Conversation #3: Extra Special Extrovert

I spent an absolutely delightful afternoon with my friend Michelle at Pine State Biscuits last Monday.  It was sunny outside, a welcome change, so we took advantage by sitting outside in the sun.  Michelle is technically not a suburban mom, she lives in the city limits, but her upbringing was solidly suburban and she fits in well with suburbo-types.  Michelle is a “work friend,” she is an occupational therapist (like me) and we work together at a local clinic.   As a new hire last year, Michelle was the first OT I met and we worked together pretty intensely covering a maternity leave for another OT.  I instantly felt a connection to her, and you would too.  Trust me.  She is one captivating gal.

Michelle has a wide-eyed, curious, outspoken and open-armed view of the world.  She has a huge smile and you feel completely unjudged, listened to and giddy when you are around her.  The best word I can use to describe her is twinkly.  She is just that nice to be around.  Don’t get me wrong though, she has her opinions.  She is resistant to pigeon holing because she is a dichotomy in a few ways.  Michelle worries about underserved kids and families, but is also a cute dresser with a flair for color and finer textiles.  She is patient, calm and easy with the kids we work with, but will raise her voice when it comes to things she finds an outrage.  She is the parent of three Waldorf educated boys, shuns technology and enjoys the creative process.  However, she has high standards for her crafts.  No crap crafts, please.  Michelle believes in healing and the ancient practices of Qigong and yoga.  She is a certified cranio-sacral practitioner (and a few more certifications that are less known to readers) but the glory of a walk outside is also a direct route to curing what ails you.  She sits in the front row at her church so her boys are well behaved while in attendance.  Despite the stereotypes of churchgoers, Michelle is liberal and open minded and she has no tolerance for things which block the path to happiness, yours or her own.

“Most people would probably say I’m a good mom,” is what Michelle says when asked what is the most frequent compliment she receives.  That’s an understatement.  I personally feel empowered by Michelle’s parenting style which steadfastly upholds her ideals.  Those ideals would be togetherness, fun, firmness, free thinking and good old fashioned values.  She has an uncanny ability to not get sucked into peer pressure.  Talking about a friend who starts worrying about summer camps in January, Michelle says she shuts it down.  Her first priority is family time, not scheduling, worrying, list making and competing.  She says she can’t be bothered by that stuff, it’s a drain on her and all the things she would like to do with her family.  Michelle travels back to childhood home in New York at least a few times a year.  This is incredible to me, a native East Coaster.  Three kids and mom and dad making the cross country trek so frequently?   But when Michelle describes her family, I see why it’s so important to her.  While her siblings are all very different, their mom was the guiding force- always telling them that they could do anything and giving them powerful messages of self ability every step of the way.  Family is the center, and that is that.

Friendships are also a high priority for Michelle.  She gravitates toward others who feel the same way about family and together time.  Michelle is a self professed extrovert.  When I was younger, I probably could not have been friends with Michelle.  Her ability to completely pay attention to me, eyes never failing to connect, ideas always supported and firmly entrenched in an underlying confidence: this would have been unnerving to me.  It would have scared me and made me uncomfortable and nervous.  But now I welcome her strength because I think it strengthens me.  It motivates me to be a better parent, friend and less wishy-washy.  She understands that community begins with family and extends to friendships and neighbors and her loyalty is a result of that.  She craves relationships with other like minded people, like school moms or neighbors.  She feels drawn to others by something not quite known, but trusts her ability to recognize a friend.  She is practical too, instinctively knowing it’s harder to be friends with people whose kids are different ages.  Michelle and I are drawn together by the similarities in our husbands and how they think alike, in a very pragmatic way.  We also bond over our the fact that we are most definitely not techno-savvy. When it comes to gossip (topic of an upcoming post), Michelle enjoys a bit of it now and then but knows where to draw the line.  She stops if it comes down to saying something that you wouldn’t say directly to the person.  And she would.  Believe me.

In 10 years, when two of the three boys will be out of the house, she sees herself as being the same in many ways.  But she would definitely like to travel more with her husband, something she loves but has largely let go of in order to raise her family.  Michelle will no doubt be the same anchor for her children that her own family in New York continues to be for her.  She will be the same protective, loving and compassionate person she is, but with more time to sew and create.  She will be the same person with the same “can do” attitude.  I love that the next work day after I interviewed her, she came in and said, “I keep thinking of things I should have said when you asked me things!”  She is compelled to get it right.  Just by virtue of knowing her, so are you.  In 10 years, I am sure that Michelle will be sending home made care packages to her sons, continuing to frequently visit family members, traveling, voicing her opinion (loudly), struggling with technology, working a pop of color in her outfits, giggling, and in general making the world a better place.  I only hope I am still her friend to see it all.

