“What is belonging?” we ask.
She says, “Where loneliness ends.”
Rivers Solomon, The Deep
“According to a report released last week by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 5 Asian Americans have hidden parts of their culture from non-Asians at some point in their lives…’They either changed their behaviors or didn’t talk about their heritage or changed their clothing just to fit in, especially those who were around people who are not Asian or in schools that were predominantly without Asian people,” said Neil Ruiz, head of Pew’s new research initiatives and one of the authors of the report.’” (NBCNews.com, Pew Research Center)
In order to understand belonging, we have to first understand the difference between belonging and fitting in.
When I first read the Pew Research Center report on Asian Americans, what stood out for me was the deliberate effort to fit in reported by a large percentage of Asian Americans. Similar research on African Americans, immigrants, the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups demonstrates the extent to which people go simply to fit in. The need to fit in is driven by our survival instincts, an innate and socialized knowing that standing out as different can make us targets in painful and dangerous ways.
We work hard to fit in because we think fitting in will lead to belonging, but the paradox of belonging is that if we are trying to fit in, it is because we know we don’t organically belong. When we feel like we belong, we aren’t working to fit in. When we are working to fit in, we are trying to make it easier for people around us to treat us as if we belong. The exhausting irony in this is that as long as we are trying to fit in, we won’t feel like we belong no matter how others treat us.
Fitting in drains energy and makes people vulnerable to chronic stress and attrition. Belonging fuels us with connection and increases engagement, retention, and happiness. Fitting in and belonging have drastically different impacts, but they can look the same on the surface if you aren’t looking closely.
Recognizing this difference between fitting in and belonging is essential to creating inclusive workplaces. Here are a few things you can do to start exploring the difference for yourself and your workplace:
- Where do you feel like you belong? Where do you feel like you have to work to fit in? What can this reflection help you understand about people in your workplace who may look like they belong but may be exhausted from the work they are doing to fit in?
- What language do you use in your hiring criteria and your performance evaluations? The more you focus on “fit,” the more you are encouraging people to fit in instead of creating an environment where people feel like they belong.
- Start the tough conversations in your workplace. How can your DEI efforts explore this difference between fitting in and belonging? Are there ways to integrate questions about fitting in vs. belonging into your engagement surveys or other workplace assessment tools?
Belonging is a necessary focus for any DEI efforts, but focusing on belonging without understanding the difference between belonging and fitting won’t advance inclusion; it will just put the responsibility on those who don’t feel like they belong to work harder to look like they belong.