The social comparison menace

There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply being competitive with yourself and being inspired by others instead

There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply being competitive with yourself and being inspired by others instead

Nick Mangwana View from the Diaspora
Last week we saw how our people can get preoccupied by the non-essentials.

The fundamentals were relegated as everyone was absorbed by a certain South African lady’s wardrobe choices. It is the same week that there was great news about the hub of the Midlands economic activity; Ziscosteel.

Ironically the other word for panties is ‘smalls’, this is because they are not only a small piece of garment, but surely a minor issue in any other context. If one doesn’t talk about, how are we to tell if they have smalls or not?

But small as this matter was, it was treated like a ‘National Panty Crisis’. The way the debate raged on also betrayed a trait of competitiveness now fully embedded in our culture and psyche. There is clearly too much social comparison in our society.

Social comparison syndrome is defined by psychologists as “the tendency to self-evaluate by comparing ourselves to others”. This is what is known to generate competitive behaviour.

Some believe that the idea of grading pupils by announcing that the best is number one all the way to the one with the least marks being last is the source of our competitiveness.

From a very early age we are taught that your marks are not an absolute and mean nothing unless measured against those of your peers. This used to be quite a humiliating affair. Students’ names and their numbers would be called starting from first all the way to the least performer in the class.

On the term closing day, the best performer would be announced and they would leave the class room first. It was highly degrading for the one with least number of marks, for they would literally be asked to close the door on their way out to mark the end of the term.

There were derogatory names derived out of the person with the dishonour of closing the door. Names like Mupfigagoni (door closer) became euphemism for “dullard” which was a way of insulting those perceived to be intellectually challenged.

So children were taught to be competitive from their formative years. They had to measure themselves against their peers and aim to outdoor them. Once this was wired in one’s system it was carried into adult life everything becomes an Olympics.

This self-esteem undermining practice is probably not being done anymore, but that has not changed the instilling of a competitive edge in young Zimbabweans from a very early age.

One of the reasons why people had to compete like that was because of limited resources such as good secondary schools. Naturally, where things are limited there is competition for those meagre resources. This is meant to create an advantage for the one that excels more than others. It is the primitive instinct of survival of the fittest.

It wasn’t only your results that determined your destiny, but how those results faired compared to one’s peers. So naturally one would do everything watching the next guy.

In boarding schools, some would even sneak away to read, making sure their peers don’t notice and wake up to go and read as well.

The problem is some people grew up and continued living their lives as if they were in some life Olympics always competing against the next person. This makes life lose its meaning.

One’s life choice can easily be an absolute if they choose to make it so. You get in a pub, you buy the drink that you actually enjoy drinking regardless how expensive or exotic the next guy’s taste is. It’s their drink and what you are buying is your own.

Being too competitive breeds resentment and envy. Some find it difficult to acknowledge or appreciate the good achieved by their contemporaries. They would always try to pick holes and find faults.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply being competitive with yourself and being inspired by others. But you see someone being offended by being overtaken by a car on the highway, and out of nowhere they start racing that car. They don’t know who is in the car and have no clue where they are going or why they are in a hurry, but just feel challenged or disrespected by their speed.

It is possible for one to be driven by their own desire to achieve or their own fear of failure. This has completely nothing to do with the next person. The problem with these undeclared competitions is that nobody bothers to harmonise the contexts. People just compare themselves against somebody whose circumstances has no iota of resemblance to theirs.

Like everything else there are advantages and disadvantages. Being competitive can make one very driven and push them to do whatever it takes to achieve a certain desired result. But on the extreme end it can make one pursue some narcissistic vanity without end. It makes people more self-absorbed than community oriented.

This can partially explain why Zimbabweans give mainly to their family and friends. Altruism is not one of our strengths unless there is a political end to leverage. And that is usually patronage and some competitive advantage against a contemporary.

Let us say there is a tragic accident in Masvingo where a number of people die, or a flooding in Tsholotsho which has made a lot villagers homeless. The local business people who have benefited from their business interactions with the community would not be seen on the scene until or unless a high profile politician is on the ground.

Once that happens you see the competition to outdo one another in donating. There is nothing altruistic about this. It’s just competitive people trying to leverage on patronage.

People hardly give to the needy unless it gives them a competitive advantage, but never to uplift humanity. They would rather just primitively accumulate.

Even at very personal level one always wonders why people would buy an exquisite bedroom suite and invite friends to their house to show it off.

Isn’t one’s bedroom the innermost sanctuary in one’s house. Some say the holiest of holies if the old testament parlance is deployed. One would assume that this piece of furniture would have been acquired for one’s comfort.

It is tough to explain the underlying reason for inviting friends to your bedroom except some hyper-competitiveness. What would the friends do in the circumstances other than try to buy a better one and return the favour?

As a result, there are too many of our people living beyond their means and over extending themselves. This is because they go through life as if it’s a cutthroat competition with the next person.

People are impaired from living fulfilling lives because of this competitiveness. It generates a sense of inadequacy when the next person seems to have done better than them.

How could the next guy have done better by simply living their lives as they saw fit? Won’t we all live happily ever after if we focus on our lives and stop those glances to our neighbours’ lives?

Social media has made a bad situation worse. Wishing for us to curtail our social comparison is now probably a utopian ideal especially with situations where some take a photo of their restaurant meal and publish it on Facebook first, then eat it after having first shown it to the world!

Some end up ordering what they believe would impress their social crowd rather than what they actually enjoy eating. Some of their social crowd respond with an overcritical envy.

Holidays and vacations are taken with the social media crowd in mind. There is a spontaneous effort to pour scorn on their achievements as if their success is an indictment on our own failure to progress. It would appear that the competitive culture has now found a market for its products. But does it help social cohesion?

Instead of celebrating the next guy’s success, we grasp for something to antagonise them with. This is because in terms of the social comparison theory it appears most Zimbabweans can only appreciate their own social or personal worth it they stack themselves against others.

If they can’t measure up, then they have to undermine the other person. This is what most likely generates that impulse of envy that was so apparent in the whole “pantygate” saga.

But surely one can appraise themselves without the need to compare themselves socially. One’s own aspirations should be defined by their interpretation of what it means to have achieved their ultimate, which some call their self-actualisation. And not how they benchmark against the next person.

A person should just check whether they measure up in accordance with the standards they set for themselves or their aspirations. Not in terms of some undeclared competition with the next person. Sometimes we just have to reflect on why we find ourselves with a competitive impulse with people going about their own business of living their own lives.

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