The Loneliness of the Odd One Out: How Not Fitting in with Social Norms May Make You Lonely
So, most of the people at my office like to drink or to party. […] I don’t like to drink, I don’t like to party. I don’t fall in that, you know, that category of people at all. […] For example, there’s gonna be a promotion party […]: Then I’ll usually end up sitting in a corner, having Sprite or Coke or something – anything – pizza, whatever – by myself. So, I’ll feel very lonely at that point […]. It’s the misfit in the environment that I’m there.
As human beings, we live with and according to uncountable invisible norms – that is, rules about what people are or should be like. They determine which behaviour, appearance, preferences and feelings are desirable and which are not, and what we will get punished or rewarded for by others or by ourselves.
Although most people (seem or pretend to) act in line with social norms, there will always be quite some people who deviate. This sounds as if people who deviate voluntarily chose to swim against the stream, but usually, norm deviations just happen. Your friends start going out while you feel more comfortable being at home with your family. You live in a society where only heterosexuality is accepted while you yourself have a different sexual orientation. You do not find a partner when your friends start having children and buying houses you cannot afford on your own.
The interviews on this website and previous research suggest that being the odd one out or different from others can make you feel lonely. In this blog post, I will provide four possible explanations for this link: Deviating from norms can (1) make you feel disconnected from others, (2) can make you feel that something is wrong with your social relationships, (3) can make others reject you, and (4) can prevent that you don’t get what you need in your social relationships.
These different mechanisms do not exclude each other: they can happen at the same time. If your friends suddenly enjoy going out and you don’t, you may feel that they cannot understand you, but they may also invite you less, may talk more to other friends about what truly occupies their mind, which may make you feel that your friendships are not very good. If you have no clue what I mean yet, don’t fret: I will explain each of the mechanisms in more detail below – and use some experiences of the people we interviewed to make clearer what I mean.
What are norms and why do we have norms at all?
Norms ensure that we have some idea of how to live our lives and how to interact with others. By providing guidance, they often free us from having to decide and figure out solutions ourselves. For instance, in pre-Covid times, we would, in many cultures, automatically greet others by shaking hands: given that norms told us how to act when meeting a person we did not know very well, we did not need to spend energy on figuring out what to do in such a situation.
Usually, we are not even aware of social norms. We often believe that they are just how things are supposed to be. For example, in the social surroundings where I grew up, it was common to move out of one’s parents’ place sometime between the age of 18 and 22. Not only was (or still is) this often believed to be normal, it is also viewed as necessary to become an adult and to develop healthily. Only when I started learning about different cultures, I realized that growing up does not necessarily imply living apart from one’s parents.
Indeed, social norms depend on the geographical (e.g., whether you live in a small village or a big city; whether you live in India or Austria) and social context (e.g., whether people in your surroundings are generally more or less educated; whether your friends are politically more conservative, liberal, right-wing, left-wing etc.), as well as on the time you live in. To make this even more complex, your personal characteristics (e.g., gender, age) also determines which social norms you encounter. For instance, what is perceived as normal and desirable among girls is often not perceived as normal and desirable for boys.
That is, social norms are useful to organize how we act around others but are not absolute truths or set in stone. What exactly we perceive as ‘normal’ strongly depends on when and where we live, and which groups we belong to. Should you currently feel different from others around you, you may very well fit in if you were living in a different time, place or group.
How can being different from social norms make us feel lonely?
Before I start, a small caveat: Many people misinterpret social scientific results because they believe that these findings apply to everyone. So, if a psychological study shows that people who deviate from the norm are more likely to feel lonely, people will often just read: “If someone deviates from a norm, that person will feel lonely.” And then they think: “But I don’t feel lonely although all my friends listen to soft indie music, while I listen to heavy metal music. That study is nonsense.” Indeed, social scientific studies only tell us about probabilities: they tell us what can and is more likely to happen, but they cannot tell us with certainty what will happen to a particular individual. So, everything that is described below may be more likely to happen if you deviate from social norms than if you do not deviate from social norms – but it will not necessarily happen.
