“You drive really well for a girl”. Each time someone says that to me, which is unfortunately more often than I’d like, my brain responds with a massive ugh, which I have learnt to translate into a more “girl-like” mumble-sigh that could be taken for a thank-you on the outside.
Because that, despite probably being intended to be one, is not a compliment. What it is is a pseudo-polite way of saying, as a girl I am not expected to drive well, and by that benchmark, I performed well. It’s like telling someone they are a brilliant human being for not killing anyone – it is important, but there is a lot more to being a great human that we can expect from them.
Anyhow. What you think about my driving skills doesn’t bother me too much because I don’t really care about what you assume of my capabilities (or those of my gender) in that realm.
However, there are several such “but” statements that do cause harm. Statements that frame me into narratives that I confine my being in. Statements regarding identities I don’t have a choice about. We know these far too well. “You have great communication skills for a man”. “You are too feminine to be queer”. “You have done rather well for yourself as a person of colour”. They cause harm because of the boundaries they draw around one’s experiences – not the healthy boundaries that delineate spaces of respect, but the kind that confine and cage one’s spaces for exploration. Boundaries contained in that clause of omit for politeness – “As a man, you aren’t supposed to communicate well, but, look at you (being so un-masculine (or worse, feminine))!”. When we use “but” to contextualise someone’s identities vis-a-vis their reality, and mark their realities to be an exception, we bound them within the assumptions that we make about certain parts of their identity. Assumptions that come with unsaid and just as harmful assumptions that are based on the ideas of “normal” we don’t bother to challenge. The assumption about men inherently not being good communicators not only promotes raising of men without teaching them how to communicate well (because that isn’t an expectation placed) but also puts a judgment on communication being something that women do and want, and create space for several jokes around that, eventually setting an unconscious bias that communicating is something to be mocked, women do it (and hence can be mocked), slowly evolving also into several men not wanting to because it is “not masculine enough”.
Now, I get that assumptions have a functional use. Given how much needs to be done in a day in terms of all the interaction and navigation, it is definitely easier to function on the basis of assumptions. Social scientists call them heuristics They save time. It’s like everyone (except artists, who are bad at math of course) know that Pythagoras theorem means and that it alludes to a right angle triangle, and all the many assumptions about right triangle that come with it. So, you say Pythagoras theorem, and suddenly everyone is on the same page. But people, and their beliefs and personalities do not fit fully into formulas and not every triangle is a right angle triangle.
Let’s take this example. When I tell people I study love, people assume that I care a lot about love, and by extension, people and relationships. The most immediate response is being labeled versions of “love-girl”, or being asked if I am a “love-guru”. By itself, that isn’t necessarily bad, or even untrue, but inherent to those responses are the assumptions people make about me being romantic/ cheesy/ corny/ touchy-feely, etc. A little bit like the Google-search version pasted below, no?
Now, think about what that assumption does to how I am perceived when I go on dates. Or worse, in professional settings when I mention this as a project. See why it could be a problem?
I have, obviously, learnt to deal with it. I change the way I describe the work I do, such that I highlight the academic nature of this, throwing in a lot of research-based jargon, like “in-depth interviews” and “literature reviews” particularly when putting this into my cover letters. I have learnt to use the question “so, what did you learn about love” as an opportunity to establish the kind of content that I deal with, making sure it sounds “smart”. And at the same time, my PR-strategy-trained friends have taught me to embrace the curiosity to my benefit. Plus, it makes for a great ice-breaker in otherwise annoying networking events.
That being said, I am also very aware that this is the image that people unconsciously form of me in the first few seconds of meeting me, and a lot of the next few minutes is affirming or contesting this image. They can’t help it. It’s the way our brain works – the common sense part of semantics/ psychology/ social sciences.
So, say as a child, when your mum first pointed out to a four-legged furry animal and called it “dog”, you assumed all the four-legged furry animals were dogs. As you grew up, and the categories in your brain became more refined, you learnt that four-legged animals could also be cats and cows and horses and tigers, that not all of them were furry, and you started to distinguish between them. Slowly you learnt to tell a Labrador from a Golden Retriever and a Pug. Along with that, depending on what your relationships with the dogs around you were, you started attaching emotions to a dog. If you say had a pet that you loved playing with, your brain would associate security and joy with it. If you were bitten by a dog and had to get painful injections after that, your association with dogs would be different. Nevertheless, these associations and assumptions have evolutionary purpose. They help you navigate. They help you decide quickly how to respond to dogs. Were they indeed dangerous, your brain being trained to respond to it with fear might have even saved your life.
