When I talk about opinions, I’m not referring specifically to that which I am writing now, but to the thousands of statements, large and small, that we make about the world each day. Everything from the what’s-your-favorite-superhero-power icebreaker to the presidential-candidate-preference tally creates a link between ourselves and the subject of our opinion, a link that wasn’t there before. When we give our opinion we let out a little more about our true selves than was previously there; the listener knows a new fact about us that flavors who we are. At least, that’s how opinions are commonly framed.
But, increasingly, I find that the response I give when someone asks for my opinion is much more revealing about the person who asked than it is about me. I end up trying to align myself to the opinion-asker’s camp. Many times my opinion, instead of being a revealed truth about my preferences, turns out to be a social phenomenon.
Let me explain. This Friday, someone asked me what I thought about the scandal with Lance Armstrong. To be perfectly honest, my investment in the subject was one skimmed article away from zilch. Did he dope? Did he not? Did I care? I did not. Nevertheless, I appreciated the fact that someone I respect thought my opinion worth asking, so I scrambled to think of something to say.
With no conviction of my own, I fished around for hints as to what the other person thought. If she hated Lance, so would I; if she believed he deserved to keep his victories, I would too. With no vested interest in the subject, I was prepared to qualify my answer into the path of least social resistance. In short, I formed a social opinion, one that validated the asker’s opinion since I had none of my own.
But the experience really nettled me. Why did I feel the need to make it seem like I cared more about the subject than I did? And why did I feel so uncomfortable when asked a simple question about something going on in the news? As a self-appointed opine-er, I found it off-putting to see the arbitrariness with which I often form opinions in social settings.
People ask each other’s opinions in all types of situations. In some, we have a strongly held belief that is easily expressed as a conviction, as a truth about ourselves. But, in many cases, we are asked our opinions about subjects that don’t really form a strong basis of who we are. In these situations, the easiest thing to do is agree with the opinion-taker. That is not to say that forming social opinions is the right thing, nor that it is the smartest thing to do, but simply that it is something I do more than I would like.
This idea of a social opinion is important to me because I value opinions so highly. While I do form social opinions on more occasions that I am comfortable, I also shy away from questions of opinions. Because opinions are treated as fact, I am wary to express any half-baked opinions while giving a campus tour or in a precept. If the only thing someone will know about me is the opinion I express in the hour I spend with them, I don’t want to express something that I don’t really believe. Because the listener is likely to take my opinion as pure fact, I don’t want to throw out an opinion; I instead want to argue a conviction. However, it is both easy for me to fall into the trap of the social opinion and difficult to hatch a full-fledged conviction.
I’m not saying that this applies to you. I’m not saying that you don’t have strong convictions that, once expressed, represent a truth about yourself. But if I’ve learned anything from this brief philosophical distraction, it’s that I should stop trying to guess what other people think and instead focus on what I believe.
That’s my personal opinion.
Rebecca Kreutter is a sophomore from Singapore. She can be reached at email@example.com.