In this essay Nathan Palmer discusses the influence significant others have on our thoughts and behaviors.
Right now my legs feel like Jell-O and my head feels like I’ve gone 12 rounds in the ring with Floyd Mayweather. Over the last four days I drove for 20 consecutive hours by myself from my home in Georgia to my hometown in Lincoln, NE. I spent 48 hours there and then again drove 20 hours back home. What was I thinking? Why would I do that to myself? The answer is simple: family.
The drive was hard, but that all melted away when I saw my beautiful niece moments after she came into the world. Being there to hold her, to comfort my sister-in-law, and to hug my brother as he became a father was priceless. In the end, the drive was a tiny price to pay for these life-long memories. I would do almost anything for my family and that, believe it or not, is a key lesson of sociology.
Others’ Influence on You
Others influence our thoughts and behaviors, that simple truth is at the center of sociology. Interacting with others is how we learn what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, appreciated/unappreciated, nice/mean, and so on. Most everything you know is something you learned from interacting with other people. Others teach us how to behave and influence how we think about the world and ourselves.
At the same time, not all others are created equal. Significant others is the term sociologists use to describe people who have a profound influence on our thoughts and behaviors. Often an individual is close both emotionally and physically to their significant others. Family members, best friends, and mentors most commonly fall into this group.
Significant others have a strong influence on us because we place a higher value on their opinions and viewpoints. We avoid saying or doing things that might disappoint, hurt, or offend our significant others. Similarly, we try to say and do things that we think our significant others will appreciate.
Within our group of significant others there are a few people whom we give exceptional influence over our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Role models are individuals whose movements, ways of thinking, styles of dress, manners of speech, etc. we try to imitate. As the youngest child, my mom, dad, and brother were my role models and I am, in a way, a poor imitation of them.
Who You Are Depends on Who Matters to You
From a sociological point of view, who you are is a product of the people you treat as significant. Our significant others tell us what our name is, which family we are a part of, what role we play in our family, what role we play in the world, and what is expected of us.
This is not to say that each of us does not have any individual control over our selves. Each of us can choose to change who our significant others are or we can choose to go against the wishes of those we consider significant others. However, if we choose to abide by the wishes of our significant others or rebel against them, either of those choices is ultimately a reaction to our significant others.
To this day, when making decisions I often think to myself, “what would my mother/father/brother do in this situation?” Since getting married and becoming a father, when making decisions I often think, “how will this affect my marriage and my daughter?” And also, “what would April (my wife) do in this situation?”
However, most of the influence significant others have on us is automatic and unconscious. For instance, growing up my father always said, “Palmers are never late,” and to this day I arrive ridiculously early to everything. Now that I am a parent I catch myself saying things exactly the same way my mom and dad would when I was a child. Over time through repeated interactions, we become like those close to us whether we intend to or not.
Priorities are Like Arms
One of my favorite sayings is, "priorities are like arms; if you say you have more than two, you are either crazy or lying.” Everyone can’t be a significant other to you. We have to make choices about who we are aligned with, who we will make sacrifices for, and who we will be vulnerable with. Like many people, I was raised to believe that family always comes first. My family is my priority and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for them and they wouldn’t do for me.
Ultimately driving for 40 hours isn’t really that big of a deal and people have sacrificed far more for their significant others. I don’t want to blow things out of proportion here. However, I made the decision to go precisely because it was for my significant others and I thought my role models would do it if they were in my shoes.
To my newborn niece, welcome to the family. You will forever be one of my significant others. You will be loved, cared for, and supported for the rest of your life.
- Write a list of at least 3 people who you consider to be your significant others. Write their names, their relationship to you, and how long you have known them.
- Out of that list of significant others who would you consider a role model of yours? Describe how this role model influenced who you are today.
- Over the course of our lives our group of significant others changes. Who are some of your significant others today that weren’t significant others when you were a child?
- Imagine that all of the people you listed as significant others told you that unless you changed your behavior they would cut ties with you forever. Do you think that would influence you into changing that behavior? What does this tell us about the power significant others have over us? Explain your answers.
It is commonplace for people to refer to their romantic partners as their significant other. However, to sociologists your romantic partner is just one of multiple significant others. ↩