If the Cliché Fits…

I’m no advocate for stereotypes in general. Among other reasons, I find them to be suspicious and unreliable. But sometimes I can’t help indulging, if only briefly, in some admission that there are some that are based in truth. Some, mind you, not all and not many.

Take, for example, Hal. Hal is travelling from Ohio. He is a middle-aged businessman who enjoys a good game of golf, particularly if the company is paying for it. He is tall, but he allows himself to hunch over, evidence of what might long ago have been some vague insecurity about his height. No signs of that insecurity now. Hal has made something of himself. He needs to prove himself to no one. The clubs in his bag are proof enough.

Today is the perfect day to head to the course. It’s sunny, and there doesn’t seem to be much wind. To hell with the golf shoes: Hal is on vacation. Flip-flops will suffice. He practices his swing a few times, all the while calling it a futile exercise; Hal’s swing is top-notch. He wheels the golf cart to the first tee and lights his stogy. Oh yes, it’s going to be a good game.

We managed to somehow make it to the first tee at the same time and were thus paired with Hal for the eighteen-hole duration. Throughout the game, we learn nothing of Hal’s personal life. Is he married? Does he have children? Grandchildren? What kind of business is he in? All we know is what we see.

Somehow my mind wanders to every image I’ve ever conjured of the traveling businessman making the most of his time on the golf course, but all I can see is Hal. I’ve seen him on television sitcoms all my life. He’s in movies and books. He’s in commercials. Hal is that guy. In my mind’s eye, Hal has a modest home in the suburbs. He has modest cars and a modest wife. Occasionally he knocks back one too many beers at the July 4 barbecue, but since that’s only once a year, it’s no big thing. Hal has a 401K with his company, and he’s hoping to hold onto the job for just a few more years when he can (finally) retire. He has children who should be finished with college by now and almost are. When they’re finished, he and the missus will look further into buying that vacation home. Whether Hal has any of these things is irrelevant. This is what my media experience has taught me about guys like Hal.

If I thought this stereotype was dangerous, I would never have allotted the situation so much attention. But Hal’s situation has me thinking: where do the stereotypes come from? Would Hal be offended if he knew I thought of him this way? Would he be amused? Does his life follow this outline at all? Without really realizing what I was doing, I created a tidy life story for Hal, and in reality I know nothing about him. Why do I do this? Is it wrong? How do I stop?

*Disclaimer: I don’t manufacture life stories for everyone I meet. I think poor Hal was simply typecast based on a fleeting moment of boredom. Forgive me if this was wrong.


2 Comments on “If the Cliché Fits…”

  1. If I could put my two cents in, on the one hand, I don't think there is any reason for you to stop your mental imagining of what Hall is really like behind his somewhat opaque exterior. Because we are human beings, we constantly create stories, creative narratives about each other, and we let our imaginations go until sometimes our own stories are not recognizable to even the ones who first authored them. We create stories, informed by the stereotypes that have been reinforced our entire lives, and we form a narrative of the world that then becomes our world.On the other hand, when a person isn't forthcoming, all we have to rely on to get information about them is their behavior. They way a person dresses tells us a lot about how that person either is, or how they want to be perceived, for instance. So you ask the questions, "Is it wrong? How do I stop?" and I say that you shouldn't stop at all. You are helping to mold the world by creating narratives that explain how the different parts are related and how we fit into the whole. I think you have a gift. So, go on, tell us more about Hal and other people like him.

  2. Thanks! I don't know if I'll be able to help myself. This sounds like what we were talking about earlier this week (or last week I guess) about stories within stories. I love it!!

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