Recently on the podcast, I had a conversation with a trans male guest named Jeremy. I asked him during our chat if he minds when someone asks him for clarification about his gender. He responded that perhaps before one poses such a question, they would be best off to ask themselves why they want to know. How is knowledge of one’s gender going to impact their interactions with that person?
This really made me think. I've certainly met people in the past whose genders I've been uncertain about, and something inherent within me wanted to know what their gender was. There certainly was this desire in me to "figure out" their gender. I agree with Jeremy – in most cases, knowing someone’s gender does and should have no impact on my relationship with them at all. Perhaps because the traditional gender framework has for so long been so engrained in us as a binary construct, I’m conditioned to feel the need to categorize someone as “male” or “female”, even though logically there is no need to at all.
But beyond this conversation regarding gender, Jeremy’s response prompted me to think - why do ask so many of the other questions that I do, when I first meet someone. Some of society’s most typical “get-to-know-you” questions are in regards to a person's age, relationship status and profession. It's not that I ask all these questions the second I meet someone, but I think I do have the tendency, probably like many others, to try and find out these parameters.
We stereotype people all the time. We suss people out the moment we meet them. Even before I meet someone, I'm keenly aware that I subconsciously form opinions and make assumptions based on that person's age, gender, career, and relationship status. And arguably, that’s totally natural. We are more comfortable when we have more information about someone. We can relate more to others if we know their basic demographics, the information you might find on their Facebook page. But what portion of my question asking is rooted in genuine curiosity and actually serves to build a foundation for a relationship? And conversely, how does my knowledge of someone's demographic information actually trap me into stereotyping them based on preconceptions?
A 45-year old male lawyer, divorced with two kids
A 38-year-old female, not in a relationship, who works as an accountant.
A 50-year-old male plumber, single, with no kids
A 27-year-old gay male in a two-year relationship, who works as both a bartender and an actor.
A 70-year-old retired female elementary school teacher, married, with 3 children and 6 grandchildren.
An 85-year old male widow, retired stock broker, two niceces.
What image formed in your mind based on each of these descriptions? Did you make certain assumptions about these characters beyond the demographic information I provided? I know I did, just writing them. Did the fact that someone was single, at an age when you’d expect them to be married, shape your opinion of them in some way? Did any of the descriptions make you feel a certain way? Did a character’s age or profession have an impact on your emotions?
No doubt, we all thought and felt different things based on these descriptions, some more strong than others, based on the people we know in our own lives and the experiences we have had. And it is normal that just based on these simple age, gender and career demographics, that we began to paint much more detailed images in our minds. Our stereotypes are so embedded in us, that it is natural that we started to “figure out” these people before even really knowing them.
While producing this podcast, I’ve become hyper-aware of my own prejudices, preconceptions and stereotypes. What have I been conditioned to associate with certain genders, ages and professions? What kinds of feelings do certain demographic details evoke in me?
Yes – it is totally normal to ask these types of questions. When I meet someone for the first time, it is a positive thing for me to show interest by asking questions about them. To build connection, I need to know about their lives. But while these standard “get-to-know-someone” questions are totally valid and fair to ask, perhaps I’d do better if I were more aware of how the answers to some of those questions might influence, perhaps unfairly, the assumptions I make about those people. And as Jeremy suggested, in some cases, I might pause and reflect; do I need to be asking this question at all?