As shameful as it may be, I was introduced to the concept of “significant other” through a show called “The X Effect” that aired on MTV when I was at an age when I definitely was not considered their target audience (don’t tell mom). I said shameful because it was only during our second class of Social Studies that I realized how much the meaning of the word has changed ever since its “father”, George Herbert Mead, first coined it.
Now you may wonder why it bothers me. Don’t I have better things to think about while I’m in my final years of studies and I have a research paper waiting to be written? Well, of course I do, but when procrastination calls, you need to answer. And that’s how I stumbled upon a really-cute-and-pretty film about the “life of a relationship, from the first kiss to the last tear”, as I ended up describing it. To be more clear, THIS is the 7-minutes film that I am talking about, simply called Me & You.
Now, after watching this film I decided it is worth it to be shared with my friends. And while sending them the link and writing a short persuasive description that was something along the lines of “OMG THIS IS SO CUTE YOU NEED TO WATCH IT NOOWW T_T”, I thought about the aforementioned concept of “significant other”.
To my MTV-based knowledge and with the Urban Dictionary to support it, the concept meant “your mate, spouse, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, steady and/or lover. Used when you don’t want to be too specific, or when the details are nobody’s business.” Though it might partly coincide with the initial definition, the “significant other” in Mead’s view it a bit more than that.
While documenting on the subject, I stumbled upon an explanation that summarizes everything better than I can, so I quote: “sociologists’ broader use of the term would include other relations such as family members and close friends or mentors. Through interactions with significant others, and perceptions of their responses to one’s behavior, an individual gains a sense of who he or she is, and comes to understand how to act in a given context and role. Self-concept is based largely on our perceptions – whether accurate or not – of who we are in the eyes of those whose opinions matter to us.” It can be easily understandable why a romantic partner may be called like this, but this doesn’t mean that the concept has to be used in such a narrow way.
Moreover, as this beautiful thing called the World Wide Web is apparently so keen to portrait social concepts in an easier way, I found another explanation that can portray Mead’s point of view on the significant vs. generalized other.
“According to Mead, there are three activities through which the self is developed: Language, play, and game. Language allows individuals to take on the “role of the other” and allows people to respond to his or her own gestures in terms of the symbolized attitudes of others. During play, individuals take on the roles of other people and pretend to be those other people in order to express the expectations of significant others. This process of role-playing is key to the generation of self-consciousness and to the general development of the self. In the game, the individual is required to internalize the roles of all others who are involved with him or her in the game and must comprehend the rules of the game.
Mead’s concept of the “generalized other” is also essential to his theory, which he defines as an organized and generalized attitude of a social group. The individual defines his or her own behavior with reference to the generalized attitude of the social group(s) they occupy. When the individual can view himself or herself from the standpoint of the generalized other, self-consciousness in the full sense of the term is attained.”
So, to wrap things up, consider this blog entry a friendly piece of advice in case you date a sociologist. Calling him/her your significant other may sound cute, but be aware of its broader sense – he/she might think you are referring to your mom, too!
Written by IRP