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Monday, February 6, 2012

Useful Stereotypes

I know why we use stereotypes—it helps us to better understand people who seem rather “foreign” to us. Anything familiar that we can attach to an unknown person helps us to move closer to them and perhaps even try harder to further understand them as individuals. Or not.

Stereotypes also inspire us to place people on the shelves, never to be considered again because we already “know” them. It's a way of skimming a person’s essence, an overly assured summing up of faults and virtues that never considers the evidence. Very unscientific, unless you think of stereotypes as a sort of hypothesis, which I do.

Stereotypes used in this manner, where the truth lay scattered in the future while using evidence as it comes in to shape and build that truth, can actually be somewhat helpful. Sitting on the fence about someone while letting your hypothesis take its course, or turn in another direction, will move you closer to your goal of understanding. Even with dogs. Or cats. In fact, didn’t we all start our pet relationships with a stereotype of a puppy or kitten? How many stereotypes have we all heard about dogs and cats? How many have been broken?

If I were to pick a stereotype to describe Singer, I would say she is like Cinderella, the lonely stepsister whose less attractive/dumber stepsisters treated her badly. But I actually know this to be untrue. She was well taken care of by her previous owners, although another female dog attacked her when she was eighteen months old (a jealous stepsister?). Still, I’ve been keeping this theory on ice for a reason.

The reason is that I don’t want to allow a stereotyped image of Singer to control how I handle her. I’m afraid I spoiled Saylor because of her health issues, which overly influenced how I perceived her and she eventually grew fat. I don’t want Singer to feel she is more entitled to love, attention, affection, etc. because I have this notion of her being deprived of it in the past. And I do think dogs (and yes, even Dakota!) are smart enough to figure out how to keep the love forthcoming like a spigot turned on full blast. Just like kids, they figure out ways to get the best response from us, positioning themselves to lap up all the attention, food, and love that they can get. Picture Singer and Dakota on their backs, their mouths wide open underneath the spigot. There is no moral thermometer that says “I’ve had my share—it’s time to give Mom a break and let her attend to her own needs for once! Or maybe she can give some attention to her husband, now…” Actually, it’s my responsibility to know when to say “enough!”

Because I am neurotic, I tend to worry about my pets’ self esteem probably a little too much. I worry about how Singer is adjusting to our home, whether she thinks often of her old home, and whether, when she is looking through her fence at some distant animal in the next yard, she is actually contemplating running away from home. My thoughts quickly jump to how I can make sure she is happy, busy, and feeling well loved. Then I notice the time, and have to relegate the task for later. But her soft red head will appear in my thoughts throughout the day, and I will smile as I plan for our next walk. And the stereotype of a good owner actually makes me feel good. I am trying hard not to let stereotypes rule my thoughts so much, so I will just allow myself to look forward to a simple walk with my dog. That’s all I can do, and somehow I know this is enough.

1 comment:

Marianne said...

stereotypes as a hypothesis is a great concept! I never thought of that. Rather than denying we have them and trying to fight against them, we should just try to rull out the hypothesis after realizing exactly what traits compose our stereotypes (as much as possible). What a great way to observe people.