We all have a tendency to define ourselves by the roles we play. The first part of almost every new conversation between strangers is asking the question, “What do you do?” We then use the answer to that question to apply a stereotype to the person. If the person answers, “I’m a doctor,” then we apply the stereotype of a respected but conservative individual who works long hours caring for people. We also immediately associate the person with a higher income level and the advantages that come with it.
If the person answers, “I’m a CIO,” then we apply the stereotype of a corporate executive with an inner nerd — someone who spends his/her time overseeing major projects and spending long hours in corporate boardrooms.
Why do we use these stereotypes? Because it simplifies our lives. It’s complicated to truly understand an individual, and it’s a time-consuming process. We may not have time to spend getting a good understanding of the person, and we certainly don’t want to spend that much time on everyone we meet. So we take shortcuts, make gross assumptions, and then figure that we’ll fill in the blanks later if we really want to know someone.
I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s deceiving. Our oversimplification causes us to miss out on learning the subtleties of an individual that truly make a person unique. A “doctor” may be an accomplished artist with a scalpel who creates new faces for burn victims. A “CIO” may be a former machinist who got into IT because it offered a better paycheck, and then built on his experience to rise through the ranks. Most people have complicated back stories, and their overall life experience has contributed more to their current sense of self than any current title.
We probably do the most disservice to those with more mundane titles. A “waitress” may be a single mom putting herself through school. A “UPS delivery man” may be a passionate coach of amateur athletics or a committed family man who enjoys running a tight schedule and meeting new people.
Students are Different
When people introduce themselves as students, we cut them a little more slack. We inquire about aspirations, career plans, life direction. So why does a non-student answer give us any less interest in career growth and future direction? Maybe the doctor longs to be a politician. Maybe the CIO wants to start her own company. What people are is not the same as who they will become.
People Serving in Other Roles
Our type-casting even extends to people who in fact have good “titles” but serve in other capacities. We go to a meeting of a business organization and we assume that the person checking us in for the meeting serves in some menial capacity. He or she in fact may be president of a company — you just don’t know.
I’ve run into this consistently in one of my roles for the Atlanta Chapter of SIM (Society for Information Management). For the past six years or so I’ve done the web site for the group. It was kind of a fun project and it gave me an opportunity to contribute. I extended the role by taking pictures at the meetings. The photos made good additions to the web site and they were helpful in soliciting new members.
What amazed me, however, is how people’s perception of me changed when I picked up a camera at SIM meetings. No longer was I an experienced IT executive attending the meeting — I was a “photographer” who faded into the background like the waiters who run around in their white coats removing dirty dishes. On several occasions I was standing with a group of my peers talking about IT-related subjects when someone new came up to us to introduce himself. Invariably the person would shake hands with each of the people standing with me but bypass me because of the camera hanging around my neck. Apparently it’s an amazing camera — it makes me invisible.
I know it’s easier to simplify your view of new people by applying stereotypes. But try very hard for the next week or so to go beyond the stereotype and get a better feel for the real people underneath. When you meet someone new, ask them about their passion, ask them about the best day of their life, ask them about what they want to do with their lives (You might even consider doing this with people you already know.) You’ll begin to see how different people are from their stereotypes, and it will open up your eyes to some of the real beauty inside people. And if you do this for a week, maybe you’ll like doing it well enough to keep doing it for the rest of your life.
Oh, and if you see someone at a meeting with a camera around his neck, say hello. He’s probably a lot more than a photographer.