1. You don’t feel connected to others
I don’t want to compare my problems with other people, but they don’t seem to be that sad half the time. If they are, then they don’t show it, and I don’t want to be the only sad person in the room. So… it takes a lot of toll on you if you pretend all the time. And therefore, I can’t be around people, I keep pretending.
Yes, you see, and there my ADHD comes in, right? Erm, I’ve always had the feeling that I was a little different, right? And there it was already lonely because people didn’t understand what I explained, what I want to tell them. They didn’t understand that I think differently, that I am different. That I feel differently.
Well, I think it’s – it’s the worst if one feels misunderstood. And when one is, for instance, in a group – that can be pupils or colleagues, that can be family… And you are the only one who is of an opinion or conviction, and everyone else is not […]. Then that can indeed trigger the feeling of loneliness.
If you happen to be different from, to like or do different things than others around you, this can quite directly lead to loneliness: You may perceive that they cannot understand you, that they interpret you wrong, that you don’t understand what they mean, or that you do not belong with them. Relatedly, you may feel that you cannot act authentically around others because what you are truly like would not be accepted.
They may also pity you, suggesting that something is wrong with your situation – which can feel comforting if you dislike where you are in life, but which can create distance if you feel fine. For instance, you might not mind being single in your mid-thirties, but your parents may worry about your future happiness, and friends may express their compassion or repeatedly ask whether you are seeing someone. All these different forms of lack of connection are quite likely to make you feel lonely.[i],[ii]
BUT: What you believe others appreciate and do is often quite wrong, and so can be your perception of deviating from norms.[iii] This social psychological phenomenon even has a name, and quite a technical one: pluralistic ignorance.
Plura-what? Pluralistic ignorance describes that people can be influenced by or even act in line with false beliefs about social norms in their groups. For instance, in a US American study from the 1990s, most college students reported that they believed most others were more comfortable with heavy drinking than they were themselves.[iv] In reality, most college students hence preferred not to drink heavily. Furthermore, studies found that university students think that most others were more comfortable casually hooking up or more accepting of infidelity than themselves.[v] Such erroneous beliefs can then make people act in ways that they don’t privately support.
You may be at a party where most of the guests don’t know each other well. One person may start a conversation by talking about something funny – perhaps something amusing that happened when they were drunk. A second person may add their own drunk story and, voilà, the group norm is defined: most people start believing that everyone else is into drinking. Consequently, they may a) drink more (at least when others see it) or b) boast with their (one or two) severe hangovers and crazy drunk stories. Both will reinforce that drinking is the norm, while those who really disagree will often remain silent to avoid rejection.
2. You feel that something is wrong with your social relationships
You can also feel lonely if you perceive that your relationships do not live up to how you or imagined others would want them to be.[vi]
There have been moments in which not being in a relationship has been pressuring me and has made me feel lonely.
Well, the comparison with everyone else. It’s like, why does everyone else manage [to establish a romantic relationship], why don’t I, you see?
I always – like – formerly always thought: […] I would so much like to have someone […] with whom I just really connect and who is a 100 % – like, a best friend, or something like that – so, a 100% always by my side […] I always wanted to have that, but somehow never got it […]. I always kind of felt lonely and alone.
Where do these ideas about what relationships should or would ideally be like come from? Among others, from how others talk about their relationships, from what their relationships look like from the outside, or from how relationships are typically portrayed in schoolbooks, films, or on social media. To some extent, you will internalize these ideals and expectations; they will become what you want yourself.
If your relationships are different from what you want and/or from what normal relationships (in your culture and for someone your age) look like, you can feel dissatisfied with your relationships – and this can make lonely. You may get the feeling that most people live happily ever after once they managed to establish a partnership (as many Hollywood movies suggest). If you sometimes do not feel understood by your partner, this can then make you feel lonely because you feel that your partnership is not good enough.
In fact, there are countless such examples. One more: If you happen to be alone on a Friday night, you may feel that you have not managed to create fulfilling relationships, that your friends do not care about you, or you may become painfully aware of the fact that you are single. Consequently, you may feel lonely.
Interestingly, you may not feel that way on a Monday evening. This is because social norms suggest that you should have dinner with friends or a partner on Friday evenings, but that being alone on Monday evenings is fine. Indeed, you are not less isolated on a Monday night. Nevertheless, you may even enjoy your time alone on Monday because it won’t tell you anything about your relationships.
