Over the past few years, something has been coming to my attention, something very frickin’ annoying. It isn’t just one kind of person that does it. From total strangers and internet trolls, to intelligent people, and some close to me, they use a certain turn of phrase to make their point in a conversation or post online.
And every time I hear it or see it, I cringe at their laziness, or bias. here, I’ll give you some examples…
“Every time I’m at the store, I hear employees complaining about their job.”
“When someone (always male) says that, I just don’t understand them.”
“All french people are rude assholes.”
“All men have the potential to be rapists.”
Did you catch it? The over-generalization?
Hearing and seeing people do that drives… me… up… the… fuckin’… wall! It’s bad enough when total strangers use it in a conversation, but when its people I know, smart people, I want to call them morons, not as an insult, but in sadness, dismay, and disappointment.
I can’t say I’ve never done it, because I’m sure I have. But since I’ve started to notice other people doing this, I have tried to catch myself and ensure I don’t, because if I did say something over-generalized, I’d have to drive myself up a wall!
So why do stupid and smart people do this? My first guess was that they wish to garner favour with those they are talking to. When expressing a belief, opinion, or retelling something that happened to them, gaining support or sympathy from the listener always makes one feel better. I’m sure we have all felt that, especially when it was something unjust, or irritating. Gaining sympathy from the listener helps support one’s reasons for being irritated or wronged.
But there’s a problem with doing that. If you exaggerate what happened to you, that’s sorta like lying, as well as painting a very broad stroke when describing the individuals or group that you feel have wronged you. In the cases of the examples I mentioned, the people at the store, men, and french people are put into a harsh, most likely unfavourable light. It may seem sorta harmless if only one or two people say this.
But it isn’t harmless, because this is the beginning of prejudice. Sure, one person complaining about some guy being a dick is expected. But if the person uses over-generalization, saying most men are dicks, then it isn’t just one guy, its a bunch of guys, a lot of guys, or “all guys”. Insecure people then take that way of thinking and it spreads. Soon, some guy tries to be polite, but gets a dirty look because, to that woman, all men are dicks.
Let’s use another example. A co-worker I used to know would often complain that his neighbourhood has more Ethiopians living there. He tells of how crime has gone up since they moved into the neighbourhood. The thing is, I have known a few people who lived in or around that neighbourhood, and crime has always been a problem, long before these Ethiopians moved in.
I’ve also heard about how French Canadians can be assholes because of the few bad experiences someone has had with them. I, on the other had, had a brother-in-law who was French Canadian, and he was a cool guy. I’ve known a few French Canadians and they were all good friends. The more these small-minded jerks spread their stories, over-generalizing the actions of a few, making others think that all people of whatever group are like that, then that is what those people begin to think.
Think of it like a mental virus, spread through social gatherings and conversations. Even if a smart person hears a derogatory comment about Goths (for example) and originally ignore it, that thought is still in there. Unless they acknowledge the shallow stupidity of the comment and forget it, they may inadvertently spread it in another conversation. If they don’t ignore/ forget it, that thought will wait there for a moment to come out, especially at a social gathering or in a conversation with someone. If the subject of Goths comes up, that derogatory thought will suddenly pop to the forefront and before you know it, it is shared. After all, our natural instinct is to form social bonds. What better way to do that than by sharing similar stories and thoughts, even if the thoughts aren’t the nicest. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the more a over-generalization is used, the more it will become something they’ll believe.
That is why we must always be mindful of the things we say. Sticks and stones my break our bones, but words can kill. These days, bullying is quite prevalent, and all it can take sometimes is words, whether said to someone in person, or online. A rumour spread though a group of people, like in high school, in college or university, or at the work place, can have serious, harmful effects on people. A seemingly simple over-generalization about someone can quickly escalate into something a lot worse.
What’s worse, is that it can be easily fixed and avoided. Those examples I mentioned earlier, here is how they could be reworded…
“When I was at the store, I heard these employees complaining about their job.”
“Some guy said that. I just don’t understand them.”
“This french guy I met was a rude asshole.”
“Certain men have the potential to be rapists.”
Sadly, people will most likely continue to use over-generalizations, exaggerating a conversation or interaction, to help make the person’s point and garner sympathy. The thing is, using over-generalizations also reveals the kind of person they are, or how they may be treated in the future. If I was an employee at the store mentioned above, and had no problems with my job, I would take offense to someone making all employees sound like whiners. Saying that men “always” act like ignorant jerks, or that they are rapists-in-waiting, paints two pictures. One being that all men are jerks and rapists, and the other being that whoever used the over-generalization is someone who isn’t fond of men and/or has some serious personal issues to deal with. Calling all french people rude assholes is a slap in the face to people in my family, and friends that I have known.
Someday, a person’s use of over-generalization will bite them in the ass. When it does, hopefully it’ll make them think twice before opening their mouth and making themselves look like ignorant jerks.