We all do it, and we all deny doing it – putting people in neat boxes, sticking labels onto them with lightning speed.
So, are you the blonde beach girl? Or rather the bespectacled book-nerd? The introvert who only laughs out loud in the basement, behind closed doors? The communicator, facilitator, the cool guy? Or the teary, anxious and nervous type?
I’m certain there’s a category for each of us, yes, for you too – and for me.
Or not? How about the kickboxing guy who does yoga? Or the introvert backpacker? The mathematician who in the evenings entertains people as stand-up comedian? Well, they must be the exceptions, or at least this his how our brain rationalizes these types. Just like in our email inbox, we have set up categories (or tags, if you’re into blogging) for people we meet in real life – even for those who are already our friends. And like in Gmail, it’s simply impossible to file an email somewhere between two folders.
So why are we doing this – if we hate it so much when it’s done to us?
It’s because our mind really struggles to hold two seemingly opposite thoughts. The guy who does kickboxing, surely he does yoga as a complementary exercise to enhance his kickboxing skills. (See, how we rationalise here?) Our mind’s a master in finding reasons, explanations, short: putting order into the chaos of this world and the never-ending current of daily experiences. We simplify, we form ideas about people – and we stick to those ideas. And eventually, they start shaping our thought patterns. That’s why it can be so hard to present a radical idea or project to an old friend – they might just say: “Oh that sounds great, but are you sure you’re the type of person to do that?”
A few months ago we travelled to Burma (or Myanmar, if you like), and I’ve had a powerful reminder of how preconceived ideas shape our “reality”. Mind you, I had never been to Burma. And of course I was an open-minded, curious, adventurous backpacker, ready to throw myself at whatever might await me. Only that subconsciously I already seemed to know what would await me!
Burma, supposedly, is a tad backwards, there are no ATMs, at least not if you are in possession of a non-Burmese credit card, and the internet is highly censored, with most sites being blocked. We decided to not even bother, take an entire stack of cash, leave the credit cards at home (what’s the use of carrying and potentially losing them if you can’t even use them?), and of course we left our cell phones and tablets at home. You wouldn’t expect a decent mobile network, or even WiFi access anywhere, right?
We stepped off the plane, pouring with the other passengers into a hypermodern, super-efficient airport, watching everyone’s eyes glued to their cell phones. From the cab window, on our way into the city, I counted an endless number of cafés and shops with WiFi signs. Needless to say, hotels offer WiFi too, and I started to sense that upon request probably every Burmese school kid would be able to produce a cell phone from the pocket of their designer denim.
We had a wonderful, four-week long trip across the country, with people smiling at us when we asked to use the hotel reception phone or tried to pay an internal flight in person at the airline’s office, neatly piling up our USD notes on the counter (no, we couldn’t book online, even though all the booking sites you can think of were accessible – because we couldn’t remember our credit card numbers…).
To cut a long story short, we looked a bit like the technologically challenged travellers from some obscure, backwards country, and the young guys at the internet café shot meaningful glances at each other before resuming their online chats and video games.
So I’ve swallowed the bitter pill, the only comfort being the fact that apparently I’m not the only one stuck in old thought patterns. Shortly after we got back to Australia (where we moved to a while ago from Europe), a friend from London asked on Skype: “So, in the morning, are you running to the office along the beach, in your speedos?”
He was shocked to hear that winter in Melbourne means it’s about 6 degrees in the morning, and apart from the occasional dog fetching a ball, the beaches are pretty much deserted around here. At least until summer arrives, which is in November (I know – another thought to get used to!).
Here’s to getting rid of old thinking patterns! Have you found yourself in a similar situation? Please share!
Image credits: Anthony de Palatis