It’s established wisdom that stereotypes are a Bad Thing, right? Yet, I use them to navigate the world around me all the time, as a kind of subconscious shorthand. I make snap decisions about the people I meet. Stereotypes help me decide whether or not I have something in common with someone, or whether or not I can relate to someone on some level or in some way.
I’m not extolling this as some kind of virtue. But if I look at my behaviour, if I honestly consider how I operate in my social world, I have to hold my hands up and acknowledge this is something that I do. And, as this popular post by Leigh Clark suggests, I’m probably not alone in this.
I’m guessing stereotyping is useful on some primal or primitive level – something to do with the way animals operate in nature, or something along those lines. Maybe its how primitive man used to sense danger. Maybe its how my dog has a sixth sense about which dogs are playful puppies like herself, and which are older, or calmer, and require a more respectful approach.
Because I’m between worlds right now, I’m left pondering this stuff. For once, I am being challenged to consider who I am, rather than what I do. Which brings the whole issue of stereotyping into focus for me. So that when I’m asked a perfectly innocuous question like “do you work?” I start making neutral noises – non descript sounds that communicate nothing other than my reluctance to say yes, or no. I am paralysed by my uncertainty about the answer, so instead, I say nothing. I make noises instead. It’s something I really need to work on!
When I start feeling vulnerable, wondering how I’m being perceived by others, I find myself feeling anxious that I’ve been misunderstood, or perceived as something I’m not. I hate the way that feels. Not being seen for who I am, or understood for the muddle of complexities that combine to make me the person I am. I hate feeling stereotyped. Even though, apparently, I’m quite happy to do it to others. While my own muddle of complexities may be unique, I am in no way unique in my complexity.
So I started looking around me. At the people I encounter. About the snap judgements that for good or bad pop into my head before I’ve really started any kind of conscious thought process. And I started wondering a bit more than I normally do – Who are you really? What’s your story? What makes you who you are? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? What scares you most?
And I’m gong to hazard a guess, that no two people are going to have the same answers. However similarly they present, however similar their clothes, their income or their sense of humour – their stories and their realities will be properly different just as soon as you scratch the surface.
I think about the people I am close to. In particular, I think about my fellow mothers in arms. And how we so often become defined by our kids, the number of them, their ages, their behaviour, their friends, where we stand at the school gates, and who we talk to. If you look a bit closer, we’re all – the lot of us – completely and utterly different. A muddle of strengths, talents, insecurities, flaws and everything in between. Guarding our passions and doubts close to our chests in order to survive, only daring to share them sparingly, with a very safe few.
Sure we like to emphasise our similarities. We want to feel connected, and like we belong. But these connections also breed division. A division that’s rife at the school gates. A division that inspires comedy writing like Leigh Clark’s, but can also bubble up, resulting in gossip, exclusion and bad feeling.
I’m going to practice thinking before I stereotype. I’m going to try seeing my fellow human beings in longhand instead. I think life’s likely to get a whole lot more colourful and interesting…