By Helen Turnbull, PhD
“You are wrong lady; that cannot be.”I stared at my smart phone in disbelief as I heard the salesman tell me that the measurements I had just given him for my oven were wrong. I was standing in front of the oven at the time with a metal tape measure in my hand. Honestly, I don’t believe you need a PhD to read a measuring tape accurately.
Earlier that week, I had been erroneously advised that my oven could not be repaired and that I needed to buy a new one. My oven is 30 x 59 and, apparently, they don’t make that size anymore. But now I hear, according to the salesman, that ovens have been 30 x 50 since the dawn of time, despite the fact that I purchased the oven in question from his store in 1995.
There is more to this story, and I thought it might be a good foundation for this article. But, while looking for pictures that would help illustrate its point, I found something interesting. I went to Google Images and typed in “woman using tape measure” and, much to my astonishment, I found only images of scantily clad women measuring their own bodies. I then changed my search request to “using a tape measure” and all the images were men at work, usually wearing a hard hat and very much focused on the task at hand.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to catch the implications!
Conscious and unconscious messages and images bombard our senses every day and inform us what to expect of ourselves and others. For example, what image pops up when you want to hire a plumber, an electrician, or a Building Contractor? Which gender and/or culture do you expect to show up with the tools of their trade or profession and which ones cause you to question their competence? Which gender comes to mind when you think about part-time workers and which culture does you think of as “bad drivers”?
Micro-messages and mind-bugs stick to us like Velcro and seep into our psyche like a mind virus. They sit there, dormant, waiting to be activated in our judgment of others.
What value attribution do we place on other people based on these deeply rooted mind bugs? A few days ago I called one of the airlines I use regularly to book a flight. Their system recognizes my phone number and the operator immediately knows who is calling. A woman in a very clear voice answered the phone and said, “Good afternoon Dr. Turnbull, how can I help you, sir?” Needless to say, she was somewhat chagrined when a woman’s voice laughed at the other end of the line.
What is not always understood is just how easily these internalized messages inform the negative judgments we make about ourselves. They create a myriad of ways to convince us that we don’t quite measure up.
We know what people think about us. We know what they think about our social identity groups and we internalize these messages, both positive and negative. If, for example, you are Asian, you know that you are expected to be good at math. If you are overweight or under-weight, you know that society has labeled you as unhealthy; if you are a smoker you know what non-smokers think about you.
Claude Steele, in “Whistling Vivaldi” refers to this phenomenon as “identity contingencies.” We all like to believe that we are autonomous individuals, and yet Steele’s research demonstrates that these identity contingencies detract from our performance in our careers and in life. The amount of brain energy that is allocated to managing ourselves around this level of “noise” can impair a broad range of human functioning. We tell ourselves that we don’t quite measure up. So, we assimilate to fit in. We adjust our style to be accepted. We change what we were going to say to keep people comfortable. In the process we may feel like a fraud, feel excluded or, at the very least, feel we do not have full membership at the table.
Are you using your measuring tape, or someone else’s?
It would be easy to blame others for keeping us down, but it is important to realize what we might be doing to collude. To combat the impact of identity contingency we first need to realize it is happening to us and recognize who is holding the tape measure. We have a choice. We can either let other people define us, or do the work required to catch all of these internalized messages and do something different with them.
For example, I was recently invited to a meeting with someone who is perennially convinced that no one really wants her around. There were eight of us at the table, and she was the last to arrive. The chair that was left for her was at the end of the table. She immediately looked perturbed and announced to the group, “I feel excluded!” Now, it is hard to know how to respond to that, especially when there is more than one end to the table and we were all seated at the same table. Nothing we would have said would have convinced her otherwise—not even the reality that she had been invited in the first place. Sadly, she looks for evidence to confirm that she is not welcome. Based on that mind-set, she frequently finds it.
Personal development and self-improvement are contingent on having a strong self-image and yet, in the face of these identity contingencies we are apt to suffer from the “spotlight effect” and be far too hard on ourselves. We may tend to lean towards the negative; see patterns where there are none; and buy into a socially constructed story about people, events, and situations that may not be true but confirms our bias. We naturally look to confirm what we already know. Just like my friend at the meeting table, we may not be seeing what is right in front of our eyes.