Thanks Michelle!  Biscuits and tea are awesome.

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Stereotypes: Our dirty little secret

Have you ever met or talked to someone who says they don’t stereotype?  Do you believe them?  Of course, it’s impossible not to stereotype.  It is your ancient neurophysiology that dictates this behavior. Dr. Susan Fiske, a social psychologist (who knew there was such a thing?  Sign me up!) at Princeton University has been studying this phenomenon for years.  There are actual neural signatures for stereotyping.  Stereotyping does not automatically mean discrimination, but it often does lead to some pretty ugly actions.  Dr. Fiske has found that we initially label someone based on two qualities:  warmth and competence.    The range goes from pure antipathy (you really don’t care) to pure favoritism (you really, really do care).  So, poor people are generally seen as incompetent, with associated emotions of disgust and contempt.  Based on their situation (single mothers for instance) can be viewed more warmly.  Rich people are seen as competent but not so warm.  An emotion carried with stereotyping of rich people is envy.  Older people or people with disabilities are seen as warm but not so competent.   Emotionally, we view them with pity.  Any and all others we meet are ranked somewhere on this scale, regardless of where you live in the world.  Initial views of individuals may change, but we tend to still categorize groups in the same way.  In our medial prefrontal cortex, the area of social cognition, our emotions affect our decision making.   For better or worse.

Blah, blah, blah you say.  What does it all mean anyway?  It means the playground mentality comes with us as we age.  If you play what I want to play, I like you.  If not, I don’t.  If we are competing for the same toy, I don’t like you.  If the other kids like you, I like you.  If they don’t, I don’t.   We all have gut level preferences, even if we think we are immune.  So that means when I meet someone who has a beautiful home, I feel envious.  I think that because you have a beautiful home, you must be competent.  The spaciousness of your yard, the beauty of your decor and the vastness of your kitchen have a way of making me feel warmly about you.  You could have gotten it all by robbing a bank for all I know.  But I think you are just great.  You see, stereotypes are not rational.

Take then the example of politics.  I know, I get uncomfortable just thinking about it too.  Go back to the playground mentality.  Say you are a strong Democrat (you contribute campaign money, you put signs in your yard) and you meet someone who you find out later is a Republican (they are wearing a t-shirt advertising their candidate).  You make a subconscious decision that you can socialize, but will never be close  friends with this person based upon this perception.  You may actually be pretty similar on your ideas within each of your parties and you may actually be pretty like-minded about many of the same things.  Never mind, though.  You have officially closed your mind.  Stereotypes shape how we interact with the world.  The natural by-product of such thoughts and judgements is to treat others unfairly.  Your brain thinks it has gathered enough information.

These are simplistic examples of a very complex process that happens every day in suburbia.  The disparities are not as obvious as black and white or rich and poor.  It’s more like wealthy, not so wealthy.  Stay at home mom or working mom.  Very active in school mom and not so active in school mom.  Very educated and not so educated.   Someone who grew up here and someone who moved from somewhere else.  Granted, these are not as charged as other stereotypes, but they matter.  It’s important to know that you are not above stereotypes.  It’s okay, no one is.  But what can we do to keep the conversation relevant, to make a community and to move past it for the greater good?

It deserves mention to talk about what makes you more prone to compare yourself to others.  If you are a male, you are more likely to compare than women except when it comes to appearance, where men are pretty close with women.  This came as a shock to me, but it appears men compare based on how well they provide and how much money others have.  Women compare less than they actually judge themselves.  People who are happy and settled do not compare themselves to others as much, even if they are not as wealthy.   You have a good job, a satifying relationship and capable kids:  you’re good.   People who feel unhappy and out of control compare themselves to others at a much higher rate.  This is a little harder to pin down, you could have all those great things and been a victim of abuse earlier in life or struggle with a medical condition.  That is likely, initially at least, to put you on a path of comparison.   All this makes sense, but when is comparing ourselves to others unhelpful, even dangerous?

