Any system or method of classifying people has the potential to be used in harmful ways. But classifying things—and people—is one of the ways in which we organize and make sense of the world. Our brains do a certain amount of classifying on their own without our conscious intervention. If they didn’t have that ability, we wouldn’t have survived long enough to have this discussion. It isn’t possible or even desirable to dispense with our classifying behavior.
In order to classify, the first thing we do is observe. From our observations, we then make generalizations. Based on our generalizations, we create classifications.
In terms of the physical/material world, it’s good to know which classifications of mushrooms are safe to eat and which are not, which insects have a deadly sting and which are harmless, which sounds and smells signal danger and which are innocuous.
In terms of people, things can get a bit dicey. We have all kinds of classifications for people based on nationality, religion, race, gender, age, level of education, type of car people drive, whether or not they have children, physical appearance, the language they use, whether or not they just cut you off in traffic, where they live, and even whether or not you know them. We also, of course, classify people by their personalities or temperaments. The Greek physician Hippocrates is the first person we know of to come up with this way of classifying people. Carl Jung may be the most well-known for “typing” people as a result of the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Inventory) based on his work.
NEITHER GOOD NOR BAD
Although there are some people who object to being classified by personality type, in general typing does not have the bad rap that stereotyping does. But in fact, typing and stereotyping are really the same thing. And I don’t think the problems we encounter with the misuse of typing are a result of stereotyping.
“What people call ‘stereotypes’ are what scientists call ‘empirical generalizations,’ and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes (emphasis his).”
–Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today
Most of us think that stereotyping people is wrong. I think it’s wrong. Or at least I did until very recently when I started to investigate the concept and came to the conclusion that it isn’t stereotyping that’s the problem. As Kanazawa says, “stereotypes are observations…neither good nor bad, desirable nor undesirable, moral nor immoral.” The problem is that we use stereotyping the wrong way. You could even say we abuse stereotyping.
The first way in which we abuse or misuse stereotyping is that we tend to forget about individual exceptions. Just because something is true in general for an entire group of people (let’s call it Group Type A) doesn’t mean it is true for every single individual within Group Type A. The generalization still applies—it just doesn’t necessarily apply to the particular person from Group Type A you happen to be talking to or working with or in a relationship with.
The second way in which we misuse stereotyping is by using stereotypes against people. The most egregious examples are racism, sexism, religious persecution, and the like. But we also use personality stereotypes against other people.
“Stereotypes tell us what groups of people tend to be or do in general; they do not tell us how we ought to treat them.”
But isn’t that one of the points—and benefits—of learning about systems like the Enneagram? To know how to get along with different types of people? It’s kind of a conundrum, isn’t it?
OUR BIASES ARE ALWAYS SHOWING
Difficulties arise because the “empirical generalizations” that underlie systems like the Enneagram are viewed by each of us through our own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and type. We don’t live our lives as scientists, examining the world through a microscope and trying to be as objective as possible before proceeding from one step to the next. We make snap judgments, we jump to conclusions, we react emotionally. Inevitably conflicts arise or someone says or does something we don’t like. It may be tempting, if we know about the Enneagram, to blame behavior we don’t like on the other person’s personality type. And to let them know we’re on to them.
Using the Enneagram to understand other people better is one thing, but throwing someone’s Enneagram type in his or her face is never OK. Even if someone behaves stereotypically, we can’t be certain their behavior wasn’t the result of something totally unrelated to type. We can never fully know someone else’s story. If we judge them solely on their personality type, we’re doing ourselves, the other person, and even the Enneagram a huge disservice.
Great post! Classifications are a tool, and when we use them as such, for our own growth and to understand how our relationships are (or aren’t) working, they are helpful. When we use them to keep people at arm’s length or to try to justify our own shortcomings, they can be downright destructive. It’s always better to use tools for good.
Temperament and type can really help us understand ourselves and other people. But it can also be tempting to put people in a box and think we know all there is to know about them just because we know that piece (or in some cases, think we know that piece). 🙂
What an excellent article, Joycelyn (I wanted more!). I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, how words get a negative connotation with time. Talking specifically about stereotyping and classification, I guess people don’t want to be viewed as numbers or statistics (because we view ourselves as individuals) yet we all want to know what the statistics say about different things in order to make our decisions. For example: when we choose a birth control method, we want to know how it works for people our age and medical history. The same when we decide if we want to have a baby or not. Like you say, we don’t live our lives as scientists and we often make snap judgments, but there is a reason for this: We don’t have the time to get to know everyone deeply. We have to put them in categories so we can make a decision of whether we want to approach them or not (and sometimes our assumptions may be wrong, but some say this may be linked to our survival instinct. What do you think of this?) The problem with stereotyping is when we’re not open to the possibility that a person may be different from the group and may not share a certain characteristic we view as negative. I hope I’m making sense!
Hi Lorena. Thanks for your comments. As far as knowing another person’s type/temperament is concerned, I think it’s most helpful in situations where we are already in some kind of a relationship with the other person–especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye or are experiencing some kind of conflict. Then we’re motivated to look beyond surface characteristics. It’s the more casual situations where it’s easier to write people off, so to speak, because of what we think we know about them.
But you’re so right about not having time to get to know everyone–or everything–on a deep level. We have to make choices, and we’re all in choice overload. (My opinion, anyway, and something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately.) Generalizations definitely supply useful information to help us make some of those choices.
As for our assumptions about other people being linked to our survival instinct, in a roundabout way, yes, I think so. Our temperament is related to the fight-flight-submit response to threat, and we view a lot of the world through the lens of temperament.
Hope you’re doing well!