrote this post I had not yet found my way into conventions – I didn’t find that until 2015, but I was very much looking for community. Conventions have changed me as a person, because I found a space where I was genuinely accepted for who I am. It has made me into a more extroverted person, someone with more confidence.
When I am part of convention organization I always try to focus on including people. I think these experiences of exclusion is why I feel so strongly that an inclusive community is important.
In conventions I have found a community of outsiders. We all know what exclusion feels like, so lets make damn sure that we do our very best to be inclusive.
This review was originally posted: February 25, 2014. Updated and edited June 30, 2023