It turns out that as humans we frequently forget that we are all in this together.  It’s really important for me to remember that we really are all doing our best at that moment in time.  Sometimes the best you can do is lay on the couch after a long day at work with your coat still on as your kids ask a million questions and dinner needs to be made (okay that was me).  Just because someone is beautiful, rich, creative and witty does not mean that I am not any of those things or that I don’t have my own gifts to share.  It also doesn’t mean they are trying to take anything away from me.  It’s a struggle to be hard-wired to be close-minded and yearn to be open-minded.  This is a conversation worthy of each of us.  Try it on your spouse and try it on your kids.  What the hell, try it on your mother-in-law.   There are constantly new ideas, new people and new philosophies.  The universe is a fluid place, and I for one plan on riding the wave.

What is a “suburbo-type?”

Good question.

First let’s define a stereotype:  “a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion or image.”   Free Dictionary.  A literary stereotype is a “character, whith generalized traits (characteristics that make the character a group representative rather than an individual).  Writers sometimes use stereotypes as minor characters.”  Esther Lombardi, published writer.

Now let’s define a suburb:  “an outlying part of a city or town, a smaller community within a distance of a city.”  One could argue that where I live is a city in and of itself, or the largest small town ever.

Suburbo-types is my attempt to dig deeper into my own mini-environment.  This environment, because I am white, female and over forty constitutes the following groups (not an all inclusive list):  book clubs, PTO, work groups, religious affiliations, sports parents, exercise buddies, yogis, school groups, carpools, neighborhoods, volunteer groups and community organizations.  More loosely defined groups include those who love art and music, seek self-improvement, enjoy a good girls night, occasionally indulge in the brief complaint about their otherwise wonderful husband and who are sometimes in way over their heads with this whole raising of children thing.  I am also extremely interested in those who are not of my ethnicity, gender or who have chosen to not have children or get married.

The main questions I would like to examine (via my conversations):

Why do we form the opinions we do?

How much is neurology and how much is our own experience?

What do my suburbo-types say about me?

Who are you and where can we meet?

I reserve the right to change these questions as this project evolves.  My ultimate dream is that I can find the just right questions and have others use them to dig deeper into their own environs.

About Me and Suburbo-types

Suburbo-types was inspired in many ways by turning 40 and thinking about new ways to connect with my community and also to flex some writing muscle.  I love to write and think deeply so this project seemed like a perfect marriage of the two.  In looking at my friends and neighbors, I recall thinking that I was often prone to one-sided opinions about people and making judgments before all the facts were in.  Suburbo-types is part meta-analysis of such ideas, part personal commentary and part neuroscience interpretation. 

 Obviously, I live in the suburbs.  I live in a place where relatively few people grew up here, and a large percentage are from “somewhere else.”  This lends itself to starting over, which is what my husband and I did when we moved here from Philadelphia.  It was nice to shake free from all my pre-conceived ideas about myself and make new friends who didn’t know anything about me.  It was liberating in fact.  But why?  What was wrong with who I was?  Every person in my community was a first impression, I didn’t know anyone.  What did they think of me?  What informed their opinions?  What informed my opinions of them?  Suburbs are defined as communities which surround a larger urban area.  We are not rural and we are not the city.  How do these attributes contribute to how we form social connections? 

Stereotypes are a common and inescapable aspect of our lifestyles.  I wanted to know how we come up with these and why we can be so quick to make assumptions about others.  Am I being naive to think I can live without stereotyping others?  What can I do to draw our suburban community closer together?  How can I make this social network a living and breathing force to hold each other up in times of need?  What is it called?  How can we level the playing field?  How on earth can I get to know the names of my neighbors in a culture that values privacy and independence?

This is the start of an evolving conversation.  Join me with your comments and ideas.  I promise I won’t judge (hee-hee)!  I plan on blogging once or twice a week so if your inbox isn’t overflowing already, consider hitting the follow button.  Your thoughts will be my inspiration.  I plan on scouring media and neuroscience literature to contribute to the dialogue.  I also will interview my friends and neighbors and get their two-cents.  Most of all, I want to keep it fun and readable.  I am prone to a curse word or two if I get really passionate.

Personally, I am married to my anchor and have two exquisite school age daughters.  My daughters teach me every day that new possibilities are out there to be created and explored.  I have always been told that I was a good writer but my profession is occupational therapy.  My work is with kids which informs my natural curiosity and challenges me daily.  I am a devoted yogi, lover of books, collector of friends, driver of a minivan and carbohydrate addict.  You will get to know me more from posts but I am happy to have met you here today. 

My first impressions of you are pretty good.