My husband and I have a mixed marriage. I am lifelong Cubs fan. He thinks Cubs fans are more interested in partying and talking on their cell phones than in actually appreciating the game of baseball. After all, who goes to Wrigley Field to watch excellent baseball? Sadly, it’s a valid question. He prefers the White Sox and even the dreaded Yankees to my beloved Cubs. However, since his joyful gloating over the 2005 White Sox World Series win has faded, he has been increasingly quiet about the superiority of the baseball at “The Cell.” Our president agrees with my husband. In an interview with ESPN President Obama said that Cubs fans “are not serious.”
Chicago Baseball Stereotypes
In the city of Chicago there is far more than baseball wrapped up in the identity of a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan, for with one’s allegiance to a baseball team come assumptions about social, economic, and geographic standing. The Cubs are losers. The White Sox are irrelevant. Cub fans are fickle and clueless. (This is a charge frequently leveled at me by my son. So sorry I don’t have time to pore over baseball stats.) White Sox fans have a bit of a chip on their shoulders and get a little defensive about media attention going to the Cubs. (I use this particular data point when my husband starts counting the number of days in a row that the Cubs are one the first page of the sports section.) The blue-collar south-siders resent the affluent north-siders. The blindly loyal north-siders are still waiting until next year. The south-siders are still waiting for some respect. Let it be noted that I do not necessarily endorse any of these stereotypes; I am simply acknowledging their existence.
This is largely good-natured rivalry, family strife notwithstanding, but the same phenomenon happens between all kinds of groups, cultures, and individuals, and sometimes such labeling is not so harmless.
Why do we arrange people into categories?
Communication scholars have developed terms and theories for how and why we so regularly organize ourselves and others into categories. We do this, they say, to reduce uncertainty and to help us acquire information about each other. If Cubs fans are typically from Chicago’s north side then we associate those two pieces of information and use it in future interactions. When I meet someone from the north side of Chicago, I might legitimately decide that Cubs baseball would be an excellent topic for introductory small talk.
We each maintain a complex framework through which we view and interact with each other and into which we organize interpersonal data. As we interact with others we update our mental structures to include new information or revise existing information. For example, if I meet more and more north-siders who are Sox fans, I will disconnect the link between geography and baseball team affinity, for it is not holding true. Next time I’d try a different topic with a north-sider.
This unconscious process goes on constantly as we interact with other people. We learn new things about others and update our mental data bases accordingly. They too learn new things about us and adjust their perceptions. We create and recreate each other’s interpretive structures as we communicate.
You might be asking yourself, “So what?” Who really cares what kind of mental mechanics are involved in the formation of our perceptions? If you’ve never been frustrated by an inability to make yourself understood as a unique individual because someone else has you firmly boxed up in a stereotype, then never mind. If you have no problem connecting with your neighbor or co-worker who comes from a different culture or speaks a different language or observes a different religion, then would you please share your wisdom with the rest of us? If you’ve never desired to change a negative stereotype of your ethnicity or religion or political ideology, then skip it.
But if you are frustrated with polarization and misunderstanding maintained by unproductive stereotypes or if you desire to break through cultural, religious, political, ethnic or other biases, then let’s talk about it.
Have you ever felt unfairly stereotyped? Do you observe unproductive categorizing in the culture at large? If so, where/how have you observed it and what were the results? Or feel free to share any other thoughts or ideas on the subject. More on the subject in my next post…