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The unexpected benefits of being weird

I went in search of outsiders who were thriving in communities where acceptance is hard to come by. It turns out, we might all learn from their approach to life.

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About a week into working from home because of the coronavirus, I found myself surprised by how much I was enjoying quarantine. I woke up on the first weekend to a day full of reading, Netflix, and most refreshingly, not having to interact with a soul. The high point of the day was when my boyfriend went for a bike ride, so I could sink even more fully into my aloneness.

I’m not exactly an introvert. An introvert is someone who, by their nature, feels more replenished alone than around others. I’m energized by other people; I just have trouble finding people I’m in sync with. I’m just, frankly, a little weird — so much so that I wrote a book about it called Weird.

My unusualness began when I was growing up as a Russian immigrant in a West Texas oil town. I brought beet salad to school instead of Lunchables; my dad tried to get me to use his Siberian rug as a poster board for class presentations; and a friend’s family took to calling me “her little apartment friend.” I carried the scars from those experiences into middle school, a chaotic three years during which my family moved four times, and finally into high school in a vanilla suburb, where my affect hovered somewhere between the overachiever zeal of Tracy Flick and the batty reclusiveness of Miss Havisham.

Because they were so different from everyone, my parents never had friendships, and maybe because of that, I struggled to construct them myself. And I do mean “construct.” A friendship isn’t something you fall into so much as engineer, I’ve realized. It’s a complex project you actively plan — feeling out a person for sympathies and similarities — and then build on, plank by plank, for years.

Along with friendship, other kinds of social interaction are, for me, more like running a 10K than relaxing in a bath. It feels good and healthy, but it’s stressful while it’s happening. Even today, when I step into a party, I have to slam the brakes on my heart rate. Once I walked in the door, took a lap around the kitchen, and walked right back out. There was the time I had just one goal for the day: to call back a friend who had recently called to catch up. “I’m going to do it on my walk to the park,” I told myself. Then, having failed that, “I’m going to do it at the park.” Finally, of course, “On the walk home will be better.” I Ubered. And I never called her.

Either I can’t think of anything to say, or I know that what I’m going to say isn’t what they want to hear. Take, for example, the time I was part of a group of grad-school journalists assigned to cover a science conference. We were all in our early 20s, at dinner, feeling like reporters for the first time. Everyone was in a good mood until I, emboldened by chardonnay, dropped this doozy: “Do you ever worry that journalism is kind of pointless, because it aims to help people, but all you’re really doing is pointing out the problems, not doing anything about them?”

There was a leaden silence, during which people took long swigs of their drinks. Then someone finally said, “That’s a pretty negative way to look at it.” Which, I realize. But I don’t really have other ways.

Whenever things like this happened — when I didn’t achieve a goal or was locked out of some world I wanted to be part of — I always wondered if it was because I had this unusual early life. Is there something about me that’s keeping me out? I became obsessed with the idea of difference, and so I started interviewing other people who feel different in various ways. That’s when I began to learn that it’s not all bad being weird. (Contrary to how I feel about small talk, I love to interview people. It’s so delightfully templated; it’s the perfect way to socialize as a weirdo.) People on the periphery of their environment often have surprising strengths, including creativity. What’s more, weirdos can develop ways to calm their social anxiety, break into the in-crowd, and get other people to embrace their ideas. No matter how weird they are.

Most of the outsiders I spoke with were different in some way from almost everyone else around them, much like I was as a kid. I was looking, in essence, for people who felt “weird” in their dominant social setting.

In some cases, this was because of their job — as in the case of a female NASCAR driver or a male preschool teacher — or their ZIP code, as in the case of a liberal professor living in the most conservative congressional district in America.

Others I met had unusual medical conditions, or were heretics within their religions, or were stretching the limits of gender norms in their hometowns. One was just a guy who had no friends.

I wanted to see how others managed the feelings I had been dealing with my entire life. It was less because I saw obvious advantages to being weird and more because I hoped that there would be some.

In the process, I learned a lot about the science of nonconformity and why people often reflexively dislike those who are different. (Yes, even in 2020, and yes, even in liberal, anything-goes big cities.) For one thing, whether you live in a “tight” or “loose” culture determines how easy it is to be different.

Tight cultures are those in which social norms are strict and formal, and the punishments for breaking them are severe. In tight cultures, people are more in step with one another, but loose cultures permit a wider range of behaviors. Tight cultures include the military, or the Amish, or places such as Singapore, where people can be caned for vandalism. Meanwhile, tech startups are loose, as is the Netherlands, where parents and teachers allow young kids to play “doctor” with one another in the spirit of positive bodily exploration.

Agricultural societies, where people must carefully coordinate so the community does not starve, tend to be tight, while hunting and fishing societies tend to be loose. Psychologist Michele Gelfand has found that people in modern-day tight societies tend to be more cautious and dutiful, and have a greater need for structure. East Germany was tighter than West Germany; Texas is tighter than Hawaii. Perhaps due to its precarity, journalism is a very tight culture, which is why journalists all kind of sound alike — and why my comment at the dinner party was met with scorn.

