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November 04, 2006

It’s Going Around Town

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

My popularity at home is at an all-time low since my daughter started elementary school in August. Every day, she manages to work into conversation that Fiona has a dog, Sadie has a princess backpack with pearl trim and Olivia has cowboy boots. We don’t have a dog, Georgia’s backpack is cute but plain and the coolest shoes she has can’t touch Olivia’s pink boots. It’s not peer pressure. It’s not groupthink. I guess I’d call it instinctive conformity. If only I could channel it to her advantage. Instead of “But Becky gets Pop Tarts for breakfast!” it could be “Why can’t I have broccoli and tofu dogs like Jane?”

It takes me back. As a girl, my impossible dream was pierced ears (which, it was explained to me repeatedly, God would have put there Himself if He’d wanted me to have them). By the time I bellied up to the Piercing Pagoda at the mall, the Beckys and Janes in my class all had jewelry boxes bursting with posts, hoops and dangles. I survived, and took the message to heart: Everyone else is doing it is not sufficient grounds for action.

Conformity doesn’t end in childhood, of course. I often hear myself saying to my husband that I need an eyebrow wax, I must replace my lumpy sofa, I should really get a nice dress for the holidays. I’m not sure those were my ideas. In fact, I think I could be parroting my friends, just as my daughter parrots hers. But these are benign desires.

I get good ideas from my pals too. My friend Susan started an exercise studio when she turned 40. She opened up a beautiful place on Piedmont Avenue called The Dailey Method and every day, she’s in there taking women to their physical limit in the name of improved health and a good tush. When the sign went up out front everyone I know wondered if they didn’t have a small business bubbling inside them. Other friends are volunteering, designing handbags, teaching Sunday School. What would we be if we weren’t open to the new idea blowing around town like wind? Personally, I’m keeping my door wide open.

But it’s not just inspiration and optimism that shake the leaves. I heard a story recently about L., a married woman who has reconnected with an old flame from high school and spent the summer emailing him, the fall calling him, and if she gets on the flight next week, the winter visiting him.

I mentioned it to my mom and she said, “My friends just didn’t do that.” My parents ran in a crowd where no one got divorced, even if maybe they should have. It just wasn’t done. And I don’t think it was a coincidence. Sometimes it’s subtle, but I believe peers can influence us in every conceivable way; everything is contagious. Wearing seatbelts, eating organic, joining clubs, flirting with infidelity.

It has something to do with that old adage: you pick your advice when you pick your advisor. Meaning, if a woman like L. told my mom she was talking to her old boyfriend, my mom would probably furrow her brow and shake her head before saying something blunt and unmistakable, like “That’s awful.” But if L. confided in a friend who’d strayed from her own marriage, L.’s friend might say, “What are you going to wear?” which is, for all practical purposes, saying, “Go for it. And tell me all about it when you get home.”

There’s a rule in advertising that says it takes six impressions before a customer will make a purchase. The impressions can be miniscule and fleeting—a logo here, a banner there—but they combine to create a feeling of inevitability. Eventually, you say, “Of course, we’re going to get Yahoo DSL!” So maybe if we surround ourselves and our children with principled, gutsy people, we’ll be bombarded with impressions that will have the net effect of reinforcing what we know is right. We’ll be programmed to pick a designated driver before the night begins, withdraw from the behavior that leads to family ruin, explore new career options, and every now and then, splurge on a pair of pink cowboy boots just like Olivia’s.