THE BLOG

What Exactly Do You Mean?

04/14/2015 11:12 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

When I was in high school, a friend made some complaint about "the Chinese kids." It bothered me that she effectively used "Chinese" as the qualifier for behavior she found to be annoying. "What do you mean 'the Chinese' kids?" I asked. "You know," she said, "the ones who hang out in the hallway." "So you mean the hallway clique, not 'the Chinese' kids," I challenged.

In our uber-cliquey school, the distinguishing characteristic that my friend found annoying was a personality trait common to kids who hung out in a particular hallway -- as opposed to those who hung out in the Advanced Placement Room, on the front lawn, in the back courtyard, or elsewhere. True, the kids who hung out in the hallway were, as I noticed after this exchange, mostly if not entirely Chinese-American. Then again, the school itself was easily three-fourths Chinese-American -- making my friend's comment especially amusing, as I look back on it today.

Over the decades since, I have found this core issue repeating itself: People regularly confuse the difference between a characteristic and a classification. In college on the East Coast, for example, I encountered the term JAP, Jewish American Princess, used to describe someone who was materialistic. Why not just call someone "materialistic"? The term "JAP" said more about conventional notions of Jews and women than it did about the person it was describing. That's one of the reasons why I loved living in Israel for four years: If I was in an especially ornery mood one day and happened to act like a jerk, another Israeli would just think I was being a jerk, instead of thinking that all Jews across the planet were jerks at all times.

We frequently ascribe traits to someone (violent, intelligent, cheap, successful), on the basis of something irrelevant to the matter at hand, such as ethnicity, religion, sex, or nationality -- whichever we may take issue with, for reasons of our own ignorance or unprocessed baggage. As an extension of this impulse, our language is often sloppy and poorly thought-out. Put the two together, and we effectively limit the room we give others to be who they are and grow into who they are meant to become. We also limit our own self-perception, as well as our ability to perceive others clearly.

By way of example, imagine if our society used descriptive terms like "powerful," "driven," and "outspoken," instead of "masculine," and similarly, if it used descriptive terms like "nurturing," "elegant," and "soft," instead of "feminine." I suspect that from a young age, we would feel and give each other more permission, freedom, and space to be our authentic selves -- to explore who we are with an attitude of curiosity and discovery, instead of feeling constricted by pre-determined gender roles and assignments.

Similarly imagine if our society used words like "diminished," "disempowered," or "degraded," instead of "emasculated." This descriptive language would enable us to get underneath what we really mean when we say "emasculated," and in turn, it would help us to understand and challenge some of our social codes. On that note, I question why there is no female equivalent for "emasculated" in our language. Have women not been diminished, disempowered, and degraded by men?

In my own case, from kindergarten on, I was repeatedly told that I was too strong, too outspoken, too loud, too fill-in-the-blank, while my best friend David was told that he was too soft, too gentle, too sweet. Too too too... divergent from the way society wanted us to be. Instead of seeing children like David and me as evidence that the feminine/masculine ideology might need some retooling, the world around us demanded that we conform to its norms, no matter what the cost to our souls.

And so, three years into our friendship, David and I were romping around in a park near his aunt's house, where both our families were staying for the weekend. After running through the trees by myself for quite a while, I went looking for David, who had disappeared. He was sitting by the river, looking intently into the water, a container in hand. "What are you doing?" I asked. "I'm trying to catch a frog," he answered (operative word: trying).

Even back then, I was busy escorting spiders out of the house, and not long after, I would become a young vegetarian. I had no tolerance for putting animals into captivity, and I gave David a piece of my mind. He cried, telling me how his parents, both immigrants, were pressuring him into this kind of behavior, out of their quest for him to become an all-American boy. I sighed. "Give me the container," I told David. I squatted near the river, scooped a frog into the container, and said, "Let's go." Shortly after, with pride, David presented the frog to his parents, who oohed and aahed over his accomplishment.

By the time he was a young teenager, David was broken, and our friendship was over.

We are walking wounded in large part because of how we construct our own identities and how we identify others. People are social creatures by nature, so we need the recognition and affirmation of those around us, to help us flourish and grow. When we carelessly impose onto an individual our ideas of how they should behave as part of a group, and conversely, when we thoughtlessly ascribe to an entire group the characteristics of one individual, we contribute to an environment of discord: We encourage people to feel uncomfortable within themselves and with each other -- leading to a cascade of emotions like fear, shame, resentment, and anger, all of which feed into a vicious cycle. When instead we open our eyes, minds, and hearts -- allowing other people to teach us who they are and using that information to rethink our own ideas about who we are and how the world works, we open the doorway to truth and transformation, and in doing so, a world filled with harmony.