Breaking through Stereotypes

Breaking through Stereotypes

When we moved into our new house last year, our neighbor’s yard looked like junkyard material. Among the debris lay a rotting shed, rusted over RV, and stagnant water pool. To make matters worse, the only way into their back yard was through a shared driveway that passed through our property. Since we had children, we weren’t exactly thrilled about the situation.

Our concerns heightened when we talked to the other neighbors. We heard stories of vagrants living in the RV, playing loud music and keeping everyone up at night. The neighbors also claimed that the owner, while a “good person,” was often out of town, letting random friends have run of the property. Both claims seemed legitimate since we saw lights in the RV at night, but no one ever answered the front door during the day.

You can imagine what we thought of our neighbor at this point. I conjured up an image of a crude, dirty man who had no regard for others. My husband worried that strangers might wander in and out of our property, peeking in the kitchen window. The two of us discussed what we could do: build a gate between our property, install a security system, and even forbid our children from ever playing outside.

Our stress level increased until one Sunday afternoon I finally saw movement in the neighbor’s house. Someone was home. Nervous, but resolute, I marched over to his front door, determined to meet this elusive neighbor after a month of worry.

The smiling mustached man who answered the door was not who I expected. He immediately ushered me inside and had me meet his charming 5-year-old son. Then he offered me water, gave me a tour of the house, and chatted with me for half an hour. As it turned out, he had also just moved into the neighborhood. Originally from Iran, he wanted a house big enough for his wife, children, and parents. We hadn’t seen him because he only had time on the weekends to fix up the place. The previous owner had, as he put it, “left the house in considerable disrepair,” so he was taking his time cleaning things up before moving everyone in.

During our conversation, I discovered we had a lot in common. I had also lived abroad, in Japan, and he loved the fact that I used to teach English as a second language. He knew a little Japanese, so we exchanged a few phrases. Like my husband, he loved BBQs, and we talked about getting our families together when the weather got warmer. I left his house with a smile and a promise to come back when his wife made it to the States.

Since that day, my husband and I have not spent a moment worrying about our neighbor. We chat over the fence if we catch him cleaning up the backyard, which he has improved considerably. The RV and stagnant water pool has disappeared, and he’s working on a garden. Gone is the junkyard image, replaced with a beautiful looking home.

Perception is a funny thing. All of my senses told me that our neighbor would be a problem, and the rumors flying around the neighborhood confirmed those fears. I built a solid opinion of my neighbor without once giving him a chance to speak for himself. I’m glad I met him before I acted on any of those opinions.

It makes me wonder how many times we make snap judgments before giving people a chance to present themselves. Whether we admit it or not, we do judge people by their appearances. We tend to put positive characteristics on those who appear similar to us, and negative qualities on those who don’t. Appearances, unfortunately, can be deceiving. Con men dress like wealthy businessmen and rob us blind. And neighbors with dilapidated backyards can be some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Photo by meghannash

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

24 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Deborah.

    If this situation occurs with a next-door neighbor, imagine the effect when we think about people not as close to us – strangers with different backgrounds, beliefs, political affiliations, or in different countries. Appearances can indeed be deceiving, but even more powerful is the too-common fear of what we don’t know.

    I’m not a christian, but I do believe that Jesus was on to something when he talked about loving you neighbor. It’s about seeking to understand and showing compassion.

    Reply
    • Ben, I wonder we take this as our previous impressions. Our “NOW” decisions are based upon our experiences and beliefs of the past. We don’t like things outside the things we have held inside. Jesus was right, anyway though. When one understand that as you grow love inside, it’ll grow outside and vice versa. How simple and easy is it to break through of stereotypes.

      Reply
  2. Not sure what the author is trying to say here…..if you have an unkempt backyard that’s an eye sore for the neighbours….if they’re nice people…that’s ok??

    Reply
    • My point is not to judge people without getting to know them first. I had a very clear image in my mind of who my neighbors were based solely on their backyard and few gossiped rumors.

      To your point, if my current next door neighbors had the unkempt backyard, but were nice people, I’d say “yes,” that’s okay. Alan Harkness’s comment hit the nail on the head:

      “What if the previous owners were committed to helping others that were less fortunate and despite the mess in their backyard were making a difference? I think your first impression was based on a bias to have a tidy property next door to fit your own stereotype of a acceptable neighbor.”

      You shouldn’t really decide who people are without giving them a chance to talk for themselves.

      Reply
  3. Maybe it was don’t judge someone by appearances. Meet them first, then decide if their personality warrants a crap backyard!!

    Reply
  4. Great observation Deborah. We all have a tendency to jump to conclusions and make snap judgments. The cool thing is that we can observe ourselves when we are doing this and perhaps allow more time before judging something.

    Reply
  5. This was a great post about reality not always matching our perception.

    Unfortunately, it sounds that the perception was likely true of the previous owner of the neighboring property.

    Reply
  6. What if the previous owners were committed to helping others that were less fortunate and despite the mess in their backyard were making a difference?

    I think your first impression was based on a bias to have a tidy property next door to fit your own stereotype of a acceptable neighbour.

    Reply
    • Your observations are spot on, Alan. Even if my neighbor had caused the mess, that doesn’t make him a terrible person. If my current neighbor had fallen on hard times and been the same kind of person I met at the door, I still would have written this article.

