Expectations, rules, and role-playing

Raw link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4J0am9VWqs

[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]

Table of Contents

  1. Definitions
  2. Banal expectations as predictions
  3. When value judgements are relevant
  4. Cultural expectations as rules
  5. Roles and their impact on selfhood
  6. Expectations, stereotypes, and selfhood
  7. The dynamic between structure and agency
  8. The act of role-playing
  9. How to handle cultural expectations
  10. Propitious growth starts with minute changes

Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. In today’s presentation I will talk to you about philosophical themes that apply to our everyday social interactions. This covers notions such as peer pressure, conformity with rules, and stereotypes.

We want to learn how they affect us and whether we can do something to cope with them. The idea is to understand what expectations are, how they influence our sense of self, focus on the downsides that may trouble people without implying that there are no upsides, and then discuss how we may deal with them.

The present entry builds on what I talked about in my last two publications in this series. In particular:

I encourage you to study what I have already covered, though it is not strictly necessary for understanding what I am about to elaborate on. If I make a reference to a concept that I have elucidated before, I will try to briefly explain it in context.

The text of this presentation will be available on my website: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-05-03-expectations-rules-roles/.


These are terms I will be using throughout the presentation. It is important to clarify what I mean at the outset in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

  • Expect/Expectations: To expect is to hold views, opinions, hopes about the outlook of a given state of affairs. Interestingly, the corresponding Greek verb (προσδοκώ==prosdoko) consists of pros meaning towards (or “outlook” more broadly) and doko which is related to loanwords in English like doxastic and dogma, which all involve the meaning of belief, opinion, perspective. Similarly, the Latin etymology for exspectare contains the meaning of “spectate”, which can be interpreted as a view or perspective and, by extension, opinion and belief.

  • Autonomy (αυτονομία): Self-rule or self-determination in the sense of setting an order for oneself. Here the “self” is not necessarily an individual as groups can also govern themselves collectively through concerted action. Note that the “-nomy” term pertains to the word for law (νόμος==nomos), which connotes human affairs via a distinction between law and nature. In my last presentation I employed the term chremata to denote things with a use-value as opposed to pragmata—things as they are. I think this is language is better as it helps us avoid formulations like “law of nature”, which would otherwise be confusing.

  • Heteronomy (ετερονομία): The opposite of autonomy. It means rule by an other (hetero==other, opposite, different). The “other” in this case can be an outside force, individual or group, or it may even be one’s own order which is perceived as having an external source or dimension. If, for example, a government enshrines in its constitution an immutable provision about its expenditure, it effectively becomes heteronomous with respect to said provision by alienating its authority from the law it created: when conditions demand that expenditure be increased, the government will not be able to revise its own law, as that would technically be illegal.

  • Agent [of action]: One who acts or who has the capacity of action. A person or group thereof with the potential of initiative.

  • Agency: Encapsulates everything that pertains to the agent. It can also imply a normative view of what “initiative” denotes: such as action that is never controlled by another entity and is thus autonomous. As such, one is said to “assume agency” when they are thought to escape from a state of heteronomy.

  • Structure: The instituted environment within which the agent operates. An environment that consists of arrangements with an underlying use-value (i.e. chremata). From the perspective of a singular agent, structure is exogenous to them: it cannot change simply by the agent’s own volition or machinations. The “structure” is a metaphor, as it does not reference an edifice. It describes the factors which remain outside the agent’s control, while hinting at their layered or multifaceted complexity. We will see how “structure” can simply reference “other agents”.

  • Role: The scope of the agent’s action within the structure. It captures everything the agent can do and everything the agent is expected to do.

Banal expectations as predictions

Each of us has expectations about common things in their life. They are inevitable because we do not operate with complete knowledge and perfect foresight. The human condition unfolds in imperfect circumstances where we must fill in the gaps of our knowledge with estimates, guesswork, hopes, or faith in order to cope with evolving challenges or demands.

For instance, while I was writing this presentation, I was expecting to be able to record and publish it without complications. As I am recording this video right now, my hope is that the power supply will not fail me and I will get the job done. What ensures as much?

