Don’t Fence Me In.

I went on a riverboat trip once.

It was a lovely trip, meandering along the Thames with information technology bods who were there to party, and my easy-going boyfriend of the time for company.

But there was this oik who threatened to spoil everything.

He was loud and brash, with a Bee Gees haircut. Everything was a huge joke; he didn’t take anything seriously. One arm was slung around a platinum blonde who appeared every bit as vacuous as he was, the other kept hold of a pint of Stella. He was good at one-liners, though, and those around him seemed entertained.

Once you are on a river boat gliding on the Thames, there is no way out. I looked around wildly for some miraculous other room, somewhere I could escape to be away from this man and the aura of unfettered laddishness around him.

There was not a bolthole in sight.

We talked for a while and then I and my boyfriend drifted to another group. I rolled my eyes . “Who in heavens name was that?” I asked incredulously.

Whereupon every preconception I had was blown out of the water. “That,” said my partner, “is the company’s financial director. Don’t believe what you see. He’s a mathematical genius with a Cambridge degree.”

I had him taped, I had thought. Some hanger on, I reasoned, who has blagged his way onto the boat by way of being related to one of the programmers. Apprearances, I have thought ever since, can be so very deceptive.

It is human nature to look for patterns, and to fit what we see into them.

Neuroscientists at the University of Texas did a series of experiments which fed sets of information to people. It was published in the Journal Science in October 2008.

Sometimes the information they tendered might be mock-stock market data.

With it came performance statements which would set the expectations of the subjects: for example, “Rough seas ahead for investors.” The subjects showed that unfailingly, when they felt less control over the situation, they would invent patterns – relationships between the information – Β which weren’t there: patterns in the stock market.

And then the scientists taught the subjects calming, self affirming exercises.

Astonishingly, their propensity to see things that weren’t there showed a marked decrease. Their minds were clear enough to see reality. Authors Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky wrote: “We suggest that a lack of control provokes seeing and seeking patterns, because pattern perception is a compensatory mechanism designed to restore feelings of control.”

Standing on the boat on the Thames, on a sunny day, I had classified the erudite financial director of a successful company according to my own knowledge of patterns. To me he fitted the ‘oik’ schema; I could not see the reality for my need to find control and order.

Which brings me to Yuppies. Dinkies. Bobos. And so forth.

In the eighties a seemingly new pattern of human behaviour found its way into public consciousness: young upwardly mobile professionals.

We didn’t like them very much. In the UK they had sharp suits and loud voices and spent their evenings braying in wine bars. They made their money by playing the markets in the heady days of the late eighties, before that crash which changed everything in 1997.

I lived with one in a student shared house: he funded his university education by buying stocks and shares at one end of the term and selling at the other at a huge profit. It made me look at my own funding and feel, well, inadequate. Covetous, even. Looking back, while some of these folks behaved brashly I wonder if we didn’t all feel a teensy bit envious.

So we invented a pattern.

These guys were labelled: Yuppies. The moment the schema was out, we all felt better. They had become ‘them’. The kind of hate figures we could live with.

Their kind disappeared quickly, what with crash and recession. But we had discovered a comfort mechanism: a set of initials which put people neatly in pigeonholes where we could manage them.

I was a Dinkie: double income no kids- for a while. And it’s just possible I might have shades of the BoBo Β – the bourgeois bohemian.

We all do it, effortlessly: we try to fit everyone we meet into a pattern, and when they don’t fit, we create a pattern of our own. Occasionally, we do it en masse.

The fact we all do it, at some time though: the fact it is in our nature: I wonder if that makes it right?

Written in response to Side View’s Theme: Yuppie. You can find her challenge here


47 thoughts on “Don’t Fence Me In.

  1. Thought-provoking, indeed!
    I love your pigeonholing illustration. We do love putting people in them, and if we have wrongly labelled an eagle we try and squeeze it in regardless.

  2. I think that all perception uses short cuts, to save time and energy, we fit information to what we’ve already seen or know but the trick is to not to always rely on it, to accept it as the only reality or fact. We’ve all seen something then had to look again to really ‘see’ it. The problem with perceiving our fellow humans especially is that we sometimes come to only believe those earliest perceptions of them and never look further, it becomes a stereotype and a very shallow world view. We need to challenge our views sometimes. πŸ™‚

    1. I think you’ve summarised it right there, IE. It’s important not to polarise our judgements, or to rely on them without some self evaluation along the way. I would have missed some very dear friends if I had taken my first impressions and run with them.

  3. Ah me, Kate! It amazes me how we can get the same theme and go in completely different directions, but still end up in approximately same place.

    Great job, and you are so right. We need to keep our ears and eyes open, and our ill-informed, hastily arrived at opinions to ourselves.

    1. Indeed, Paula. It’s all about knowing that we are not infallible; and that no-one is a caricature. We all have our personalities, we all have our ways of behaving based on a complex lifetime of events.

  4. So true and well observed, Kate.
    I like

    SITCOM: Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage… though we’d be some sort of one and a half incomes…

    1. It is. The science bit underpins that. But we can miss out on experiences if we obey that need to make patterns all the time. Perhaps, if we’re aware of how our minds work, we can occasionally buck the trend.

      1. My answer is to like everyone on sight, until given a reason not to. It has only happened twice where I have had to reverse my orginal judgement, so it’s a good system πŸ™‚

  5. On the other hand, most of us also trust our inner instinct, and often that is right on the button!

    There ARE a lot of folks whom it is possible to pigeonhole instantly and be correct, certain blue-rinsed smartly turned out old ladies ( apologies if any reading this) you just KNOW will tut at certain things, that weasly looking short haired skinny 25+ “loiterer”, usually found hovering outside supermarket, off-licences and shoddy pubs, that gang of mean-looking hoodied teens blocking your path, ( yes, I know most teens wearing hoodies are lovely, but believe me I have met quite a few that weren’t)
    Personally, I always stick with my initial gut instinct, it hasn’t failed me yet!

    1. Mibs, would that I had your abilities. I am notorious for letting all kinds of social signals go over my head. My judgement is poor.

      The types are there: the evidence of our eyes shows it. But in teaching, we are taught to be aware how much our own expectation of how people behave, dictates how they turn out. We have to have a healthy dose of cynicism on the side, and then walk into situations expecting great things of those stereotypes. Sometimes they conform; but often enough to note, they don’t. Humans do have the capacity to surprise us.

  6. Calmness provides clarity and gives us an opportunity to assess reality through a clearer lens.

    I think I usually go with my first impression and find that it works for me most of the time. Of course, I probably then bend reality to fit my perception without even realizing it. Oh well….life remains an adventure.

  7. So much easier to categorize people than deal with them individually

    It’s useful to have a ” nasty box” to use for those we don’t like

  8. I used to be one of the most judgmental people I knew, sizing up everyone and finding reasons not to like them on sight.

    I was also very unhappy.

    Now, I try to be open and give a chance to everyone I meet. In big social settings, most people feel awkward, and those feelings manifest themselves in a spectrum of ticks that, taken on their own, could be off-putting. These days, I try not to color in that blank slate, to smile and say hello and remember the people I meet, many of whom I will never see again.

    Life is too short to shortchange our experiences with our own prejudice.

  9. Well done Kate. I took the kids to see Wicked last weekend and I thought it was a spectacular example of the very thing that you write about. Have you seen it or read it? Everyone has a back story and we do well to remember that.

  10. No, it isn’t right, and I have to admit to be one of the most guilty…..

    In fact, last weekend there was this chap in a really shiny suit who……….

  11. Well done, Kate. Much to ponder here.

    Many years ago, we took the girls to a big Wisconsin attraction. It was one where once you entered, there was no going back for a good 90 minutes at least. We’d been camping and were headed home. As we piled out of the car, a caravan of motorcycles pulled into the lot. Now, these were serious riders, black leather jackets and chains and all the markings of the Hell’s Angels. Tom and I looked at our darlings in pigtails and said “well, maybe another time”. A big-Mama in chains and long, gray hair said no. We really had to go in. Her man, playing with one a very intricate camera and adding a telephoto lens huskily agreed as the rest of the caravan got into line. Being cowards, we went forward.