      Reply
  7. Thanks for sharing the story. It’s very true what you say, and it is good to be reminded of prejudices sometimes.

    Reply
  8. Thank you for this poignant and powerful post of judgement Deborah!

    So true – we as humans judge…..we judge by what we see – right away a judgement about this nice mans yard. You were wise to go over there and trust your intuition and not be afraid to even approach this territory for your neighbors had instilled a bit of fear in the heart.

    Listening to our own intuition and being open to everyone – good for you and what a great example for your other neighbors – maybe you can have a neighbor cookout and invite all the neighbors and they can see for themselves what a lovely man lives in their neighborhood!

    It all starts with a heart that knows love and obviously you know love!

    In love and light,
    Nancy

    Reply
    • Once it quits raining, we definitely want to have a neighborhood cook out. It seems like the new neighbor and the previous residents are game. Just need to find a time. :)

      Reply
  9. Hi Deborah

    When we take the effort to understand the other person, we find a lot of stereotypes to be untrue and break down a lot of barriers, esp between nationalities. I find myself guilty of stereotyping others a lot in the past, and I might have hurt some people. Hopefully these days I’m more compassionate and empathetic

    THanks for the post

    Noch Noch

    Reply
    • The nationality difference can be hard. I learned first hand how hard it can be to appear competent when you’re not fluent in a language. If you can’t speak well, people will assume you are “stupid.” I’m now very, very patient with people learning English as a second language.

      Reply
      • Hi Deborah, that’s so true. I think a lot of us don’t dare to practise speaking a new language because we are afraid of being called stupid. BUt over the years, I’ve also just learnt to be thick faced and let them laugh, otherwise how will i learn??!!
        Noch Noch

        Reply
  10. Deborah,

    Thank you for sharing this post. What a relief that your neighbour turned out to be completely different than you expected him to!

    I don’t think I would have reacted any differently than you did. Your post beautifully spelt out how easy it is to assume.

    Reply
  11. Oh, could I relate to this! My favorite babysitter I ever had for my kids was someone who I initially thought should never be around children! She was tattooed and pierced, and dressed in black with chains. No kidding. Plus she had a funny name and came from a different culture. Talk about judging someone based on first impressions! I figured she did drugs and lots of other things. I didn’t want her anywhere near my kids.

    So guess what. She turned out to be the most intelligent, ethical, responsible person ever. She was working on her graduate degree. Drug free. Kind and thoughtful. Great instincts with children. My kids adored her. When she picked up my daughter after school, the other kids drooled in envy. My kids had the coolest babysitter in the universe. I trusted her completely and she never let me down.

    So there you go. I told her once that she was one of my greatest teachers in my life. I am so grateful. My kids still remember lessons they learned from her.

    I try to remember her every time I snap to judgment.

    Great post! And so glad things worked out with your neighbor!

    Reply
    • What a great story about your babysitter. I’m glad you gave her a chance. I have a very intelligent, very heavily tattooed/pierced friend who is the same way: very different from how you might judge him from his appearance. He’s a morning person, loves to go to Disneyland, and a very kind, thoughtful person. Not what you expect given the fact that he has a few dozen tattoos up and down his arms.

      Reply
  12. In reality, each time we look or talk to a person, we’re busy judging them: what they meant by saying what they did, their facial expressions, why they chose not to tell us about a co-worker, their clothing..it never ends.

    I find a better solution is to “give people the benefit of the doubt.” It’s easier to think of alternative reasons for a behavior that seems unreasonable, then it is to simply not judge someone. Even if sometimes it seems like you’re stretching things by giving the benefit of the doubt, you have nothing to lose by doing so. And sometimes even the weirdest things are true.

    Reply
    • I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but in this case, I let my bias run a little wild first. Glad I had time to reign it in before I acted on it, but it’s a good reminder for me.

      Reply
      • Yes, I realize that. I just meant that one way you can tackle that bias, or tendency to jump to conclusions (we all have it in us at one time or another), is to literally state or write down what the possible reasons are for a person acting that way.

        I do it with my kids at home: if they come running to tell me someone did something awful to them, I ask them to think of 3 reasons why the person might have acted that way.

        Of course you took a very concrete step – visiting your neighbor- but I’m just suggesting a method that people can use to block out the “negative noise.”

        Reply
        • That’s a great suggestion, Rachel, especially for a new mom like myself. :) I will definitely use it in the future.

          Reply
  13. There’s a sense of pride I get when I meet new people (especially elders) and we have amazing conversations about life and seeing the world, books, religion, love and art…and the look on their faces when I take off a sweater and my body covered in tattoos is exposed. It’s that look of, “If I had SEEN you before I SPOKE to you, I probably would have never spoken to you at all.” I love blowing their minds just a little!
    I know I’m judged everyday when I walk down the street. I accepted that the day I decided to get my first tattoo. So I approach people humbly, never judging anybody by their appearance. I always smile at people, especially the ones I catch starring at me like a suspect. I find it warms them up to me…and most of the time, they apologize for starring and begin asking me about my art work. ALWAYS give people a chance. You never know, they may blow your mind!

    Reply
    • It’s great to hear your side of the story, iPixie. And I also think it’s great that you make people think before and after they see your tattoos. Hopefully it will make people reflect on how they judge others based on appearances.

      Reply

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