When we meet somebody who doesn’t fit our preconceptions of a group, someone we find ourselves growing comfortable with, we often feel a need to praise our new friend with an observation that points out how unlike those people he is. We say something like:
Those people are all so immature, so ignorant. Present company excepted, of course–how do you live among them?
You can substitute whatever group you most dislike for those people, and the adjectives of your choice for immature and ignorant. The statement can be directed against a racial group, a political group, a religious group, a national group. The point is we think of the members of a particular group as having certain nearly uniform qualities, and we have just met a member of that group who doesn’t demonstrate those qualities.
We mean it as a compliment. But what it really accomplishes is to expose our own ignorance.
Because when we have to say present company excepted, we are acknowledging that at least one member of the group we don’t like does not match our preconceptions. Instead of acknowledging that our preconceptions are wrong, though, we remove the present company from that group. At least for the moment. At least as long as we still like him, or as long as he’s standing in front of us, or until we can convince ourselves that, you know, he really did seem a little more that way than I noticed at the time.
Because it’s so much easier to do that than it is to admit that maybe our preconception is wrong. That maybe, just maybe, we don’t know as much as we want people to think we do.
How much courage does it take to simply choose to take people as individuals–beautiful, messy, brilliant, ignorant, fascinating, imperfect humans? To choose to see them first as Bob and Sally and Rodrigo and Ibrahim and Sahra, instead of as members of this group or that?
Probably more than we think. But probably less than we fear.
Let’s give it a try today.