Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

From since I can remember, I have categorized.  That tree is an oak.  That dog is a spaniel.  That car is a Mustang.  It makes life easier.  We all sort things into well-defined groups.  But categorizing people?  We should all tread lightly here.

I blame my grouping practices on my mom (God rest her soul), who always had astrology books lying around the house.  And on my aunt, who always asked when I began to date someone new, “What’s her zodiac sign?”  So I got a good start putting people into groups.  Pisces, dreamy. Taurus, reliable.  Libra, charming.  And so on…  I got a few zodiac glyphs tattooed on my arm based on my birth chart, blowing it off breezily as “I just like the symbols.”  Upon meeting people for the first time, I cut to the chase.  “What’s your sign?”  To which I received more than a few snickers or raised eyebrows (understandably).  After a number of these reactions, I stepped out of the 70s.

But at work, I got more type reinforcement through “teambuilding” activities.  In a personality study at one employer, I found that I was “yellow.”  “Yellow” meant people-oriented, fun-loving and quick-thinking.  At another employer I found out that I was “blue.”  “Blue” people were said to be supportive, protective and enthusiastic.  Through my most recent behavioral enlightenment, I found that I am articulate, enthusiastic, entertaining and optimistic.  Do I really need to take another of these pigeonholing surveys?  They all point to the same general classification.

Preconceived notions work the same way.  When my current employer hired a woman from Pennsylvania, she expected to come to Texas and see cowboys and horses everywhere.  She arrived and realized that Houston is far removed from the western model.  She mentioned to me that she wanted to move far north of the city to a small spread of land to see if she could hook a rancher.  I tried to dissuade her.  “You’d be much more happy living in the heart of the city, so you can take in some culture and have urban conveniences at hand.”  She didn’t listen to me, and moved about an hour north of town.  Then she complained about the commute, the lack of single men in her city and what she perceived to be a backward nature of her neighbors.  She returned to Pennsylvania within a year.

Immediately upon hearing that I am from Louisiana, people ask “Are you French?” 
Answer “I am from north Louisiana, home of the redneck.” 
I also get questions like “Did you have alligators in your backyard?” 
“Nope, I lived in a subdivision with a lake nearby.  The most we had was a stray snake moving through our lawn.”
 Then I get “Can you cook gumbo or jambalaya?” 
“Well, yes.  But I had to learn from recipes.  My mom and grandmothers were meat-and-potatoes women.”

When people learn that I lived in Los Angeles for some time, I get “Aren’t Californians rude?” 
To which I respond, “That’s not what I found.  They are just less likely to get in your business.” 
I also get “Don’t people drive wildly there?” 
“Nope, actually I found the drivers there to be very courteous.”

But preconceived notices are not limited to geography.  I have been tall since my early teens.  So I got “Do you play basketball.”
            “Only around the neighborhood.  I play tuba in the band.” 
Also, people upon meeting me would expect calmness and decorum like my dad projected and were a bit shocked when they observed me being rambunctious and goofy.

 And it goes on.  When people learn that I’m gay and have a son, usually the first question is “How did that happen?” 
“Well, I married when I was young.” 
At which comes, “Didn’t you know you were gay back then?” 
“Yes, but I was trying to fit in to societal norms.” 
When people discover that I am gay and in a relationship, I still get the question, “Which one’s the man?” 
Seriously.  Sad, right? 
I simply say, “We both are at the latest check of our anatomy.” 

Fortunately (as you can see), I am not bothered by absurd questions.

A friend of mine once described me as a paradox.  He could not understand how I could enjoy the rodeo and the opera, classical music and rock n roll, sleazy bars and stately museums.  He did not get how I was tough and sweet, jaded and innocent, plain-spoken and charming.  I don’t know why either.  I don’t care to know.  I figure that each of us is unique.

Ultimately, we react and behave according to our situations, environment and/or motivation.  Sure, we may react or behave differently based on personality, background or mindset.  But I am more like you than different from you. 

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