The Swedish swarm walked toward me. They all looked exactly the same – black coat, black pants, dark shoes. Hairstyles varied moderately, but I marveled how 200 people riding the same train became identical. They had another characteristic in common. None of them smiled.
My attempts to smile and say hello were largely ignored or greeted with disdain. Several older people looked at me incredulously, but no one smiled or said hello back. Three of the people were folks that I had exited a seven hour train ride with only 30 minutes prior. They didn’t respond to me either.
I understand that cultural norms vary dramatically from country to country. I’m sure they’re lovely, engaging people. But not in the train station. In fact, the ‘cloned’ effect really, really startled me.
I definitely stuck out, which enabled me to see how I was inspected and then ignored. So interesting! During that rush hour in Stockholm’s Central Train Station, smilingly facing the oncoming swarms, I only saw 3 people wearing coats not conforming to the black coat culture!
Observing the Swedes reminded me of a Brain Games episode on conformity that my husband and I recently watched.
The episode hypothesized that people actually crave conforming to a group. In the first experiment, a woman walked into a waiting room for an eye exam. All the other people in the room were in on the experiment. A buzzer rang every minute or so. Every time it rang, everyone stood up. After 3 times, without knowing why, the woman started standing with the group simply because they were standing.
One by one the group left for their eye exam and the woman was left alone. She kept standing whenever she heard the buzzer. A man—a new test subject—entered and sat down in the waiting area. The woman continued standing whenever the buzzer rang! She enjoyed her sense of unknown purpose.
The man actually asked her why she was standing. She said she didn’t know, everyone had been doing it, so she thought she was supposed to. He started standing up with her when the buzzer rang! A third test subject came in and without knowing a reason, began standing when the others stood when the buzzer sounded.
Another experiment had a group of people matching two objects. Everyone in the front of the line was in on the experiment and each matched the same wrong item. The test subject at the end almost always just followed the crowd regardless of whether they thought it was the wrong answer or not. Later, most said that they felt more comfortable just going along with the group. Out of lots of test subjects, only three people chose the correct match and stood alone. When asked why they didn’t conform, they all said they chose the correct answer and it didn’t matter to them what the others had chosen.
My train station experience provided a moment of introspection. Obviously, humans feel a real need to feel a part of something, to fit in, to feel ‘as good as’. Sometimes conformity really doesn’t matter. But, where do I stand when it does matter?
On spiritual matters, Jesus chastised those that chose cultural conformity over truth by saying “They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Samuel the Lamanite lamented “how long will ye suffer yourselves to be led by foolish and blind guides?”
The Savior asked us to conform to His truth, His standard. He said, “Come follow me.” I love this scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants that promises liberty as we choose Him “Wherefore, hear my voice and follow me, and you shall be a free people.”
In a little village on the outskirts of Stockholm is a temple. Even after all the time spent in the train station, I arrived before the morning shift and workers were underway, so I sat and watched those people. Joy exuded from their souls! Everyone warmly greeted each other with handshakes and smiles.
Everyone wore a conforming white. But, aside from the color difference, I felt a stark contrast to their countrymen at the train station. I watched the people for the same amount of time. But, at the temple, instead of a swarm of sameness, I saw individuality. I didn’t even try to. Initially, I mused about everyone being in white—another conformity—but, it felt so different and vibrant and liberating, life giving even.
Do you conform? I’ve asked people, generally Americans, and they all say no, they do not conform. (Incidentally, the Brain Games episode was on Americans, too…who would probably say they didn’t conform either.) I’ve begun paying attention to where I conform and where I don’t.
And I’ve found the place where I want to conform. “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” I want to be like Him, in every way.
I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have moved 64 times and have not tired of experiencing this beautiful earth! I love the people, languages, histories/anthropologies, & especially religious cultures of the world. My life long passion is the study & searching out of religious symbolism, specifically related to ancient & modern temples. My husband Anthony and I love our bulldog Stig, adventures, traveling, movies, motorcycling, and time with friends and family.