Expectations of this sort are justified. They are based on prior knowledge and are specific to a set of data. We are assuming that a discrete pattern is constant or that the chance of it being repeated is high because experience dictates as much. Given the apparent likelihood, we make a prediction about the outlook of what we already know. Continuing with my example, it is normal for my house to have a stable supply of electricity. As such, I hold this will continue to be the case now that I am recording the present footage and later when I will eventually publish it.

There is nothing in the nature of things that renders necessary the prevailing conditions which frame my current activity. What I mean is that my prior knowledge does not guarantee insight into the future developments specific to this state of affairs. The power supply, for example, is not truly a given. Something might happen which will lead to shortages or interruptions: human error, hardware failure, economic hardship, a natural calamity, et cetera. I just hope and believe that the chance of a downturn is marginal, based on what I already know.

When value judgements are relevant

The fact that expectations are beliefs is not bad per se. I am not making a value judgement. It simply is an admission that the human experience involves actions that unfold in sub-optimal circumstances where full knowledge of all factors of the case is not available. In other words, I am not making an appraisal of the fact that expectations exist, because my opinion about it does not alter it.

Judgement calls are relevant for those items whose presence and/or actuality is contingent on the human factor. Otherwise, opinions on what is good or bad, acceptable or not, are pointless: we cannot achieve anything by saying that “it is unacceptable for the Sun to luminate the Earth” since the workings of the Solar system do not depend on our views.

This is related to what I explained at length in my previous presentation regarding chremata (as opposed to pragmata). We want to draw a distinction between items that depend on human involvement (i.e. chremata) and those which are in effect regardless of what humans think about them (pragmata).

With this basic idea in mind, we are better prepared to understand expectations in their intersubjective formulation as social and cultural phenomena. They are chremata, meaning that they have a use-value that can, under certain conditions, be interpreted in a new light or altogether reconsidered and abolished. By the end of this presentation, we will see how this insight can help us cope with the demands of norms that apply to us.

Cultural expectations as rules

The examples I offered earlier concern a person who makes predictions about the future based on the available information or data. Those are empirical observations that are consistent with a scientific disposition. There are, however, expectations which are developed through interpersonal relations in present time and from one generation to the next. Expectations can thus be intersubjective, else cultural. These are not limited to minute data points and are not specific to the particularities of a case. As such, they are further away from science.

Cultural expectations take the form of rules of conduct or unwritten instructions which regulate how agents should behave in a given situation. While they may have a modicum of what appears to be a predictive function, they typically are directives which outline how people should conduct themselves regardless of the underlying dynamics. Such rules are, in this regard, decoupled from the context that led to their original formulation: the link between a datum and an inference is either weakened or lost.

Cultural expectations are geared towards shaping the future instead of merely predicting it, by moulding the behaviour of people. Rules can be enforced through coercion, though they typically take the form of quotidian narratives which impress upon each person a sense of how they must think about their place in their social milieu: how they fit in and what are the qualitative features of their sense of belonging.

For example, what does it mean for a woman to have a “lady-like” demeanour? Why are certain career paths considered “manly” and who is supposed to be a “man” and, conversely, a “non-man” in this scenario? Why is it claimed to be a righteous duty to participate in a war of aggression in the name of the homeland even if the regime which claims the homeland as its own domain is unjust throughout?

These are all constructs which are underpinned by the shared beliefs of individuals in a given culture or community. They are not so much predictions about the future but commands or exhortations on what subsequent states of affairs ought to look like. They thus delimit roles which govern who has agency in a given context and what it entails.

Cultural expectations are sweeping generalisations. They are not based on the merits or particular qualities of the person they are directed towards or apply to. Rather, they prescribe how any person that broadly falls within a certain class has to conform with the applicable cultural construct.

When, for example, a woman is told to act in a lady-like fashion and thus conform with the lady construct, she is not treated as her own person. Her individuality is not accounted for. Her peers do not yet consider whether she has a sense of humour or not, what her hobbies are, which traits of character are dominant in her disposition and how those influence her relations with others and perception of events, what sort of opinions and preferences she has, and so on. None of this matters insofar as the expectation of conformity with the cultural construct of lady is concerned. The woman must behave like a lady, else, the tacit threat is, suffer the consequences of non-conformity with the rule.

