Most of us want to belong—to be a part of a group. We need to be accepted. We want to be liked, respected, paid attention to, even loved. We want to be heard as well as seen, and we want to fit in.
Humans are social animals. Our language expresses our deep concerns with fitting in. We attach a value to belonging. We talk about team spirit, group dynamics, being “in or out.” We describe the process of belonging in phrases such as “rites of passage,” “learning the ropes,” “paying your dues,” “passing muster,” and “earning your stripes.”
Sometimes fitting in is easy. The question of membership is seldom an issue when you are born in a community and live there all your life. At other times, membership must be earned. People change jobs or move and must acquire new friends and associates—not once, but several times in life. Some people have an easier time becoming known quickly and developing relationships. For others, it can be a painful process taking months or even years.
Fitting in is a universal issue. It starts early in our lives with becoming a member of the family. Some children tend to fit in better than others even within their own families. It continues with school, where those who belong to the popular groups are often viewed with envy by those who do not.
Fitting in becomes even more of an issue when joining the workforce. Acceptance or non-acceptance may make the difference between being able to accomplish one’s task well or not. Each job change, each transfer, each promotion requires that we find a new way to fit in. Every time a new project gets started which involves new members (who may, or may not, have worked together previously) the group must deal with issues of membership.
As critical as it is to fit in, there are few if any guidelines on how to do it. It is usually very difficult, often quite painful. Do you remember the first day on your first job? Or perhaps when you relocated and became the new kid on the block? Whatever the situation, there was a moment in time when you didn’t know the rules, the people, or the appropriate behaviors. Nor did you know what to expect from others, or even worse, what they expected of you. That moment of fear or confusion can make a lasting impression on you while you were making that all-important first impression on others.
The memories of some of our own first days at work or in other new situations are often quite negative. We may have felt isolated, not understanding the norms, not knowing what questions to ask. Anxiety and frustration are not uncommon feelings as we experienced our own newness in a variety of situations.
A lot more happens the first day than appears on the surface. Some people will engage actively in a conversation, others observe silently from a distance. How will each be to work with? Will there be collaboration or competition? Can you be open or should you be guarded? All unanswered questions. How do you find out? Whom do you ask? How do you become familiar with the unfamiliar? How will you integrate into your new environment?
First impressions can linger on much longer than we would expect; they influence the way people feel about their colleagues and the organization for months. The key to fitting in is knowing what to do, when to do it, and with whom. All of this is equally true of any organization which deals with newcomers. It can be a club, a committee, a retirement or religious community, anywhere people gather. The questions revolve around possible friendships, knowing the rules of the organization, its history, its purpose, what behaviors are rewarded, and which ones are viewed negatively. Are new ideas endorsed or is the status quo preferred? So any new person must first observe in order to understand expectations. People in charge should be responsible for, or assign the responsibility of, integrating and orienting all newcomers. Every person, no matter what their position, should help the “new kid on the block” fit in.
In the retirement community where I live, residents volunteer to mentor newcomers. This mentor sees to it that the newcomers know about meetings, events, and helps them to integrate into the community. The mentor stays in touch with the new residents, shepherding them until they assimilate on their own.
Natasha Josefowitz is the author of more than 20 books. She currently resides at White Sands Retirement Community in La Jolla. Copyright © 2019. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.