A human brain is basically a pattern-deciphering machine. People make millions of judgments daily, mostly unconsciously. Their brains match all new inputs against all the data that resides in their brains. When the first white flake falls from the sky, they don’t consciously match this information against all the memories in the brain. But, unconsciously, they are connecting this image to frames of reference in their minds. They need not fear invasion by cold, wet aliens; it’s just snow, they know. (For some of us, that’s scary enough.)
Our mental framing devices are constantly evolving. Babies quickly acquire the frames to understand that eyes mean humans, for example. But, later, we learn that things that look like they have eyes might be inanimate.
Some of our most central frames are imbued with social norms. Consider the question about how you identify. You likely spent the first couple decades of life honing your identity. Your style, for example, might be incredibly important to how you see yourself. I, personally, have a strong correlation between my identity and my style. I see myself as an outgoing, rule-breaker, and my style is part of that. For others, punctuality might be part of their personality. Musical taste, hobbies, vocal intonation are other examples of how people externally express their identity. And, each of those external expressions is imbued with social constructs. By choosing those expressions, people are engaging with other people’s frames of reference (even if unconsciously.)
External identity markers are based on choice. Other identity markers are inherent to people. Gender, sexuality, race, and class are all accidents of birth. The way you express and live these characters are likely a mix of nature and nurture. The way we perceive other people’s gender, sexuality, race, and class often come down to our frames of reference.
Gender can be particularly hard. Many people have a frame of reference formed in youth that suggests two genders. When we get input that goes against this frame of reference, we can feel confused, confounded, or even incensed. All of a sudden, our accepted frame of reference is being called into question. But, destabilizing your frame of reference can be an important way to evolve your thinking. Confronting new ideas about gender can feel like you are coming against your most deeply held beliefs about your identity. But, other people’s gender identity isn’t about you. It’s about them. Learning to be flexible in thinking and communicating about gender is a way of increasing equity in the world.
Sometimes it is helpful to remember that our frames of reference are culturally constructed rather than absolute. Gender, for example, is considered differently in many societies. A friend recently mentioned Fa’afa, an element of Samoan culture, as well as gender in New Zealand, that is completely different than the binary concept of gender many Americans perceive as a given. In reading some of the resources she passed on (see below), I was struck at how different this conceptualization is my own. This is not a question of debating rightness between any one way of seeing gender. Instead, the frameworks in Samoan/ and Maori society highlight how culturally constructed mine is and therefore helps me remember that my ideas are not absolute or immutable. When you have a hard time thinking about someone who is different than a frame of reference you know, remember the binary is a construct of our society and not an element of all human societies.
Even in our own society, our conceptualization of gender can be more than a simple duality. Look at this example of how gender is expressed in common spoken American English:
Person 1: What time did this letter come in? Who sent it?
Person 2: I don’t know. I didn’t even see the Postal worker
Person 1: So, you don’t know what they said?
Person 2: No idea. Just call them and stop bothering me.
In this example, there is one postal worker who is referred to as them. In spoken English, when a gender is not known, we turn to the collective nouns, they/them. This linguistic norm is so naturalized, you might not realize that you do it. So, when you have problems using a collective noun when a person has expressed their pronouns to be they/them, think of this example. You can do grow to change how you use pronouns.
Like all things human, there are many ways of seeing the world. Remembering that our conceptualization is culturally constructed can help you learn to evolve your way of thinking. Evolving your frames of reference can be an essential way to improve the ways that you interact with others. It can make others feel more welcome, but it can also help you connect with many more people.
Resources about Fa’afa and Gender in New Zealand:
This is part of an ongoing series about small actions you can do to increase your ability to increase equity in society.
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