Cultural expectations thus have, perhaps inadvertently, a dehumanising function, as they ignore all those qualitative features of an individual which render them who they are. What the rules deal with are classes of people, each of which has attributes specific to it; attributes that are loosely discernible in individuals. Classes can cover factors such as age, gender, career, place of birth, annual income, physical appearance, and so on, or they can be situational such as “anyone wearing a hat inside a building”.

Dehumanisation, or what effectively is the abstraction of individuality, may sometimes be inconsequential. Such as being asked to take off your hat when entering a certain establishment. Though dehumanisation can have invidious effects on those affected, depending on the specifics. In the example of the lady construct, a woman who is pressured to conform with the role might feel disrespected, humiliated, stressed, and generally not well. If conformity with the expectation is inflexible, the dehumanising function is likely to be detrimental to those who are assuming the given role contrary to their will or ability.

Continuing with this theme of cultural expectations as rules…

In contradistinction to expectations with a predictive function, rules try to determine future outcomes through interference with the relevant states of affairs. To press on with my example, for a woman to ultimately behave in a lady-like fashion and be treated as such, she and her peers must be indoctrinated in a given tradition that impresses in their mind the applicable rules of conduct as matters of necessity or utmost significance. This is where the rule-as-narrative is made manifest, for it is normalised through upbringing or initiation instead of being presented as an edict.

Indoctrination, or otherwise the cultivation of a certain mindset, has the effect of propagating cultural norms. Agents who assume their role unwittingly think of their self as embodying that role. Continuing with our example, a woman may not feel pressured to behave as a lady because that has always been her normality. She might even be judgemental of other women who do not meet the implied criteria.

Propagation of cultural expectations has the effect of engendering peer pressure. Put simply, the rules take a life of their own. Those who already behave in accordance with their role influence others to do the same and the phenomenon becomes widespread. Societies thus develop mechanisms for their own reproduction and persistence of cultural constructs: culture has an intergenerational reach where the original connection between some datum and the inferred belief is lost or no longer as relevant.

Roles and their impact on selfhood

If a person conforms with cultural expectations in everything they do, they eventually develop an impression of selfhood which is moulded by those expectations. Their sense of self coincides with the set of significations that are fastened upon the cultural construct that informs their assortment of roles. In this regard, they no longer think of expectations as rules about how people should behave, but as part of what is normal and—a misused word here—natural.

Individuals thus model their conduct after their assigned role. They also gauge their performance vis-à-vis the cultural construct. For instance, a man sets out to “put food on the table”, because manliness may require as much. A man who does not do so or who earns less than his wife might think he is not a “true man” or manly enough. The implications can be devastating for the person but also for their relationship with their spouse.

Similarly, a person in their 30s who is not in a relationship, has never married, and has no children may fall in to a crisis of questioning what is wrong with them. In truth, nothing is wrong. The person might feel defective in some way for not having found their much-touted “other half” and for not possessing what it takes to make a family. The perceived problem stems from the mismatch between the normative state of affairs formed by cultural expectations and the person’s actuality. Because expectations are sweeping generalisations, it is not the person’s fault that their particularities are not accounted for.

The purpose of these examples is to show how cultural expectations have a profound impact on one’s sense of self. When we try to answer the question “who am I?”, we do so in relation—or juxtaposition—to experiences and stimuli, which include those cultural constructs either explicitly or implicitly. Selfhood is neither fixed nor predetermined. It is a variable that must be understood in its given social-cultural context in light of the individual’s particularities. Apart from selfhood though, which sounds abstract, expectations can influence how a person perceives of their appearance. Think of beauty standards: people develop all sorts of insecurities about how they look and become apologetic about some perceived defect of theirs. Same principle.

Expectations, stereotypes, and selfhood

Here is a story about my beard which relates to the aforementioned reference to appearances. Someone once described me as having “North African or Middle Eastern looks”. They followed it up with a remark on my facial hair: “people might think you are a terrorist”.

This is obviously racist, though I want to consider it dispassionately in light of what I have discussed in this presentation. The allusion to these presumably inappropriate looks of mine hints at a stereotype. A stereotype is the substance of an effective rule, as it constitutes a sweeping generalisation that applies to a class of people regardless of their particularities. If you have certain physical characteristics, the thinking goes, you must be this, that, and the other, and ought to behave in such and such ways.

