Whenever my dad wants to play a game with me, he asks me if I want to play Scrabble. But we always end up playing something else. I’ve often wondered why he choses Scrabble as his first pick when we have hundreds of board games in our house and I can count on one hand how many times we’ve played that game together. So this past weekend, I finally asked him, “Why Scrabble?”
“Because you like words.” He responded.
I was a little confused. “What makes you think I like words?”
“You’re an English major. You like to read. You work in communications. You like words.”
And there it was. Like so many other people in the world, my dad was trying to place me, and my interests, into a category.
Not too long ago, I listened to a podcast called “Invisibilia: The Power of Categories.” This episode explained how people learn to place things in categories so that they can react to them better. One of the examples they use is that when you are handed a round thing with a hole in it at a friend’s house, your brain automatically categorizes it as a “cup.” And because you have categorized it as a “cup,” you know how to react to it. You think, “Oh, I’ve dealt with cups before. I know how to use them, I know they are safe, I know they help me drink liquid, etc.” Which makes sense. It makes sense to put things into categories if it helps you to live your life. But what about putting people into categories?
In his mind, my dad was just trying to make me easier to understand and relate to, much like we do when we categorize things around us. But to me, when my dad tried to categorize me as “someone who likes words,” I felt uncomfortable. Like he was trying to simplify all of who I am into a single group of people that I may not find relatable. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced before. People see a blonde girl and immediately categorize me as ditzy or unintelligent. They hear that I was in a sorority and on instinct throw me into a bunch of unflattering categories. And when people my own age hear that I work at a church, they aren’t quite sure what to do with their categorization system. It just doesn’t make sense.
But a lot of the categories that people put others into don’t make sense. You may have heard of these categories before by a different name: stereotypes. People may categorize women as “emotional,” millennials as “selfish,” Christians as “closed-minded,” and the list goes on. And while categories may be helpful when it comes to pouring yourself a cup of water, it’s possible that we’ve taken it too farthat we’ve begun to over-categorize.
The challenge that we need to tackle is breaking apart these categories because sometimes, most of the time, people don’t just fit into one category. It’s not always one or the other. Some people like both Pepsi and Coke. Some dislike both dogs and cats. Some are both introverted and outgoing. Some both believe in God and don’t identify as a religious person. And you know what? That’s okay.
Instead of immediately categorizing a person that you meet, or see on TV or read about online, wouldn’t it be nice to free ourselves from these categories? To take the time to absorb all of who that person is? With enough practice, we may be able to start seeing people through different eyes, through God’s eyes. We may start to notice that not every round thing with a hole in it is just a cup.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to look at someone and feel like they’re familiar to you just like it’s nice to look at a cup and know what it is, but wouldn’t it be more exciting to approach every person like a foreign object? Something (or someone) that you get to explore. What do they do? What do they feel? Who are they? Without knowing anything about a person, imagine all of the things that you could discover just by talking to them. Imagine all that you could learn from the millions of unique people around us. Each one a round thing with a hole in it, devoid of a category.