November 2013

One of my friends has earned a stereotype of “the naive one”. When we play Cards Against Humanity, he’s the one discarding cards because he doesn’t know what they mean. When someone makes a silly innuendo, he’s the one to ask what it means. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t talk about sex, and hardly even swears. As a result, when he “breaks character” and does something a little edgier than usual–like go to the annual Harvard-Yale football game–he often gets reactions of gentle ribbing and harmless making-fun.

This effect of your image being taken over by your stereotype is known by the Internet as Flanderization. People don’t have enough time to get to know most others in any depth, so their mental image of another person ends up being a caricature of a few of their most memorable features–I become “that guy who talks about effective altruism”, my roommate becomes “the Christian physics guy”, and so on. And when we break our stereotypes we often get raised eyebrows and some harmless teasing.

But actually, it’s not harmless as it seems. So far my friend seems not to be letting his Flanderization circumscribe his behavior. But I remember that the same thing used to happen to me a lot in high school–whenever I did something out of character I’d get laughed at, “harmlessly” but just enough to sting a bit–and it chilled my ability to change and improve my self-presentation. It took me a long time to realize that I could just deal with the mockery and change my character anyway.

Now, I’m as guilty of participating in well-intentioned teasing as anyone else. But unfortunately being part of the problem doesn’t give me any insight into its cause. A couple guesses:

  1. It’s the easiest response. Making jokes requires a lot less effort than saying something genuinely interesting or engaging with my friend about things he does that are out of character.
  2. Skewed rewards for humorous vs. serious conversations. If I say something that people laugh at, I get immediate social rewards. But if I say something serious, it’s not nearly as exciting, even if it’s more valuable in the long term.
  3. I’m unconsciously lashing out in response to people not conforming to my expectations of them. I’m not quite sure what the mechanism here would be, but it seems plausible that I’m just subtly expressing negative affect that my predictions about my friend turned out to be wrong.

I’m not sure which one of these is dominant, or what to do about it. Ideally there’d be some solution that keeps conversations fun while not mocking people into conforming to old stereotypes about them that they no longer endorse. But that seems to be a pretty hard problem–I don’t see a good solution. Thoughts?

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Before moving to Berkeley, I lived in a house with a very strong “character culture”; while people didn’t necessarily rely on old stereotypes, whenever someone did something consistent with their “character”, people would laugh and say “That’s Fu!” This initially attracted me to the people who I founded the house with, but eventually I realized I kept doing things that I didn’t endorse anymore simply because it made people react so fondly. This seems like a very similar problem.

The way I’ve addressed this historically is to integrate myself thoroughly into multiple groups that don’t have much overlap. Then, whenever I break character because I want a change, people assume I’ve picked up habits from one of the other groups and leave me alone about it. Taking breaks from any given group regularly also affords me the opportunity to claim “It’s a thing I do sometimes,” even if it’s a thing I’ve never done before.