3. Others reject you
And I was the “black sheep”. I think in all the programs, but also in the Talmudic college, in high school, and the youth organizations. And I just think that I felt really alone from the point of view that I felt like I am the different one every time that people saw me as that different one and treated me like it.
Even if you yourself don’t care about a social norm, your social surroundings may very well care. If you have been single for a (non-normatively) long amount of time, relatives may openly tell you that you should stop being so very picky or invest more in finding a partner, while your colleagues may speculate about what may be wrong with you. Friends with children may slowly withdraw because they prefer to connect over stories about the hassles and joys of having children – which you cannot contribute to.
Ironically, in different cultures, others may disapprove if you have the “wrong” partner or if you have a partner at the “wrong” age:
I liked a girl and I was in a relationship with her. The problem was that her family and my family got to know. There were fights between the families because of that. They reprimanded me.
More generally, across quite different cultures, people who deviate from social norms are often punished by others for not adhering to what is perceived as normal – for example, by being openly confronted, socially excluded, or gossiped about. [vii]
If I am doing anything wrong, nobody will be with me. If I’m drinking, roaming and fighting around here and there, nobody will let me be around them. They’ll say, “hey, this guy is strange”. They will scold me and send me away.
[I felt lonely] when I had a few hiccups in my business and people who were close to me started distancing themselves from me and didn’t want to associate with me. At that time, friends in my circle and relatives distanced themselves [from me].
As such, others may go as far as excluding you for not doing what they consider normal. For instance, think of children who shun those who are interested in learning, who look or talk differently than the average child (in this social context). These instances of social rejection, ranging from subtle distancing to clear exclusion, can of course make quite lonely.
I felt very lonely there [at school] because I was a foreigner […] and others made me feel that. I don’t believe that the children did this on purpose, but society does – and children hence do that, too.
We have a WhatsApp group of the whole class, and then there is a group for the guys and the girls. And I’m in neither of them. Now, it’s funny because we are in 2019. So, like, the boundaries should’ve blurred a long time ago. But the group of the boys – I’m not in there. Not because, like, they defined me intentionally, but they know that I won’t go to a lake with them and I won’t play football with them. […] And the girls also do, like, girls’ nights. And I understood that there was a discussion about: “Should we add [name] to sushi nights?” and all the other things that they do. They didn’t add me and it’s fine like that. So, like, the different genders maybe – in my case, that’s what brought the sense of loneliness.
4. You don’t get what you need
Human beings seem to have various relational needs: Their well-being depends on whether they receive sufficient closeness, advice, or confirmation from others, on whether they can count on others, belong to a group, or take care of someone else.[i] What does this have to do with social norms? Social norms typically define in which social relationships these needs can be fulfilled – and if you happen not to have a relationship that is culturally central, you may not be able to fulfill (some of) your relational needs. This sounds very abstract, but I will again provide some examples.
For instance, if you live in a society where most people talk about their deepest worries mostly to their partners, you may become emotionally isolated when you are single – and much more so than if you live in a society where people often turn to friends or family for emotional support. Similarly, if you live in a society where hugging, cuddling, or holding hands are only accepted with romantic partners, you are more likely to miss touch than if you are living in a society where it is common to hug and cuddle with family and friends, too.[ix]
Indeed, young adults in South Korea who were single reported feeling less lonely (in comparison to people in romantic relationships) than young adults who were single in the US. According to the authors of the study, this is because romantic relationships are idealized more and are more important sources of closeness in the US than in South Korea. By contrast, family relationships are supposed to often be more emotionally close in South Korea than in the US.
Indeed, you may be particularly at risk for feeling lonely if you are a single man – because men who cuddle or hold hands with their male friends[x] or men who express emotions such as sadness or fear outside their romantic relationships are frowned upon in many societies.
So, I was looking for something, for example a marriage relationship, and in such an oriental and Islamic society, you seek marriage because it’s the only way to live freely with a partner whom I can open up to and be my real self with. Because when you show your real self to someone, it feels good – especially if they are trustworthy of your secrets. And this is why I was looking for a relationship (partnership): because there was no close friend who I could trust enough to talk to him about all my feelings.
Finally, in western middle-class families, it is mostly the biological parents who take care of children. By contrast, in most less industrialized cultures, other family members (e.g., siblings, grandparents, aunts or uncles) are also strongly involved in child-rearing.[xi] As such, if you are part of the western middle class and do not have children, you may have fewer opportunities to care for others than if you were living in a different cultural context. Lacking opportunities to care for others can then, again, make lonely.
Why Is This So Relevant?
We have seen that the content of social norms varies between cultures: how exactly people are expected to be and act differs strongly. At the same time, studies suggest that not fitting in with social norms can make lonely across quite different cultural contexts.
Certain risk factors for loneliness – such as being shy or being single – may thus not make equally lonely everywhere, but particularly if they do not fit what is expected by the social environment a person is living in. Social norms may therefore help us identify risk factors for loneliness in a particular context, rather than assuming that the same characteristics increase loneliness everywhere. This may also help us develop more culture-sensitive interventions against loneliness.
Some Concluding Words
We need norms because they facilitate decisions and social interaction, but they can also be a source of loneliness. If we cannot adhere to what is normal in our specific social surroundings, we are more likely to feel lonely because of being dissatisfied with our relationships, through feeling alienated, through others’ rejection, or because we do not get what we need in our relationships.
Nevertheless, and as uncomfortable as not fitting in may feel, ask yourself whether you need to fit in. After all, if you think of the stories we tell each other in tales, books and movies, you can observe that heroes and heroines are typically those who do not go along with the mainstream.
 All quotes in this text are taken from the interview material that you can also watch as videos on this website.
 You have probably hardly ever seen posts about just having had a fight with one’s partner.
 You may also have noticed feeling better on a solitary Friday evening in lockdown than on an ordinary Friday evening.
 You may, however, experience more dissatisfaction yourself or rejection by others if you are from a culture in the Global South, where having children can be socially particularly relevant.[xiii]
[i] Rogers, C. (1970). Encounter Groups. Pelican Books.
[ii] Whitehorn, J. C. On loneliness and the incongruous self image. Annual of Psychotherapy, 2(1), 15-17.
[iii] Allport, F. H. (1924). Social psychology. Houghton Mifflin.
[iv] Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 243–256. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
[v] Sargent, R. H., & Newman, L. S. (2021). Pluralistic ignorance research in psychology: A scoping review of topic and method variation and directions for future research. Review of General Psychology, 25(2), 163-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/1089268021995168
[vi] Perlman, D., & Peplau, L. A. (1981). Toward a social psychology of loneliness. In Gilmour, R., Duck, S. (Eds.), Personal relationships: Vol. 3. Relationships in disorder (pp. 31–56). Academic Press.
[vii] Eriksson, K., Strimling, P., Gelfand, M., Wu, J., Abernathy, J., Akotia, C. S., … & Van Lange, P. A. (2021). Perceptions of the appropriate response to norm violation in 57 societies. Nature communications, 12(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21602-9
[viii] Weiss, R. (1974). The provisions of social relationships. In Z. Rubin (Ed.), Doing unto others (pp. 17-26). Prentice Hall.
[ix] Seepersad, S., Choi, M. K., & Shin, N. (2008). How does culture influence the degree of romantic loneliness and closeness? The Journal of Psychology, 142(2), 209-220. https://doi.org/10.3200/JRLP.142.2.209-220
[x] Lewis R.A. (1978). Emotional Intimacy among Men. In: Rieker P.P., Carmen E. (Eds.), The Gender Gap in Psychotherapy. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4684-4754-5_13
Scoats, R., & Robinson, S. (2020). From stoicism to bromance: Millennial men’s friendships. In R. Magrath, J. Cleland, & E. Anderson (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Sport (pp. 379-392). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
[xi] Sear, R. (2016). Beyond the nuclear family: an evolutionary perspective on parenting. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 98-103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.08.013
[xii] Inhorn, M., & Van Balen, F. (2002). Infertility around the globe: New thinking on childlessness, gender, and reproductive technologies. University of California Press.