Sometimes it is impossible to avoid the invocation of a stereotype, as we have to operate in imperfect circumstances. In their most basic and innocuous form, stereotypes are mental shortcuts we use to glean information about an individual or group thereof we know nothing or precious little about. Nevertheless, and despite sincere intentions, stereotypes are unreliable and we should be careful with them.

The problems with the reliance on stereotypes become evident when we do not receive the feedback we had anticipated. If someone does not meet our expectations, as informed by the stereotype, we are conditioned to reprimand them with what effectively amounts to “why aren’t you the way I want?”. Kind of how this person was trying to tell me that I must have a certain appearance in order to fit in.

The implication is that failure to conform with the established standards would make others think of me as ugly, or inadequate, or faulty in some profound way. And aren’t we inclined to think that if everyone has the same opinion, it likely is true? Meaning that I could eventually internalise their thoughts and make them my own. From whence insecurities come from. This is a case of compounding expectations: layered beliefs about the outlook of a state of affairs. People hold a stereotypical view and have opinions surrounding it which ultimately dictate which expressions of selfhood are tolerable in their midst.

The dynamic between structure and agency

We have already discussed how expectations can influence the impression of one’s selfhood and how societies reproduce themselves by propagating cultural constructs by embedding them as narratives. Against this backdrop, we can reason about the “structure” I mentioned in my introductory section on the definitions pertinent to this presentation. To refresh your memory:

  • Structure: The instituted environment within which the agent operates. An environment that consists of arrangements with an underlying use-value (i.e. chremata). From the perspective of a singular agent, structure is exogenous to them: it cannot change simply by the agent’s own volition or machinations. The “structure” is a metaphor, as it does not reference an edifice. It describes the factors which remain outside the agent’s control, while hinting at their layered or multifaceted complexity. We will see how “structure” can simply reference “other agents”.

Think about the nexus of all the applicable cultural expectations. They have a profound effect on how people lead their lives. For example, if my beard makes me look like a terrorist, employers will be hesitant to give me a job as such an association is bad for business. I might be able to reason with an individual, but I ultimately cannot control the minds of people and cannot convince everyone that their stereotype is a pernicious falsehood. More so if a job application gets rejected on looks alone or, more generally, if I am dismissed in advance.

This is exactly what I mean by “exogenous”. The structure is not a function of a subjective disposition or behaviour: from the perspective of a given agent, the structure is external to them. The agent of action must then make some potentially difficult choices. Either adapt to the structure and operate within its confines, or insist on the realisation of their agency and live with the consequences.

The former option contributes to the reproducibility of culture: people become what the rules demand. The latter choice of marking one’s own path might seem unsustainable and often is, though we must not forget that the structure is a metaphor. When we are dealing with culture and expectations, we ultimately have to do with human beings. Attitudes, preferences, and beliefs are not necessary conditions that never change. They can be considered anew.

While the structure appears as exogenous when seen from the perspective of an individual agent, it is not exogenous to the society as a whole insofar as its cultural dimension is concerned. For the society, “structure” encompasses the totality of agents in their context-dependent roles (actual or potential) and their concomitant expectations.

The structure has a temporal aspect to it which can be discerned at the macro view of the social whole but may be imperceptible at the micro scale of a single agent. Over the short-term, the structure appears as robust to shocks: it is immutable. Over the long-term though, it does change to reflect the set of beliefs that find currency among the members of the society as these relate to the prevailing conditions in their milieu.

This creates an interesting dynamic between structure and agency. For a single individual, the structure includes other people as they are the ones who propagate cultural constructs through their behaviour and the peer pressure they apply to those they socialise with. Yet if groups of individuals with common goals are formed, then the notion of “the other people” progressively loses its weight as a collective agency now redraws the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable.

The collective agency is a macroscopic, emergent phenomenon, which is underpinned by the concerted or coinciding efforts of individual agents of action. For example, if beards become trendy and, for whatever reason, no-one is judged any more on the basis of their looks, the idea that facial hair is the marker of a terrorist will be broadly considered preposterous. Similarly, if women defy the prescriptions of what it means to be a lady, the lady construct will cease to be relevant, at least in its current form. If men stop acting all manly, whatever manliness entails, then the man construct will change. And so on.

