5 Ways To Stop Stereotyping People

In my years working at Fort Sumter National Monument, the only thing that struck me about our portrait of John C. Calhoun was how his hair made him look like he was holding a statically-charged balloon. Then a man in cargo shorts and a camo trucker hat pointed to the text heading, “Antebellum United States,” and demanded to know whether the man in the picture was the namesake of popular country band, Lady Antebellum. I told him the word was Latin. Blank stare.
I’ve worked at three different tourist attractions, and my favorite airport/concert/DMV pastime is “People Watching Bingo.” I’ve done more than my fair share of stereotyping. And while I think stereotypes can be funny and sometimes even apt, it doesn’t take long to morph from recreational categorizer to hater. To paraphrase lyrical wordsmith Kanye West, hater fellows betroth hater ladies and raise hater kids. So, after watching a four hundred pound woman try to wedge herself through a three-by-two foot submarine hatch, I decided to come up with ways not to stereotype people.

1. Remember someone who surprised you.

Maybe it was a very un-rude New Yorker who gave you great directions. Or maybe it was Ludacris in the movie Crash. Either way, it’s easy to find people who buck their stereotype– if given the chance. I recently bicycled the Natchez Trace Parkway with a friend, and from a chance encounter, we were invited to stay and attend Church with a family in Canton, Mississippi. The best breakfast I’ve ever had was served on the patio of that double-wide. Furthermore, the congregation was warm, welcoming, and prayed for our safe journey. We were right at home, despite looking completely out of place. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Think of the ways you’ve been stereotyped.

You see two girls biking up the road, loaded down with camping equipment, leg hair sticking out from their spandex shorts. What do you think? At one point, I turned to my fellow buzz-cut, field hockey playing, station wagon driving companion, and expressed surprise that we hadn’t yet been labeled as lesbians. Especially, she replied, since one of us is one.

Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee had been judgment-free. Of course, I go home to Pittsburgh, stroll down the street in a dress and heels, and am promptly accosted by some drunk, “if you’re not gay, why does your hair look like that?” Because I want it to, jerk. And because my gay hairdresser said I’d get all the boys.

3. Remind yourself that people are multi-faceted.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came from my high school Latin teacher, who we all innately respected because he grew up in the Bronx. He had come home upset because the girl he liked hadn’t sat with him on the bus that day, as was their routine. His mother told him, “every person is a world unto himself,” and sure enough, when he confronted the girl, she said she’d just been really tired and didn’t want to talk that day. Same goes for strangers. That mom could be wearing Sketchers shape-ups because she injured her knee saving a kitten from a runaway bus. It’s infinitely more interesting than “look at that fat lard from West Virginia.”

4. Compliment the person.

Compliments spread positivity. If you make someone feel good, you’ll feel good, and be less likely to think hater thoughts. A lady came in the other day with literal circles on her eyelids– one of my coworkers remarked that she was too distracted to look the woman in the actual eye. But if one of us had said, “I love that shade of blue,” the awkward staring-at-eyelid situation could easily have been diffused. This does not apply to the saggy jeans dad (they exist) or the whale tail. Pretty sure there’s an HR rule against complimenting someone’s underwear.

5. Know your history.

Sure, there’s a difference between the casual “the idiot who designed those leggings should be shot,” and, say, Kristallnacht. But as Charles Lindbergh (first pilot to fly over the Atlantic nonstop) learned, the casual “we have too many Jews in this country,” may go unnoticed. But outward admiration of eugenicists and Adolf Hitler will cost you your American Hero status– fast.

Trust me, even if you’re not in the tourism industry, people will enjoy your company if you’re not critiquing left and right. Positivity is like exercise– the more you do, the more energy you’ll have. So work out that positivity! Who knows what that judgment could cost you? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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