Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.
It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.
Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.
One of the most challenging aspects of being situationally aware is learning how to deal with the social conformity that lies at the root of all social environments.
Social Conformity and Self-knowledge
Much of our socialization as children and adolescents was not intentionally focused on developing situational awareness as I describe it. Rather, we were taught various ways of conforming to the social requirements of a particular situation.
Social conformity breaks down situational awareness by suppressing individual initiative.
The institutional form of social conformity requires us to think less for ourselves by operating according a set of prescribed codes and processes. Ironically, the "expressive individualism" as Charles Taylor describes in his book, A Secular Age is at the same time conformity to a wider consumer culture.
I believe ... that our North Atlantic civilization has been undergoing a cultural revolution in recent decades. The 60s provide perhaps the hinge moment, at least symbolically. It is on one hand an individuating revolution, which may sound strange, because our modern age was already based on a certain individualism. But this has shifted on to a new axis, without deserting the others. As well as as moral/spiritual and instrumental individualism, we now have a widespread "expressive" individualism. This is, of course, not totally new. ... What is new is that this kind of self-orientation seems to have become a mass phenomenon.
... With post-war affluence, and the diffusion of what many had considered luxuries before, came a new concentration on private space, and the means to fill it, ... And in this newly individuated space, the customer was encouraged more and more to express her taste, furnishing her space according to her own needs and affinities, as only the rich had been able to do so in previous eras.
While we perceive ourselves as individuals, we still make choices that are motivated by the fear of rejection or retribution for standing outside the circle of conformity. To think for ourselves in a situationally aware context requires us to have the self-knowledge that enables us to see social situations more objectively, to engage people without personalizing the interaction, and to discern what is in the best interests of the group.
Social conformity produces a personal identity that is formed by external conditions governed by institutional rules and defined by objects that provide us our identity.
Consider all the groups a person experiences from kindergarten through high school. Family, academic, sports, arts, religious and community organizations each have a set of guiding values. From place to place, town to town, organization to organization, each one provides a developmental experience that may or may not have the intention of creating stronger, mature, life-ready individuals. Each institutional situation does require some sort of accountability to the goals and values of the group. An over-riding concern, therefore, is when social conformity is accomplished by cohersion, threat and fear. An extreme example of this would be the practice of hazing as an initiation rite into membership of a social organization.
Group oriented organizations can provide lessons in how to fit in, to play the game that others control, and how to win or excel as a group. One of the realities of this situation is that some people are better at whatever the purpose of the group is. Whether it is math class, football or band, there emerges a recognition that every group is ordered according to those who are the elite players, and those who are the support ones. Every kid knows who the cool, the key, the elite members of their school or group are. It is a part of the process of social organization and conformity.
This kind of institutional social control is a product of a time when our society was based upon people working within large institutional organizations. If you are going to grow up, work in a factory, in a corporate environment or any large complex organization, knowing how to play the game of social conformity is essential to success. There are multiple boundaries that a person must learn to negotiate to function well in those complex settings.
However, this kind of social conformity is becoming less and less beneficial in society. Institutions are no longer capable of sustaining life-long employment where the benefits of fitting in are rewarded. Instead, in today's world, advancement comes through not fitting in, of moving from one organizational setting to the next, as a means of finding the most advantageous place for ones' gifts and talents to be expressed. In effect, advancement is "expressive individualism" as a life strategy.
As a society, social conformity works less and less for more and more people. A recovery of genuine identity is essential. Today, we need to develop the self-knowledge that provides skills of objectivity, engagement and discernment.
The virtue of self-knowledge is that it provides us the foundation upon which we can develop the social awareness that is necessary to be effective in a global world of connection.
As I have explored this aspect of our lives, I believe we can say this much.
Situational awareness begins with self-knowledge.
I can stand apart; I can see what is going on; I can empathize with a person; I can avoid compromising situations.
With self-knowledge I grow out of the need for every situation to be about me, and I lose the fear of what happens when I do not fit in.
When I am able to be myself, without losing myself, then I am able to see how to build relationships of understanding and collaboration that create strong families, organizations and communities.
Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness: