“Don’t make assumptions.” “Criticize the idea, not the person.” “Avoid generalizations.”
These are a few common rules about polite conversation. But they are broken so systematically that it raises the question of whether the rules are any good. One may vocally oppose generalizations, and in the next breath make a sweeping generalization of their own.
It seems that when someone else makes assumptions or generalizations, we hate it. But when we ourselves have the opportunity, we suddenly remember that assumptions and generalizations have some redeeming value after all. And when we next hear someone else make a generalization, we again forget what that value was.
I assert that the value of a generalization is quite simple. People like to state opinions, they like to hear opinions, and they like to use them to inform behavior. They also like to consider opinions and even disagree with them. And if the opinion is stronger by way of generalization, then all the better.
The question for me is not why we like generalizations, but why some generalizations turn out so wrong. What is the source of our aversion? And how can we avoid the kind of generalizations that produce such negative reactions?
I found my answer in an unlikely place. A few months ago, I had discussed how queer student groups establish “safe spaces” by making several explicit community agreements. For example, they have an agreement of confidentiality, and an agreement to give each person a turn to speak. Among those agreements is one I consider a gem, one that I came to appreciate more and more over time. The agreement is called “Use ‘I’ statements.”
The basic idea is that when you state an opinion, you should make it about yourself and your experience. For example, instead of saying, “Bisexual men are really just gay and in denial,” it is much better to say “I knew some people who identified as bisexual but later identified as gay,” or, “I used to identify as bisexual but I was just in denial.” Rather than stating an opinion on the general nature of things, you are sharing the personal experience which might have led you to form such an opinion in the first place.
In my experience, using “I” statements is highly effective at avoiding conflict and offense. And sometimes, I see a comment on one of my blogs, and even though we’re on the same page politically, something feels off-base or out of line–often this is because commenters are failing to use “I” statements.
And what’s more, this is a clear case where politeness gives rise to more honesty, instead of less. When we use “I” statements, we are actually being more true to our personal experience, instead of trying to pretend that our personal experience is a universal experience.
In short, “I” statements are a tool to avoid generalizations. But they don’t help you avoid just any kind of generalization, they are laser targeted at the particular kind of generalization that is most likely to cause offense. Basically, I don’t care when you make generalizations, not in general. I just don’t like when you make generalizations from your personal experience to say something about my personal experience. When you generalize from your personal experience to my personal experience, not only can I immediately tell that you’re wrong, I also have a strong negative reaction to how wrong we are. So this is the one kind of generalization you should be avoiding.
You may notice that throughout this post I have made many generalizations of my own. This is fine–I am entitled to my opinions as long as they don’t harm anyone, and this analysis would not be possible without going out on a limb here and there. But I always try to leave a gap in my generalizations, a gap made specifically for you, dear readers, and your diverse experiences. I hope that I have been successful.