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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Economist, Dentist, Computerist - An Essay on Ist-Ism

"What are you?" is probably among the most often asked questions whenever two people see each other for the first time. Many people are so used to that question already that the answer is quite flat and straightforward - don't expect much more than some job description ending with "-ist" (ideally followed by some impressive title)."What are you?", as if what one works or studied before would reveal anything about her personality.

Even worse, some people apparently even feel the need to declare themselves again and again during a conversation.

A: Me being an ***ist, I think the sky is blue
B: Well, but since I'm a ***ist, I would say it's rather gray

As much as I understand the human need for being part of a group, and also convincing himself about that fact every now and then, I seriously doubt that defining the entire personality by one's job is very smart.

Both of the above are different forms of what I call istism. Actually, it does not quite fit to the definition from the, which says:
An istism is a use of the 'ist' suffix, when being derrogatory. If Alice was to say "I hate coloured people", she would be being RACIST, thefore committing an Istism
So, I'll try to come up with my own definition.
Istism is the attempt to sum up somebody's perspectives about various topics under one umbrella term, topically by his job or one any other group he feels connected to. (e.g., "I'm capitalist, so I think about economics what all capitalists think".) Another form of istism is using the membership to a group as a means of reasoning (e.g. "I (have to) think that markets successfully regulate themselves, because I'm a liberalist.")
In my understanding, istism may be interpreted as another form of stereotypes. Even though the word "stereotype" is generally used in a rather negative way, I think that's only half the story. Quoting a close friend of mine, you also don't wonder whether the neighbour's dog showing his teeth is also willing to use them, but rather see to escape and thereby accepting the stereotype without questioning it in that case.
The world is simply too complex to be fully re-discovered every day, so no, I wouldn't say stereotypes are a bad thing in general. What bothers me about istism, though, is that somebody puts a sticker onto himself and thereby willingly exposes him to all the stereotypes - as if all dentists would be the same! The same in terms of views about politics, hobbies, favourite football club, drinks, ... whatever "really matters".

I think another reason for "What are you?" being asked that often is that people don't know how else to get a conversation started. I normally try avoiding answering such questions too straightforward (unless I'm in a business meeting, where it didn't turn out to be too successful to avoid talking about business matters), and of course, asking them myself either.
Instead, "What are you passionate about?" has worked wonders for me quite often already. For example, I really couldn't imagine one quite ordinary colleague being a passionate writer of short-stories in his free time. Every other minute he loves to spend with Icelandic horse. Admittedly, horses are not my major field of interest, but whatever is communicated with enough passion is simply contagious. I did not start horseback riding myself immediately (having made rather bad experiences on vacation, where I tend to end up with quite red an ass ...), but it was a great starter for an entertaining six hours drive from Bosnia to Vienna. I doubt that would have been possible had we only talked about business matters.

The thing is, everybody loves to talk what he is passionate about (some of our fellows actually even too much so), so I think that's a good starter to really get to know somebody. There might be other ways as well ... so how do you really get to know strangers? And maybe even more important ... what are you passionate about?

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