The gist is that everything with an intersubjective value—all chremata, to re-use the term from my previous presentation—can be thought of as different. This is not to suggest that change is easy but to simply remark that it is possible.

[ The term “chremata” is discussed at length here: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-21-relativism-cosmopolitanism/ ]

The act of role-playing

As I have already noted, the structure appears as fixed from the perspective of a single agent. This means that there are cases where a person cannot afford to go against the prevailing norms and must instead conform with them.

Every rule delimits the boundaries of a role. Roles typically are predicated on generalisations that do not account for the particularities of the individuals they apply to. Some roles are global, meaning that they hold force in all possible cases, while others have a local scope of being relevant only in a given environment.

As individuals want or need to fit in to their society, they inevitably have to reconfigure an aspect of their agency by assuming roles. Suppose you are an introvert. If your friends call you to parties, you are pressured to accept their invitations even though you do not like such gatherings. The reasons you feel compelled to accept their invitations will vary: it can be because you fear you might be marginalised if you opt for an alternative and/or worry that your friends will become passive aggressive if you always decline their invitations, such as if they tell you “it is okay that you don’t like us anymore”. To avoid trouble, you do something against your inclinations.

In this example, the introvert who would rather do something else must act in a manner that makes them feel uncomfortable just so they retain their acquaintances and maintain the appearance of fitting in to the social group.

Roles can form part of a continuum. For instance, a person who behaves as a model professional may not afford the luxury of being seen as comparatively irresponsible in another context, as that may spill over to their image as a professional. If reputation is important for a certain job, losing it is not a viable option. Roles can thus be compounded to form complex sets of expectations.

Role-playing must be understood as an act that confers privileges but also comes with considerable constraints on how the agent may express their underlying selfhood.

What happens now if an agent is not aware they are performing in accordance with a role? What if the underlying rule is so deeply seated in culture that it is taken to be the natural order instead of some human-made arrangement? Does the person see themselves as engaged in role-playing, or are they simply believing to be who they seem to be?

There is a latent chance that one will behave in a manner that is consistent with a role even after they know that the role is not a natural condition. Rules are not necessarily arbitrary, even though they are sweeping generalisations. There can be a kernel of truth to them which happens to match what an agent is doing. Still, it is possible that a person feels an underlying conflict they cannot elucidate and eventually resolve, as they have yet to realise they are involved in role-playing that contradicts their inclinations.

Consider the case of motherhood. Cisgender women above a certain age are expected to have children. When they are in social gatherings or in a family reunion, they are always reminded about it. Those who do not conform with the cultural expectations may have a hard time explaining themselves. They may not be able to reason with others that a woman is not defined as a baby-making device and, by extension, may struggle to express their individuality in such a milieu.

For another example, think about the conscientious professional who is consistently efficient at their job. Everyone praises them for their ability and, over time, these views calcify as higher standards that the agent must unconditionally meet. If the professional performs below the lofty standard they have set for themselves, they run the risk of being seen as slacking off and may be penalised for their perceived laziness. This shows that role-playing can be developed organically in a given context to cover relative magnitudes and impose ad-hoc conditions on those involved.

How to handle cultural expectations

Sometimes rules are enforced coercively as they form part of an oppressive structure. In such cases, the impetus for thoroughgoing reform can only come from sustained resistance to the established order. Rebellions or revolutions are not easy, though there arrives a moment in history where they pose the only viable alternative to the status quo.

When it comes to non-militant methods of coping with cultural expectations, we start from the recognition that rules are chremata. They are the product of human institution; they are made the way they are and can, in principle, be remade differently. This means that the structure is not immutable: rules are neither definitive nor absolute.

Despite this fact, we still find ourselves in situations where we must make compromises and establish priorities. It is not always feasible to defy the norms and do what we really want, even if that seems reasonable. So what kind of attitude can we assume to deal with these realities without forcing ourselves into submission or going to extremes that could have adverse effects? Below is a non-exhaustive list:

  • Learn to pick your battles and not be pedantic. There are cases where standing up for a principle is not worth the effort. For example, you might argue that there is nothing in the nature of things that demands we take off our hat while entering a building. Fighting over such an inconsequential issue only cements your reputation as an eccentric fellow which, in turn, undermines your cause on non-trivial matters as it creates negativity that will be directed against you.

