During a recent mother-of-16-year-old-son and 16 year old son contretemps my 7 year old daughter helpfully explained that our friction was entirely to be expected since I was a rabbit and he was a rat. “It’s obvious you’ll never get on, because of your star signs from the Chinese zodiac”, she went on, “a quick-witted, charming, greedy rat is never going to rub along easily with a compassionate, home-loving pushover…” And there was I thinking it was adolescence and fatigue (his and mine).
There’s a lot of popular psychology, often available in airport blockbusters, that supports my daughter’s confident pigeon-holing interpretation of different approaches to living. Ranging from “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” by John Gray to, more recently, “The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men who think like them) will Rule the Future” by John Gerzema there is no lack of categorisation tools. These books are popular partly because they make us believe the world might be understandable and because we all love a bit of prejudice confirmed and self-defining caricature.
Several things, however, bother me about giving different types of people labels too easily. Firstly, I wonder if the labels themselves might not create a limitation on possibilities for an individual. For example at a recent all-female networking event one of the delegates was quite shy and self-depreciating about her business. “That is so typical of us as women,” piped up another delegate “we find it so easy to downplay our achievements. Men would never do that”. Which made me think that were I to trumpet my achievements I might not be considered a “typical” woman? Because, a wee secret here, sometime I think like a man! I think I’m thinking like a man when I’m being analytical, linear, concise, target driven and not sentimental. What’s more sometimes my husband appears to think like a woman – he is intuitive, kind, good at listening and charming – all feminine thinking traits according to Gerzema.
In “The Athena Doctrine” the hypothesis is that using feminine values such as intuition, charm, being a team player and reliable will lead to prosperity. The alternative (masculine) attributes of being analytical, decisive, dominant and aggressive are not perceived as having as positive an impact in the 21st century as they did in days of yore. Obviously the book is all about the using the gender specific characteristics rather than gender per se – however it seems to me one could find oneself thinking too much about how important it was to be loyal and expressive at the risk of closing a deal ahead of the competition, and empathy doesn’t pay many bills when the company you worked for goes bust.
Which leads me to the second thing that bothers me about labels: self-fullfing consequences (the next stage from self-fulfilling prophecies) because of colluding in a stereo-type. If I’m told that as a “Rabbit” I avoid conflict I’m being nudged not to disagree and therefore become a pushover; if my MBTI* tells me I’m an extravert I’m going to feel quite confident and energised by spending time with people – like a happy gadfly. Whereas had I been told I was introverted I would be equally pleased with myself were I to sit quietly and think about it.
And whose labels should carry the most weight? Quite apart from being born in the year of the Rabbit, female and an ENTP* I haven’t even considered the consequences of being born on the cusp of Leo (loyal, independent and melodramatic) and Virgo (observant and not emotional) – or of being left-handed (actually one study has shown left-handed people have higher “fluid intelligence” and better problem solving skills than right handed people – frankly this is no surprise since us left-handed, sinister, types spend a lot of time working out how to use gadgets designed for right handed people…)
Finally, and most importantly, I am concerned about what kind of message is being sent to young people in terms of what employers are looking for: should they present themselves like the contestants on the BBC’s “The Apprentice”, ready to “fight to the death to become Lord Sugar’s apprentice”, because “…I’m the complete package and when it comes to sales I’m the best”; and “…if someone crosses me, it’s game over” (all quotes from this year’s female contestants)? Or should they be as the wise, fair and strong Athena, who incidentally is also the Goddess of Strategic Warfare and Heroic Endeavour?
I wish Dr Suess’s useful advice when he says “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind” was a good steer, but with so much sorting, type casting and defining characterisation around I feel in as much a muddle as the next person…. or is that because my hair is currently blonde?
*Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, my profile showed an ENTP (Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving)