Keeping up with the Joneses breeds conformity

Jim Lee

I wandered into the garden section at Wal-Mart the other day. Among all the lawn and garden torture devices, they had a large quantity of flimsy, plastic flamingo planters.
Aside from the incredibly sophisticated, high-brow taste involved in parking one of those things near the front porch for the world to admire, it seemed to promote an alarming uniformity in residential landscaping. It got me thinking about the lack of individuality in our culture.
No wonder we have so many stereotypes. How can we avoid it when we actually promote it?
I have never seen a trailer park without a couple called Bud and Maxine. I never met anyone in Boston named Bubba.
Getting back to the point, why do we abhor stereotyping (or at least say we do) while we scramble to conform at just about any cost?
TV commercials rail about some product being the most popular. Why should we care how many others buy it? It either satisfies a need at a reasonable price or it doesn’t, whether it’s popular or not.
Are we tempted to buy something because it satisfies someone else’s need? Why? How much do we need to be like everybody else?
We Americans loudly proclaim our rugged, individualistic character, then desperately try to keep up with the Joneses next door (in my case the Russells across the street). OK, their trees are bigger, but our trees are much cuter with far nicer personalities.
And we always have to be one up on the other person. In this way we conform by topping another person because it puts us in the same game — and winning it.
A good example is a joke-telling session with a few friends. We join in but have to tell the best one, get the biggest laugh. Then we try to humiliate the other person by guessing the punch line and saying it out loud before the end of the joke.
Not only do we need to conform, we need to do it better than anybody else.
How do we all stand so proud at our uniquely American individualism when we seem to scratch and claw at each other to excel at conformity? It’s like making a toad shake hands with a bobcat; it just doesn’t make sense.
What does all this have to do with plastic flamingos at Wal-Mart? Hanged if I know. Whadya want, good looks and smarts both?

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: