"Knowledge Check" Social And Fashion Guidelines
Many social or fashion and grooming guidelines have a logical, practical purpose. You shouldn't make insulting comments because it hurts other people's feelings and makes you look like a jerk. You should brush your teeth, because if you have bad breath everyone will be grossed out. Other guidelines are more subjective. For example, a lot of people may believe a particular hairstyle is unfashionable or off-putting.
As long as it's not horribly unhygienic, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with wearing your hair one way over another. We all look back and chuckle at styles that were considered fashionable decades ago. What's currently popular and acceptable varies a ton from one location, age group, or subculture to the next. More practically though, if someone has the "wrong" hairstyle, they can be judged negatively for it.
Most people don't consciously realize they're doing it, but they treat certain subjective guidelines as "knowledge checks". If they see that someone isn't following one they snap to the conclusion of, "They're breaking a well-known rule. So they either don't know about it, or know about it, but don't care to go along with it. What does that say about them? That they're socially clueless? That something is off about them? Either way, I'll be wary until I have more information." Their assumption may not be fair, but that's how they think. The logic or sensibility of the guideline is irrelevant. They treat whether someone's following it as a window into their overall level of social savvy or status.
These knowledge checks sway people's opinion the most when someone breaks one guideline, but otherwise seems like a regular person. If someone's super-awkward, they'll show it in plenty of other ways. They don't need to fail a knowledge check to tip anyone off. If someone seems very socially adjusted and fashionable, but they violate one little rule, they'll get the benefit of the doubt ("Maybe they're going against the grain in a hip, self-aware way?"). But if someone seems average, but they don't know a knowledge check rule, that can get people wondering.
Each person has their own unwritten list of what they consider knowledge checks. It's not like everyone but you got together one day and agreed on them. Though some will be widely shared by most people in a particular culture.
Aside from hairstyles, here are some other things that can function as subjective social or fashion knowledge checks:
- Sense of humor (e.g., "Everyone should know references from TV show X are lame and played out")
- Stance on certain aspects of socializing (e.g., "'Everyone at this university knows it's no big deal to be fifteen minutes late to things. You can't get too upset about it.")
- How to communicate over text (e.g., what emojis and abbreviations are okay to use)
- Being up to date on local slang
- Knowing how to perform quick, ritual social exchanges (e.g., knowing the "right" way to greet people with a handshake and hug)
- Other choices related to grooming, like facial hair or makeup
- Things related to fashion sense, like how to wear certain items of clothing or accessories
They vary, and it can be hard to learn which knowledge checks are in effect in your neck of the woods. They're just something you have to pick up through observation or research. That can take some time. You can look up more widely-held ones though by doing a search for terms like common fashion mistakes.
If you're less-socially conventional or experienced these "knowledge checks" can really bother you:
- You can feel it's unfair to be judged on such subjective, fickle criteria.
- You can feel bitter toward other people for sizing each other up this way.
- It can feel like a blow to learn your social success can partially depend on whether you can follow a bunch of rules that you may not know, and which might take some work to figure out.
- It can annoy you that many knowledge check guidelines aren't logical or practical. For example, some fashion rules say it's "wrong" to wear certain types of clothes that are comfortable and affordable.
- You may resent feeling forced to do something you don't want to, just so you can avoid an arbitrary mark against you.
What can you do if you're feeling ambivalent about whether to follow certain knowledge checks? The standard advice I give is to be true to yourself as much as possible. Do what you like, and hang out with people who accept you for who you are. But selectively, strategically compromise here and there when you think the rewards of doing so outweigh the importance of going against your principles. It's easier to be pragmatic for choices where you don't care whether you act one way or another. For example, maybe you really like your clothes, even though they're "wrong" according to some people. You're okay with that, and have friends who won't judge you for them. On the other hand, you've realized your hairstyle goes against what's considered proper at your office and is costing you opportunities. Maybe someone else would be willing to fight the corporate culture over it, but you don't feel married to your hair, and are fine with changing it. Overall, try to make peace with the fact that knowledge checks are a part of the social world. They're not fair, but you can't get away from them entirely.