At what age do furries start to be furries?
We can be confident that furry must have its genesis in environment, not genetics, because furry is a modern phenomenon. It's probably fair to guess that exposure to some aspect of culture during childhood is important, likely cartoon animals. Furry might well come about during adolescence, in transition from childhood to adulthood, as an artefact of certain childhood experiences.
This places furry as something which is first experienced, from a personal point of view, as a young teenager. This is the time we start high school, and learn about the social horrors that can lurk within if you don't "fit in". Furry would count, in most high school social hierarchies, as a Bad Thing, and therefore probably as something that requires management or concealment.
This makes furry a "concealable stigma", a phrase sometimes applied to the condition of being LGBT. Someone with a concealable stigma has a different social experience: they learn to be careful about disclosure unless they are confident in the reaction they will receive. Someone with a concealable stigma may tend to be socially withdrawn, and simultaneously closely attuned to the reactions of others. These coping mechanisms can have a significant impact on decisions in adult life, including career choices.
There are positive and negative aspects to such learned behaviours. Being socially withdrawn helps people gain personal independence, but also means that social confidence can lag behind. Being attuned to the reactions of others may make people appear socially anxious, but also means that some interpersonal skills may be unusually advanced.
We can broadly see these personality traits in the furry population. We are a pretty geeky group, which may indicate a certain combination of personal independence and social anxiety. There are also a lot of artistic furs, who might be seen to have unusually intuitive connections to others, tempered by a predisposition to self-doubt. It's possible that these personality traits are not innate: they could have developed during adolescence, as furries learned coping strategies for their concealable stigma.
Of course, when we look at furry and see the preponderance of geeks and artists, it's easy to conclude that geeks and artists are simply more likely to identify as furs. It's counterintuitive to suggest that people might become geeky or artistic as an outcome of furry. Yet there is evidence this may be the case, as outlined by a paper published earlier this year (Ref 1) looking at favoured occupations of groups with a concealable stigma, specifically gay and lesbian groups.
Just as furs are over-represented in IT and in the artistic professional worlds, there are some jobs in which gay men and lesbian women stereotypically congregate. Gay and lesbian professional occupations are often judged, like furries, to be a natural outcome of the "the sort of person" that gay/lesbian people are. So gay men are thought to be feminine and therefore likely to perform "women's" jobs (like flight attendants or hairdressers), and lesbian women are thought to perform "men's" jobs (like probation officers or mechanics). And while it is true in all the examples that I've given, gay men and lesbian women also congregate in other jobs that can't be similarly, lazily dropped into a gender basket. For example, gay men are much more likely to be news reporters than straight men, and lesbian women are much more likely to be sociologists. Overall, the majority of gay men and lesbian women work in occupations where the majority of workers are the same sex, i.e. male-dominated and female-dominated jobs respectively (Ref 2).
The paper provides evidence that the professions of gay men and lesbian women has nothing to do with gender roles. In its way, it add to the growing body of evidence that gender roles (in general) are at worst imaginary and at best lazy stereotypes. It certainly demonstrates that to categorize all gay men as "feminine" and all lesbian women as "masculine" is wrong.
It's equally lazy to stereotype furries as geeks (or artists). Furry certainly has plenty of geeks (and artists), but furry itself is neither a geek phenomenon nor an artistic one. We have our origins in geek fandom groups, and there is still plenty of crossover with modern-day fandoms. (And we are remarkably prolific from an artistic point of view, the act of creation being a key feature of furry culture.) But neither geekdom nor artistic output is required to identify as a furry or to participate in furry's animal-person roleplay.
Being a furry in high school can be socially stigmatic. The stigma is concealable, in that it's possible to hide furriness from others (just like it's possible to hide non-heterosexuality). However this comes at a personal cost, because it means that you cannot fully express yourself. The challenge for someone with a concealable stigma, then, is to manage the sharing of information to allow personal expression without unduly risking social status.