  • The flip-side of not being pedantic is to understand what the bigger picture is. Pedantry in the wrong context is the sign of a fool. Try to identify the wider patterns and analyse how they affect you and others in their daily life. A sense of perspective helps you grasp what matters and lets you forward your cause with greater effect.

  • Stop being your worst enemy. You are not the centre of the world. Sometimes the peer pressure is not the real problem, as we tend to aggrandise in our mind what is otherwise a minor affair. Whenever you internalise people’s views or dwell on the imaginary opinions of others, answer in earnest: do they really care all that much?

  • Do not always prioritise the comfort of others when doing so comes at your own discomfort. Recall the example of our introverted fellow who is compelled to go to parties despite their strong preference not to attend them. Forcing yourself to be someone else does not necessarily turn you into someone else: it leaves you in an awkward state instead.

  • Make your feelings known and don’t be afraid to appear vulnerable. If you are concerned that your nature will alienate your acquaintances then question whether they truly are worth having. Being amiable for the sake of amiability can only work against you, as you will never attract sincere friends. Part ways with them in peace, if you must.

  • Never apologise for who you are when there is nothing you can do about it. For instance, physical characteristics such as height and complexion are outside our control. When we pretend otherwise, we lie to ourselves and maintain the kind of fakery that attracts impostors.

  • There seldom is a perfect moment to flee from an abusive role-playing affair. If you wait for the world to change before you make a move, you will likely live your years miserably in a state of heteronomy.

  • Genuine courage is contagious. You might think that everyone is content with their role, though the facade is deceptive. When a person assumes agency, others will do the same. The cumulative effect of such alterations at the micro level will ultimately be discerned at the macro scale as a shift in the structure.

  • Champion your autonomy with restraint. Through experience you learn more about yourself and no longer need the validation of others to pursue your interests. If you need to mimic someone else just to fit in, you find yourself in a state of heteronomy. If, on the flip-side, you go to great lengths to prove trivial points (like being pedantic), you are unreasonable and will ultimately not get what you want.

  • One’s self is not a dogma nor a cult. Selfhood is neither fixed nor predetermined and should never be a cause for heteronomy. Do not hesitate to revise what you do and who you are. To deviate from one’s past from a position of knowledge is the sign of a person who values the truth; the truth as made available in the prevailing conditions.

Propitious growth starts with minute changes

In conclusion, folks, we need to remain calm in the face of a social order that we cannot control. There are difficulties and there will be moments during which we think that the world can never change. However, chremata are subject to review. Something is better than nothing. What is touted as normal—responsibility towards friends and family, gender roles, duty to serve the homeland which actually is the state, etc.—are all matters of convention. Conventions are not necessarily bad. Though the mere fact of their presence is not proof that they are good either, let alone relevant under the present circumstances.

Remember the triplet of maxims passed to us from ancient Greece, specifically the temple of Apollo in Delphi that I discussed in my presentation about ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism:

  • Know yourself;
  • Nothing in excess;
  • Ensure, ruin follows (certainty brings calamity).

Based on what I have covered today, knowing yourself requires that you take a step back from your routines and consider how your selfhood is informed, framed, influenced, or otherwise determined by the structure that conditions your agency. When you behave in a certain way, is it really your genuine self that is being expressed, or are you merely staging a play in pursuit of some fleeting reward?

Avoiding exaggerations demands that you identify your midpoint by learning more about who you are in relation to the rest of the world. If, for example, you always try to please others at your own expense, you are being an extremist. Same if you are egotistical and never empathise with those around you. There has to be a balance.

A healthy dose of doubt will keep you in check and save you from picking fights that are not worth the risk or trouble. Certainty also implies an overestimation of your own abilities. Be aware of what you can and cannot do. Cultural reforms start with small changes but require the emergence of a collective agency to turn into grand redesigns. If you fail to recognise this insight, if you are sure that you can change the world all by yourself, you will only find ruin.