Excelling at sport or wearing exactly the "right" labels - traditionally seen as two of the routes to coolness at secondary school - are no longer guaranteed paths to popularity, new Cambridge research has found.
In fact, teenagers now believe the best way to achieve social success is to aim for "middle-of-the-road banality".
Any kind of high achievement should be played down, the research found. And pupils must suppress their personalities and pretend to be something they are not.
"To be part of the cool group, you have to be kind of bland," one teenage girl told the researchers. "If you have some strong opinions or views on something, you're viewed as kind of different, and you get shunned."
The academics interviewed 100 Year 10 pupils from four comprehensives in England. The teenagers almost unanimously confirmed that middle-of-the-road banality was the route to social success.
For example, boys were expected to wear the "right" clothes. But a boy who spent too much money or effort on his clothes was immediately classed as "camp". And while popular boys messed around during lessons, someone who was too funny would be derided as "wannabe popular".
This approach applied equally to school work. "If you're good at academic work you get hassled about being a boffin," one boy said. "However, if you're obsessed with sport you get hassled for that as well."
Teenagers were wary of joining after-school clubs, such as drama, sport or musical groups, in case they were laughed at by other pupils.
And both boys and girls were expected to conform to clear gender stereotypes. "Boys are expected to play sports and girls are expected just to sit around and chat," one girl said. "If a girl wants to play like the boys, it's wrong and it's not really done."
What is most important, the researchers say, is an ability and willingness to conform. "People in the popular group don't show their true selves, for fear of being rejected," one girl said. "They seem very careful to like the right music and have watched the right programmes."
"Being yourself could ruin your life," a teenage boy added. Another elaborated: "Being yourself can result in rejection. Life is a tightrope. It can easily confuse you."
And the cost of not walking the tightrope is social isolation. All of the pupils interviewed were afraid of becoming outcasts, or the target of abuse.
"If you're not in a group ... you've got no one to stand by you... to back you up," one boy said. His friend added: "If you're on your own, you're lost."
How to blend in
- High achievement of all kinds should be suppressed.
- Social interaction with any high-achieving groups is to be avoided.
- Even sport and fashion are not guaranteed routes to social success.
- "Middle of the road banality" is a more reliable path to popularity.