What the @#?! Is Normal?

by Laura San Nicolas

Traditions help establish a stable foundation for our lives, provide structure and comfort, and give us a sense of connection to generations past and yet to come. But if we look at Tradition in its largest sense, as part of our cultural/societal norm, we come up against the sticky question, “What the @#?! is normal anyway? If I’m “normal” does that mean I have to be like everybody else? Who determines what is “normal” and what is not?”

When I was growing up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, it was pretty much considered bad form to be “normal.” Normal seemed to mean cosigning the outdated behaviors of our parents and government during a time of tumultuous change. At the same time, parents and government seemed to take glee in pointing out that we of the younger generation were just being conformist to ourselves. We all wanted to look the same, act the same, and take up the same passionate arguments as each other. The older generation felt that the very fiber of our way of life was under attack. The younger generation felt we couldn’t afford not to challenge the status quo if we were to become a more equality-based society. Neither side liked the way the other was going about making their respective points.


Rennie Ellis, Generation Gap, Kings Cross,Sydney, Australia 1970-71

So there was a stalemate that became known as “the generation gap.” But that’s a whole other blog post. What the real fight here was about was Normal vs. Average.

A norm is a standard, model, or pattern of what is agreed upon in a society. It is what most people over time have decided best suits the long-term, peaceful survival of us. Norms tend to stay stable over time; changes in the way a society behaves come slowly.

The “normal” we’ve based most of our behavior on in today’s society comes from age-old concepts like The 10 Commandments (don’t kill each other), the Bill of Rights (we should be equal under the law), and good manners (saying please and thank you really helps in getting along with others). It gives us a standard to test our new ideas against that is not just based on how many people are doing whatever. For example, there have been times and places in our history where it was “average” to keep slaves. Those folks might’ve even argued it was “normal,” because “everyone was doing it.” But from the broader perspective, what with all of us being human, it was eventually decided that buying and selling other people was not within our norms–so much so, that we decided it should no longer be allowed to be “average.”

Average, can have a tendency to get us into trouble. . The word “average” is defined as what is considered typical, common, or ordinary. An “average” is a quantity or rating that determines an arithmetic mean; for our purposes, what most people are doing as opposed to what is expected people do as determined by time-tested tradition and behavior. When  an “average” becomes strongly held by most people over time, it may indeed become “normal.” For example, women have always been part of our society. In fact, there tend to be more of them than men! And they can even make other humans! But it took a lot of them to get together and make a lot of noise, to convince enough of us that their voice and presence had an equal right to be heard as voters, something so “normal” today we now take that right for granted.


Republican [National] Convention, [Chicago, Illinois,] 1920

As a whole,we get concerned about things that fall outside the norm. Things outside the norm can range from curious to  sub or supernatural to even life threatening.  By contrast, however, things inside the norm do not have to be bland, restrictive, or ordinary. It turns out, it is “normal” to be different from each other.

I found someone else struggling to determine the difference between Normal vs. Average on http://english.stackexchange.com, an English language and usage forum. According to member, Tom Au:

An “average” person is a normal person BY DEFINITION.

“Normal” means “close to” average (in statistics), but plus or minus. It is this “plus or minus” part that allows “normal” to be NOT average. Even so, it would mean that the deviation from average is a “normal” or usual amount, and not “way out.”

Thanks, Tom!

The “plus or minus” Tom speaks of is the standard deviation of the subject at hand, in our case, “normal,” and could look kind of like this:


Please note that the norm allows for 2 standard deviations above and below the mean. That means that our mean, “normal,” has a pretty wide berth. Everything that falls between -2 standard deviations and +2 standard deviations is some expression of normal! So while most people may cluster around the mean (or average) we can see it is “normal” to have a wide range of individual differences before we get into the dread areas of “ABnormal.” Within the range of what we consider normal, there is plenty of room for traditionalists and rebels, extroverts and introverts, hippies and their parents, millennials and everybody else. Nobody has to surrender their individualist card; nobody needs to call anybody names.
At this time in history, we are challenging all kinds of basic concepts, both average and normal. And there are A LOT of loud voices trying to convince us of who is right and who is not and how we should change or stay the same.  I think we would be well advised when listening to these voices, to look at the norms (the importance of truth, for example) we’ve set up for ourselves as a society, and at the averages (is climate change a real threat or not? Should we do something about it?) that are grabbing our attention over time. Because when voices are especially loud, we don’t want to just be average; swept up in emotion or anger, we need to remember to ground ourselves in normal.

And finally, when we get really confused, be sure to remember the words of our friend, Viktor Frankl:

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”


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