The Dangers of Generalization

Generalization is fairly common in our lives. It happens at multiple levels – country, state, race creed and even at individual level (based on life style, style of dressing, age etc.). There are reasons for generalization. Needless to say, some generalization helps us, especially in terms of getting a broad understanding of a culture or understanding way to work in a new environment or with new set of people.

However, we should tread the road of generalization with care. Else, we may end up with missed opportunities or unnecessary challenges. My first experience with generalization goes back few decades. I had just joined class 11 in a new school. My mother came to my school to pick me up. I bumped into a classmate of mine. She dressed very differently from us. She wore shorts, had really short hair (almost like a boy) and seemed to have an insolent attitude. And she came from a very well off family; a driver was waiting for her in a brand new Maruti Suzuki car. This was in late 80’s and I was living in an industrial town in a conservative part of India. The context and setting is important, after all we are talking about generalization!

My mother took one glance at my classmate (and her car with driver) and decided that she is a rich spoiled brat, is most likely a bad student and an unreliable girl. I was immediately issued a strict warning, “stay away from this girl, hope she is not your friend”. Stay away I did! For two years that we studied in same class, I rarely spoke to her. Not so much because I wanted to listen to my mother’s warning. But, probably more because I too felt the same way about her.

But, as they say, who can change the destiny? We joined the same engineering college two years later. We had opted for different specialization. So, we were in different classes, but we were roommates in hostel. We shared a room for four years. Within first few months, we became close friends. She is my best friend till this day. And she will be for years to come. I wonder what I would have missed had destiny not thrown us together!

The other example that I would like to take is that of an American boss that I worked with. Before I took up the job, quite a few friends and colleagues (who had worked with Americans before) warned me, “Be careful. Americans are brash, impatient and ruthless. They are professional, but… be sure they could etc. etc.” The list went on. I was unsure; the role was great and provided a global exposure that I craved for. After some wavering, I decided to take the leap, come what may. I am so glad that I did, my boss was an amazing lady – a perfect blend of professional and personal approach. It’s almost like she intuitively knew where to draw the line and how to work with perfect balance. I hardly faced any challenge at work; our different nationalities did not lead to any disharmony.

I am sure as you read through the examples of generalization (or lack of it), you could think of a few examples of your own. So, what’s the learning? Before generalizing about someone and taking action, let’s remember:
Exceptions occur more often than we expect them to.
• To keep an open mind while interacting with new people, especially people who are visibly different from us.
• The apt quote by Mark Twain, “all generalizations are false, including this one.”

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