Our assumptions about people come to form the same way. They are based on our experiences and the experiences we inherit through what we are taught – from the people we learn from like our families, schools and communities, the kind of experiences we consume, like the movies we watch and books we read… They are what create our version of the world. The details in the reality as we experience it.
However, that’s also exactly why it gets tricky – our experiences and reality are, in turn, shaped by these assumptions. The way you respond to the next dog would be based on what you have felt about it all this while. If you were the kind who hates dogs because you have seen your younger brother get bit by them, you might not let even the most friendliest dogs near you.
But maybe, say after you grew up a little, you went to your friend’s house and she had a pet dog. A furry friendly huggable playful jolly old Marley. You decide to open up your mind a little bit, and let Marley smell you while your friend ensures that he is leashed. You realise its not that scary. A few times of doing that, you may even find yourself playing with Marley, and enjoying yourself. You still hate dogs, but Marley is adorable. Congratulations! You just opened yourself up to a little more variety of experiences by adding that layer of complexity to your assumptions about dogs.
Now, imagine you let this crevice in your well-formed assumptions expand. Suddenly, there is space for you to even love dogs. Suddenly, while it is possible that you still are a tad bit afraid of dogs because one bit your younger brother, it is also possible for you to experience the joy of playing with (some) dogs and to believe that not all dogs are scary. You suddenly realise the possibility of those multiple realities to co-exist. And with it expands your repertoire of what’s possible.
We all know this. And most of us are rather open-minded to such possibilities too. I thought of myself as someone like that, until one day I heard myself say it nonchalantly. It was after a negotiations class where we had just practiced using “and” instead of “but”. In a casual conversation that evening, I told a friend he was “rather interesting for a consultant”. Crap, I had just done what I hated when other people did to me. In the days to come, I started hearing more times when I inadvertently spoke like that. I was suddenly aware of how much I was restricting my reality through these assumptions I carried – for example, I immediately shifted to small talk when I heard someone was a consultant, because in my experience, most of those that I had met had been boring. As as result though, I had closed off the opportunity to have an interesting conversation with them. It had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Replacing the “but” with an “and” though allowed me to open up the possibilities – reminded me that he was a consultant, and a lot of his experiences were indeed shaped by that, but he also had several other experiences at the same time, which I didn’t give him the space to explore by putting him into this box. His reality was larger than that one descriptor, but that descriptor was all that I had been seeing this whole time.
Just making that one little change in my vocabulary was immensely transformative. Not just because it allowed me to have better conversations with consultants, but I didn’t have to wait to have an interesting conversation with one to believe in the possibility of consultants being interesting deeper people. They weren’t always, to be fair, but more often than not, they did have a lot of interesting things to say when I was willing to listen. The “and” opened up the curiosity to find out all the things they also were, rather than the things they had to prove to be despite being a consultant. It became an opening for better conversations in itself, allowing the space for more stories to emerge. While enlarging the boundaries of my own reality of what I expected that individual experience to be. It made it possible, in its own way, for some of my favourite people to be these consultants, who I might have previously thought I couldn’t get along with.
This is particularly poignant in the context of the aspects of our identities that we cannot change, and/or the parts that are visible. I can rephrase the identity of “love-girl” by changing how I define it, but I cannot do that about my gender, ethnicity, or other aspects of my identity that are more “factual”. The “and”, in that case, becomes particularly more important, because it allows for choice – the opportunities to be more than the “should be this” and “supposed to be that” that our identity-based assumptions expect of this. It allows me the opportunity to be a good driver, to say the least.
The “and” also changed how I explained myself. I am a lot less anxious about introducing my love-project. I have learnt to embrace the parts to me that I tried to hide because I was afraid of the assumptions they carried. I let myself be all those “ands” rather than restrict myself with the “buts”. And that has suddenly liberated me in more ways I can count. And not because I suck at math – after all, I am a qualitative artistic social-sciences type girl, and I like math now.
23rd July, 2017.