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Pamela’s Blog:
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What is normal?

January 9, 0201

What is normal? We use the word normal all of the time. The weather is normal or it is not normal. My sister is behaving normally or not normally. Home sales are normal or not normal. We just need to wait a while and then things (the economy, our family situation, the weather, whatever) will “return to normal.” Rarely, however, do we ask each other or even ourselves what we mean by this. In truth, saying something is normal often really operates as shorthand for “___ is what I expected” and, likewise, saying something is not normal means “___ is not what I expected.” My expectation may have been based on a spectrum ranging from the most informal observation of something that happened (or I thought happened) recently to a formal, scientific construct developed and promoted as the fact of what happens in a given situation until and unless replaced by a new scientific theory of what is happening in that situation. Most often, the expectation is closer to the former than the latter. And even more often than this, the expectation is totally unarticulated. The person or persons classifying something as normal or not normal don’t share either the expectation on which they based this classification or the basis for that expectation.

So what?, you might ask. These observations just mean “normal” is an empty word that doesn’t communicate. In my experience, however, that – nothing – is not what happens when we classify something as normal or not normal. Instead, several things happen. First, we make a value judgment. Normal is good; not normal is bad. With further reflection and/or conversation, this snap judgment might get modified but these are the starting places for normal and not normal. And, while it can happen that the “not normal” is, in fact, because something is better than expected, that situation is rare.

Second, if something is not normal, we immediately assume that it can return to normal if only something(s) else happen, usually based on what was happening when whatever it is was what we now believe to be normal. So, we set about trying to make those conditions happen again. This behavior often forecloses any discussion of whether normal is something we want and any consideration of whether other changes will have made replicating the prior conditions either impossible or counter-productive. For example, consider unemployment and assume, for a moment, some implicit agreement among the persons conversing that unemployment should be 4%, an expectation and agreement implicit in calling 4% “normal.” In this example, unemployment is 8%. So, the conversation turns to how we can get unemployment “back” to “normal” and centers on what was happening last time unemployment was 4%, because replicating those conditions should produce the same result. But, of course, the better question is what conditions in the future into which our choices will operate might produce 4% unemployment. The past is unlikely to repeat. Different demographics, different economics, different natural resources; any number of things will be different in the time frame into which we are problem-solving. But normal is back and so it is hard to think forward.

Third, it would actually be rare that two or more people conversing would have the same expectation underlying what they consider “normal.” Thus, the conversation is most likely to bog down in people talking past one another and, often, disagreeing about what to do because they never shared any common idea of what they were trying to achieve in the first place. This problem with “normal” only worsens when you realize that we are usually talking about “normal” in the context of something that is a path or input into the fundamental thing that is really important and not the thing itself. So cumulatively, we have no agreement on what is normal, no agreement on the way to get back to normal, and no agreement on why normal is desirable anyway. Just something to think about next time you catch yourself bemoaning that something isn’t “normal,” or putting off doing something until things “return to normal.”

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