The danger of categorising people

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Do you categorise people? I’m not talking about race, age or gender – that’s outright discrimination, and most of us are at least aware of it. I’m referring to its little cousin – classifying others by some sort of feature or quality, like being slim, intelligent or rich. For the most part, categorising seems really innocent and harmless, but is it indeed?

Even if we dislike the idea of categories, our brains absolutely love them. They help us understand the world around us and react quickly. For example, every time you see a well-dressed person getting out of a nice car, you probably assume they’re rich and influential. As a result, you know how to behave around them, and in most cases that knowledge is a result of our previously stored experiences.

It’s like a little shortcut that saves you a lot of energy to get to know every single person individually.

If you believe you’re above categories, think about the last time you explained someone’s behaviour with ‘because he/she is beautiful/smart/rich/etc.’. Like yesterday, when the post office lady was rude to me, I explained it by labelling her as ‘personally dissatisfied’. When in fact, I knew absolutely nothing about her and her life, and had little right to judge her basing on our 60-second conversation.

So although we don’t usually categorise consciously, we like to put people in our little mental boxes. The cool, the smart, the rich, the ugly. In this way, it’s easy to draw some conclusions basing on their one obvious quality. That guy with glasses? He must be a nerd. That girl with a short skirt? Obviously, she’s a sl*t. The person who’s good at Maths? Boring. And so on.

However, there’s one little issue with categorising people, including ourselves.

Sometimes we get so hung up on keeping a person within a box that we refuse to see all their other qualities. We can’t imagine that the nerdy guy can also be an amazing dancer. That the short skirt girl is also working shifts in a cafe to help her family. That the person who is good at Maths may actually have the craziest travel stories.

In our minds, these things usually contradict each other. For our brains to remain calm, everyone we know needs to keep to their own box, and not attempt to move out. In other words, we have to stay the same as people perceive us, otherwise we risk confusing and offending others.

I’ve seen so many people being disappointed with celebrities, youtubers and even their own friends. It’s usually after seeing another part of them that they didn’t know existed, but somehow was always there. That’s when we hear ‘you’ve changed’, usually accompanied by an accusing tone. But have you, really? Or is it just a change in the mind of others, because the image of you is trying to switch boxes, to combine them into something new that’s harder to digest?

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We never really stop thinking about how it must feel on the receiving end.

The side where others constantly assume or tell you that you’re ‘something’. Like that you’re pretty. Or smart, or tall, or that you’re chubby, lazy or have a big nose. It’s so easy to be put in such a frame by others. And if you keep on hearing the same thing over and over again, you may start to believe it yourself.

If the thing is positive, it may be somewhat beneficial for you. For example, a girl that is always told she’s pretty can grow more confident, and is likely to use her ‘prettiness’ as a way to advance in life. But by telling a pretty person they are beautiful, you reassure them that’s their most important quality. What you don’t know is that sometimes they may look in the mirror and wonder if they’re something more, or if prettiness is their only feature worth mentioning. By labelling someone with that adjective, you confine them to a very small part of their personality, and you refuse to see what’s beyond.

And for me, that’s where the danger is.

When it comes to me, I was constantly reassured I’m smart just because I was good at Maths. It didn’t harm me, because I was always very confident in my intelligence, so getting good grades, scholarships or awards came as a nice bonus. But there was a point when people stopped looking beyond the intelligence. It was easy to put me in the ‘smart’ box, assume that I have no other interesting qualities, and move on. I was the person to turn to when you had a question about the homework; when you didn’t know how to do something; or when you needed help. And because I liked doing all of the above, I was rooting myself into their smartness boxes even deeper.

It got to the point where I was desperate to hear something else about myself. That I was pretty, interesting, sporty or artistic. However, subconsciously I was so used to identifying with the ‘smart’ label, that I couldn’t see any other part of me that would be worth noting. Being categorised by others was so comfortable that I never really attempted to do something else that risked putting me into another box even in my own head.

Until recently I was living with the perception of others that ‘intelligent=boring’.That’s how I ended up at university, being 18 and not knowing myself at all. I was still hiding behind the perception others had of me, and was happy when people recognized I was ‘smart’. But deep inside I knew I was something more. I liked doing my makeup and had a passion for finding cool clothes. Besides that I liked writing and reading.

However, I didn’t really know much more about myself.

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It took me 4 full years to start perceiving myself as something else than just ‘smart’. Don’t get me wrong, intelligence is cool and has opened me many doors. But it’s not everything about me. And it takes a little time to get to know me to find out I do have a silly side.  An ability to say the most inappropriate thing that invokes a reaction of ‘Honestly? Mili!’ (hence the title of this blog). And that I have more clothes than you can imagine, that I am training for a marathon, or that I make a damn good curry. These are all the things I wish people saw in me, but it takes a little more effort and a lot of people are not willing to go that far.

I really don’t want to make this a ‘pity-me’ post, or to fish for compliments (but if you have some, I will totally take them, too). What I really want is to make you aware that you’re probably categorising people. (And if you’re not, you’re an angel and please teach me your ways). So next time you see someone you know, try to see beyond what your brain already knows about them. If you see a pretty girl, yes- tell her she’s pretty, but also compliment her on her wicked sense of humour, or ability to code or cook. Don’t make your compliment about the most obvious thing, because chances are – they probably know it, and you’re just reinforcing an image of themselves that may actually be harmful.

And above all, what labels about yourself do you hold in you? Don’t wait for others to notice your other qualities, because they may never do. To escape your own box, go and do the things that excite you, because you’ll never know if you’re something more until you actually try.

Dress: H&M   | Boots: Bershka   leather version here| Straw Bag: Thrifted similar here | Earrings: H&M (sold out) similar here

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Photos by Anna Gandziarska