This challenge goes beyond high school, and includes other social situations where being furry might be stigmatized (perhaps a family environment or the workplace). It's common for furs to present edited versions of themselves, not being false but not being completely open either. It's the same trade-off, between a desire for honest self-expression and the need to be seen as socially appropriate.
This challenge may well inform furry professional choices. There are two drivers, supply-side and demand-side:-
The supply-side driver is the wants of the prospective employee, in this case a furry. Because expressions of furriness are potentially stigmatic, furries may be driven to work in occupations where there is less interaction with peers. These are job with high "task independence"; a role where little interaction with others is required to perform a task (Ref 3). A simple example of a job with task independence is a bus driver: while the driver doesn't have any control over his route, she can perform her job with very little peer interaction.
As it turns out, programming scores highly for task independence. While some peer interaction is required, and varies depending on the actual job, the bulk of the professional work is performed alone. It makes sense that furries would be attracted to programming roles, because there is less identity management required than many other jobs.
Conversely, the demand-side driver is the wants of the prospective employer. Someone with a concealable stigma may develop social coping skills during those formative high school years that place an emphasis on understanding and predicting the social reactions of others (Ref 6, Ref 7). This is a rare skill, and rare skills attract higher demand: more pay, or more attractive working conditions. It makes sense that a group with a concealable stigma, like furries, would excel in roles that require sensitivity towards the reactions of others: "social perceptiveness" (Ref 4).
As you may have guessed, most artistic occupations score highly for social perceptiveness. This requirement probably relates to the social challenges associated with translating the desires of others into art. People who have excellent skills in this area, perhaps furries who learned them as a coping strategy, are more likely to have the necessary aptitude to be successful artists.
There are jobs that have a combination of high task independence and require high social perceptiveness. These include front line IT support, flight attendants, and medicine. These jobs may be natural careers for furries, and indeed for other groups with a similarly concealable stigma.
There is another force at work that is known to have a significant effect on professional choices: dark networks (Ref 5). A dark network is an informal network of people who connect in a way invisible to the normal structures of the workplace. Furry is an unusually strong dark network, because we are a spread-out group that crosses many common social hurdles (age, affluence, race, gender, etc), and we have a particularly close connection with one another. This means that furs will tend to be attracted to jobs that are known to already have a significant furry population.
Dark networks can account for furry hotspots, where certain companies or certain roles are otherwise inexplicably furry-heavy. They can also reinforce the concept that some jobs are a natural furry choice, as is currently the case with IT and related disciplines.
Like everyone, furry and non-furry, our experiences help inform who we are. Furry experiences tend to diverge from the mainstream, either in the way we express ourselves in all-furry environments, or the way we manage our identity in the mundane worlds of school, family, and work. The internal and social skills required to negotiate these environments (as a furry) are often markedly different from those skills required by non-furries when negotiating the mainstream world.
The preponderance of furry in IT and artistic circles may have less to do with what makes us furry, and more to do with what furry makes us.
- A Tilcsik, M Anteby, & CR Knight, Concealable Stigma and Occupational Segregation: Toward a Theory of Gay and Lesbian Occupations, Administrative Science Quarterly 2015
- Data from the American Community Survey, where gay and lesbian workers were defined as employed individuals living with an unmarried same-sex partner.
- O*Net Online "work values | independence" data (Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to work on their own and make decisions.)
- O*Net Online "skills | social perceptiveness" data (Being aware of others' reactions and understanding why they react as they do.)
- C Marquis & A Tilcsik, Imprinting: Toward a multilevel theory, Academy of Management Annals 2013
- M Radkowsky & LJ Siegel, The Gay Adolescent: Stressors, Adaptations, and Psychosocial Interventions, Clinical Psychology Review, 1997
- JE Pachanki, The Psychological Implications of Concealing a Stigma: A Cognitive-affective-behavioral Model, Psychological Bulletin 2007