Standing out in 2004 America

In 2004, how do we make our individual voices rise above the collective moan?

by Steven Snyder

In modern America conformity is very much the norm in clothing, arts, politics, behavior and even thoughts.

 When was the last time you roamed a mall in search of a unique outfit, only to find every store sells basically the same thing? Or took a road trip, only to realize the same five songs seem to play on every radio station in every city? How about indistinguishable political candidates and parties, socially expected behavior at a job or even a bar, or thoughts that, according to some, have no “place” in public situations?

 Compared to the ’60s and ’70s, 2004 culture is far more homogeneous. There are fewer cliques and outlets. Media is held in fewer hands. Rather than start a political revolt, as a society we have accepted the two political parties we have now.

 Yet even in our conformity, we are striving to tell the world we are individuals. Much like the rock ‘n’ roll music, political activism and tattoos of the past, we are trying to find a modern means of standing out.

 Sitting at a coffee shop the other night, I watched an event unfold I myself have participated in. Two people, clearly on a date, had just paid their tab. The guy had his wallet out and the girl asked about a picture in it. He started telling the story and eventually handed the wallet to her so she could look through his pictures, business cards and other random trinkets .

They loved this. She was learning more about him and he was sharing his stories. 

 Has it really come to this? Must we scrounge through wallets to really learn about people? Amid the Gap shirts, Nike shoes, and “Total Request Live,” have we lost all sense of individuality or uniqueness?

 In 2004, how do we make our individual voices rise above the collective moan? Here’s my theory on new ways people try to distinguish themselves:

 At that same coffee shop I saw another sight I have, unfortunately, been a party to: A group of people examining each others’ cell phones, discussing phone models and comparing service plans. We all know it’s true – our cell phones, like our cars or clothes, have become extensions of our personality.

Furthermore, what we choose as our cell phone ring has come to say something about our lives. There are the morons who choose pop songs for their rings or, even better, classical music. Sitting in a movie theater, while being subjected to a digital rendition of the “Blue Danube,” I always try to put myself in their heads: Yes, I’m an inconsiderate oaf, but at least I know Strauss!

Someone slap that guy for me, please!

E-mail has become our preferred means of communication and our e-mail signatures our personal stamp of individuality. My favorite: The 15-line signature that gives every possible piece of information, such as title, address, fax number, IM screen name, favorite food, birth date and shoe size – and the inspirational quote signature that invariably ends up citing the latest Britney Spears song, Adam Sandler film or reality TV show.

Our coffee drinks mark who we are. Tom Hanks spoofed the thought in “You’ve Got Mail,” but he’s right: There are the blue collar, straight-coffee types, the yuppie latte drinkers, the elitist espresso sippers and the out-of-place, straw-using, frappuccino lovers.

Wouldn’t you rather just get a chocolate shake?

Restaurants are another tool of individuality. No, not for the food, but for the image. When someone answers the question, “Where did you go for dinner,” we quietly judge them or their date.

 Oh, you went to Applebee’s? Chino Latino? How unique. He took you to White Castle? Sounds like a keeper!

As even cars have come to look more alike, bumper stickers have emerged as our most public displays of our personality. In our desperate attempt to assert our identity, we have resorted to such memorable quips as, “If we are what we eat, I’m cheap, fast and easy,” and, “If you can read this, then get the hell out of my way!” My favorite: “If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.”

Honestly, doesn’t that tell you just about everything you need to know?

Steven Snyder welcomes additions to the list, insults and feedback at [email protected]