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Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Sch!

Monty Python: Life of Brian

After reading yet another brilliant post by Havi, and the wonderfully inspiring conversation in the comments, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about stereotypes and individuality.

Especially this comment, by Laurel, inspired me.

“We accept complexities within ourselves but we put other people into square little boxes and then discover we don’t belong in any box, forgetting that we’re the one who created the boxes in the first place.”

Then there was this t-shirt print I found while surfing The Onion Store.

And a day’s worth of reading The Finnish National Curriculum about how each learner is to be treated as an individual with their own personal learning history.

I couldn’t help but post about this.

Role and group identities

A fascinating course I took last fall dealt with identity theories. There are several views on what identity is and how it interacts with a whole bunch of things, but the two that intertwine with this topic are the ideas of group identities vs. role identities.

Your group identity helps you blend in. If you’re a Swedish female school teacher, you might identify as a woman among women, a Swede among Swedes, a teacher among teachers.

Group identities give us common ground with new in-group people. The more specific the group, e.g. Norwegian 20-something exchange students in Austin, Texas, the stronger the feeling of belonging.

Role identities depend on the, well, roles we play in different situations. Our Swedish female school teacher, Mona, in class is “the teacher”. At home, she might be “the mother”, “the wife”, “the friend”, et cetera.

Outside her groups, the group identity might also be reflected as a role identity. Among her male colleagues, Mona is “The Woman”. Among her friends, she’s “The Teacher”. In an international school teachers’ convention, she’s “The Swede”.

This is where we run into stereotyping. If Mona’s convention acquaintances have never met a Swedish person before, they might base all their opinions of Swedes and Sweden as a nation on this one person.

So if Mona happens to be exceptionally beautiful, or intelligent, or musically talented, or rude, or has a habit of running late, then that characteristic could get extended to the entire nation by default.

Individuality

We’re all a delightful jumble of in-group associations that are reflected to others as roles. (To be clear, I’m not talking about roles as a notion of make-believe or false pretense, merely as different facets that are displayed in social situations.)

This is what makes us unique human beings – I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a single other person in the world with the same combination of identities that you have. The simple fact that we’ve been raised in our respective childhood homes gives us completely unique combinations of group identities.

The individual identities may be weak or strong, or they might only become activated in certain situations. I don’t really identify as a teacher when I’m in choir practice – the identity and its characteristics are not that relevant in the context.

This is probably where the whole outsider aspect comes to play, too. When we’re in one of our in-groups, the others seem so much more “in the group” than we do, because we know we’re only maybe 10% in-group ourselves.

What we often don’t realize is that the others are showing their 10% to us and we think it’s the whole deal.

I want to quote Laurel again, because she put it so beautifully:

“We accept complexities within ourselves but we put other people into square little boxes…”

We only see a fraction of the true identities of the people we meet. Even those closest to us have sides we’ve probably never seen. I’ve never really seen my mother at work, having a meeting with a client. If I did, I’d probably still see her as “Mom having a work-type meeting” instead of “an entrepreneur having a routine meeting“. My glasses are tinted that way.

I can try to become aware of the tint, however. If I’m looking at the world through blue glasses, it’s a lot easier to guess the true color of things if I know my glasses are blue. Similarly, I can try and figure out if I’m looking at someone through stereotype glasses, so I can make the necessary adjustments to my behavior.

Uniqueness

In theatrical improvisation, one of the main rules is “be obvious“. The more obvious you are, the more original you seem to others, because your “obvious” is not everyone else’s “obvious”.

Related anecdote: I and my fiancé are planning a wedding for next summer. This has caused me to spend countless hours reading wedding forums, listening to wedding planning podcasts, and surfing wedding blogs. (What can I say? It’s become a hobby. :))

The interesting thing is that a lot of people participating the forum conversation are adamant about making their wedding “unique and different”. And most of them want to do that by skipping a lot of the traditional aspects of a Finnish wedding and just throwing a fabulous dinner party with music and conversation for their closest ones.

Don’t get me wrong – if that’s what floats your boat, go ahead. Make the wedding your own. But it strikes me as weird that you’d want to make your wedding unique and original by, um, doing the exact same thing as ten thousand other brides next summer? *sigh*

For the two of us, a lot of the decisions we’ve had to make about the wedding have fortunately seemed obvious – the venues, the officiant, the first dance, the menu. I’m not even stressed about the originality factor; if we make our own obvious choices, the wedding will reflect our personalities and be truly unique.

Thanks for stopping by, keep catching those insightings!

Love,

Sari

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