Life as an Outsider and the Desire to Conform
It’s 08:23 on a Tuesday morning and I am off on my first commute to work as a brand new London resident.
I make eye contact with one of my fellow passengers for one second too long and receive a baffled stare. I apologise to someone for bumping into them only to be met with a grunt. I forget to ‘touch in’ which results in some stern words from the station staff in the bright orange jacket.
It’s at this point I realise I’ve become an outsider, again.
When we think of being an outsider we usually conjure up an image of the child in the playground who no one wanted to play football with. Or the person who sits in the local pub in the corner and nurses a pint all night without saying anything.
The truth is at various points in our lives we are all outsiders, in some form or another.
This isn’t a call for us to go back to the golden age when we would leave our doors unlocked because we trusted the Joneses next door, but more of an observation of how, in an ever more connected society, we’ve all become so isolated.
Throughout my life, I would probably describe myself as an outsider. I grew up in a relatively small town in rural Scotland where sport, in particular rugby, was such a big element of life there. Many of my friends and I didn’t play the game, and so at times found ourselves on the peripheries of the community.
It was only when I moved to university that I learned more about myself. Most importantly, I came to terms with my sexuality. I learned that this was not a reason to be an outsider. In fact, it is those who had a problem with others deciding for themselves who they wish to be in a relationship with who were, in fact, the outsiders of mainstream society.
So gleaming with confidence and a couple of letters after my name, I finished university and got ready to embark on my next adventure. I had no idea how much this would change my life but my decision to live and work abroad would catapult me into an unknown and at times lonely existence.
At the end of July 2013 I moved to Brussels to undertake an internship working in the charity sector. My initial excitement and jubilation about having an array of waffles to choose from quickly changed into a feeling of real isolation from friends, family and from being able to integrate into Belgian society.
At the relatively young age of 21, not only was I holding down my first job, I was facing huge challenges every day; from working out how to use the public health service to being able to ask for directions after one-too-many local beers.
Of course the language was a real barrier. Despite Brussels being home to a large English speaking community, not being fluent in French had real disadvantages. Though I did choose to learn Dutch which is the other official language; which helped make me feel less of an outsider and slightly more integrated.
My previous experiences told me that my recent move to one of the world’s biggest cities would be a breeze. Unfortunately coming to London hasn’t been without its challenges and setbacks. There have been moments, even during this week, where I have felt lost: just blown away by the pace of life here.
It’s thanks to self-scanning machines, Oyster cards and mobile phones that people can go a whole day without speaking to anyone outside of work. In a city that is home to more people than Scotland it’s hard to believe, but sadly true.
But I know I am not alone in feeling like this. Many friends who have come here say the same thing.
Being an outsider is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not a mark of having no friends, or not being accepted. It happens to us all at different stages of our lives. Those feelings of isolation can bring out the best of human kindness and friendship.
In fact, a new social enterprise, the Outsiders’ Network has been set up to recognise exactly that: we may all feel like outsiders at times, but we are not alone. In fact, the very thing which sets us apart can end up being the catalyst for connection and creativity.
Now through social media ,making friends and meeting new people has never been easier. Yes, critics cry boo at my generation tweeting and posting while we could be having real human interaction, but it is a great way for us outsiders to become part of an exciting online community and give us a sense of belonging, something all of us ultimately crave.
So over to you London. It looks like my next challenge is already underway, am I scared? Yes but I can’t wait.
Liam Beattie hails from the Scottish Borders. He spend nine months living and working in Brussels and recently moved to work in the third sector in London. Liam spent four years volunteering for the Scottish Youth Parliament where he served as Vice Chair. Recently he sat on the Oxfam GB Youth Board. Follow Liam on Twitter @Liam_Beattie