Yet in the course of my reporting, I met a lot of norm-breaking people living in tight environments, such as the transgender mayor of the tiny Texas town of New Hope, or a black Muslim woman who grew up in an overwhelmingly Christian part of Arkansas. There were a few commonalities I noticed that helped them live so comfortably as outsiders.

For one thing, they had lots of social support. The mayor, Jess Herbst, was surrounded by a loving wife and kids who rallied around her throughout her transition. And the black Muslim woman, whom I call Asma, had a tight-knit family who was always urging her to stay true to her roots. Julia Landauer, the female NASCAR driver I followed, similarly had a dad and brother who would help coach her through her races.

A supportive family is not, I realize, like a psychological trick you can simply try out. You either have one or you don’t. The people I met who didn’t have strong support systems, however, tended to create them, either by making lots of friends or, in a few extreme cases, by becoming their own support systems. They did this by talking to themselves more assuredly about whatever it was that made them stick out — like their lack of a spouse, or money, or whatever it was they were expected to have.

As Joan Didion put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s something I like to remember whenever I start worrying that I’ll never be successful because I hadn’t heard of Joan Didion until a few years ago. We do tell ourselves stories, and it matters what type of stories we tell ourselves. The people I met for my book told themselves more positive stories about their lives — about why they were still just as good, even though they were different. For instance, I interviewed a “choice” mom — one who had a baby on her own through artificial insemination — who focused on how much easier it was to make all of your own parenting decisions. A poor kid who went to a ritzy private school emphasized the advantages he did have, rather than the European vacations he missed out on.

They seemed to understand that if no one else is okay with you, you have to be okay with yourself. You have to be ready to embrace your weirdness.

There’s a Russian novel I used to love as a kid called The Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors. It’s about a girl named Olya — my Russian name — who, through an Alice-in-Wonderland-style misadventure, finds herself in a dark parallel universe. She joins forces with a girl named Yalo, and together they fight to restore order to the crooked kingdom.

I felt most like the Olya of this story when I met Deana, a woman who, as a teen, immigrated from Belarus to a small Texas town as the daughter of a Russian mail-order bride. Compared with hers, my childhood had been a breeze. She had to learn English as a teen, rather than as a toddler, as I did. Her mother was living with a stranger whom Deana had to regard as her father. She had to build a new American life, with new American friendships, all while her fellow Americans were treating her like a freak. Unlike other people I met, she didn’t have a supportive family. Meeting her was like meeting my Yalo, like seeing myself in a crooked kingdom, one in which my parents had immigrated a decade later and were making even more desperate choices.

Certainly, Deana’s guts of steel must have helped her cope. But like others I interviewed, she had a tendency to look at things in a big-picture, third-person way. In doing so, they were inadvertently following a psychological theory called Solomon’s Paradox, after the Biblical king of Israel. The idea is that people are better at working through their problems if they look at them with some remove. (Solomon, for instance, was very wise, but his personal life was a mess. In other words, he could only solve problems when they belonged to other people.)

In 2014, researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of Michigan performed a series of studies that supported this paradox. People of all ages were better at coming up with good advice if they had been told that a friend’s partner, rather than their own partner, had cheated. Other studies show that when thinking about our problems, it can be beneficial to refer to ourselves in the third person rather than use “I.”

Similarly, many of the people I interviewed were better able to weather social slights when they viewed their situations less personally. They intellectualized their stigma, and like doctors delivering a harsh diagnosis, they gained a healthy distance from their stresses.

Deana did this quite literally, by becoming a psychologist. She’s able to examine human nature and — I speculate — make better sense of what happened to her. But other “weirdos” I met did this in different ways. Many channeled their energies toward helping others, like the female truck driver I met who made videos to help guide other young drivers, or the plus-sized modeling agent who felt she was empowering other overweight women. By focusing on other people, their own social anxiety became less of a constant screech in their ears.

So was I stirred, in the end, to love myself, just as weird as I am? Somewhat. If I had to come up with a new narrative of my young life, it’s that yes, as the only person of my nationality in my hometown, I got the short end of the relatability stick. I don’t have a community I naturally belong to, and I’ll probably never be a social butterfly. But my unusual background has helped me in other ways. Even as I struggled socially, I developed empathy and listening skills that help me in my job. I also think I must have chosen a profession that allows me to see things as an outsider would. It’s often said that a reporter is a psychologist with a notebook, and it sometimes takes a person who’s able to step back from the thrum of society to pick up on its subtleties.

Still, after a friend of mine read my book, she said, “You really underutilize your friendships.” I hadn’t realized that I was supposed to be texting my friends occasionally for emotional support or conversation. But now, especially during this time of social distancing, I’m making an effort to do it more. I may be weird, but that’s a kind of normalcy I’ve come to enjoy.

Olga Khazan is a writer for the Atlantic. Her first book, Weird, was published by Hachette Books in April 2020.

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