    We had a great time, the big-Mama and her man were the nicest of people who showed Jennifer how to use the camera, sending her on a lifetime love of the lens. We had misjudged. The girls still remember the gang of motorcyclists and one of the best times they ever had – now more than 25 years ago.

  12. Just because we do do it doesn’t make it right. And science is good at telling us what we do, but we need more: we need to understand that we ourselves (not just the subjects in these experiments, and not just our MIL/BF.neighbour/…) are guilty of pigeonholing; and once we understand that, we probably need direction as to what we can do to change that aspect of ourselves (although I think awareness can go a long way). But since the behaviour itself comes out of a need to control our environment in an increasingly unstable world atmosphere, I expect most of us (even if unknowingly) will wait until life knocks the floor out from under us… πŸ˜€
    Great writeup, Kate!

  13. While we must try not to rely on mindless stereotyping and pigeon-holing, imagine how incomprehensible our world — and our minds — would be if this subconscious ordering weren’t taking place.

  14. You’ve taught me a couple more pigeonholes that I didn’t know about.. Watch! I’ll be doing the mental catalogue of Kate’s SortingSystem when some irritating person is robbing me of serenity.

    Our tiny island attracts a lot of big fish who escape the rat race. One treads gently when biases flare. Like the time one older gent was seemingly forgetting what he really wanted to say. Folks were lined up to talk and time was running out. Turned out he was the retired High Commissioner for the Hong Kong Police who was highly supportive, but he was trying to catch the message his wife was frantically mouthing at him~! πŸ˜€

    1. πŸ˜€ What a lovely story! Poor old retired HIgh Commissioner. Even the most exalted of retirees are subject to a wife’s direction in the audience, it seems!

  15. I think it’s quite true…and the sense of order and control which comes from it may also do its part to contribute some to our sense of safety and security. Interesting way to think about it! We were talking about Yuppies the other day…is there a new term for the same? Debra

    1. We don’t really have them here, that’s for sure, Debra. Bankers and stockbrokers tend to keep a low profile- they’re not very popular here because of the banking problems which sparked the last recession. And the fact that they continue to award themselves huge bonuses…

      Whoops. I’ll just whip that banker out of the pigeonhole…

  16. Since moving to this backwater, 10 years ago, I rarely have the chance to make group patterns as we’re involved with so few people. Several glasses of wine, however, will have me classifying whole nations and whole religious groups. These classifications only last until the following morning when I classify myself, once again, as singularly silly when pissed.

  17. Wonderful post, Kate . . . and one more reason to meditate and be mindful, aware, and accepting of what is right in front of us without comparing it to what (and whom) has come before.

    The subjects showed that unfailingly, when they felt less control over the situation, they would invent patterns – relationships between the information – which weren’t there: patterns in the stock market.

    And then the scientists taught the subjects calming, self affirming exercises.

    Astonishingly, their propensity to see things that weren’t there showed a marked decrease. Their minds were clear enough to see reality. Authors Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky wrote: β€œWe suggest that a lack of control provokes seeing and seeking patterns, because pattern perception is a compensatory mechanism designed to restore feelings of control.”

    Once we know that all we need to CONTROL are the thoughts we think . . . we are free to see things as THEY are . . . instead of as WE are.

    And we willinly retire our “labelmakers.” πŸ˜‰

    1. Apologies, Nancy, I am very late replying to this – but what a succinct conclusion. Seeing things as they are, not we are – I might have to memorise that one. Here’s to retiring the labelmakers πŸ™‚

  18. Is there an equivalent of Soccer Mom in the UK? Football Mums? That would be me at first sight, anyway: preschooler, minivan, no proper job… but it’s really not true at all. Nor, I suspect, is it for any of the labeled masses.

    1. Soccer Mom – no, I was one too and so far I think they have evaded labels here in the UK. As you say, scratch the surface of any mother with a toddler and myriad stories begin to appear: look at you. the perfect example of a “soccer mom” with a backstory.

  19. Really thought provoking… we almost always form an image of the person in front without knowing him or her… there is huge dearth of acceptance in our inner-selves.

    1. There is, Jas: and it seems we have to be constantly aware and questioning ourselves if we are to keep on top of this predisposition. Thanks so much for coming along to take a read, and for commenting.

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