WLTM: What we seek behind the label when searching for the perfect match

In a recent conversation with a geologist friend, Mark, who has travelled the world and lives by the motto ‘The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all!’, we explored the issue of advertising for an employee or flatmate and the characteristics that describe the ideal match. Below is our conversation (abbreviated). It raises some interesting questions about the values that we attach to certain social identities – e.g., being female, Christian, Dutch etc. Why do we pay attention to these (and use them to select people to be part of our in-group) when it is the values/traits that underlie these labels that mean something to us?

Mark (in Abu Dhabi): Lots of signs here with things like ‘flat mate wanted, Filipino female only’ etc. They’re for flats, work, domestic work living in etc etc. The criteria are generally female, filipino, indian, muslim etc only. Now obviously would cause uproar among the chattering classes (Wikipedia: a politically active, socially concerned and highly educated section of the “metropolitan middle class” especially those with political, media, and academic connections) in blighty (Britain) with wholesome discussions about the vileness of discrimination whilst sipping tea and and eating scones, biscuits or cucumber sandwiches (preferably with no crusts if you don’t mind). Just wondering what your thoughts were!!

Nathalie: I think political correctess is overrated! Don’t get me wrong it did the job to make people aware of their biases but now it’s time to control alt delete the thinking about cultural and gender differences. They exist. They can benefit a dynamic of a group. That said, such ads indicate certain intrinsic qualities and traits associated with being female, Muslim, fillipino etc. So the ads should list those instead of the social identity…

Mark: Cool response. I agree appart from the last part in that if these adverts are like this, there is always a chance that these things have occurred as a result of experience and maybe the realisation that it is the cultural background rather than the intrisic qualities that counts. Hmmmmmm maybe something for study for the next Freakonomics book!!

Nathalie: Of course, but we need to be careful how we interpret the information that we learn on a daily basis. So, let’s just agree that culture is the shared system of meanings of a group. That means all groups have a culture- national, sport, religious etc. Once we are a member of that group we learn about the do’s and dont’s. We also have personalities (extrovert/introvert etc). So, as humans we’re a bit of a mix. Now, i met you over 10 years ago. You were in a certain state of mind but you’re also from a certain culture. I could’ve drawn several conclusions about what you represented and what I (dis)liked. Could I have allocated some traits to your Englishness or perhaps your mixed background with a touch of Italian? – sure. If I then met new people, with similar backgrounds, could If expect them to behave in the same way. Yes, that’s called stereotyping. Which isn’t necessarily bad (stereotyping is just a mental short cut in this ever increasingly complex information overloaded world). But it becomes problematic if I add value (pos or neg) to those stereotypes (English = good). Let’s say, you moved away and I wanted a similar friend so I advertised in the lonely hearts ad section for an educated Englishman with a hint of Italian, then expecting to meet someone with your traits and characteristics. I would’ve been better off asking for an intelligent, high octane, friendly, etc. kind of guy. Makes sense?

Mark: Perfect sense! And agree completely!

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