Coping with Stereotypes, Lessons from the Hitchhiker Diaries

I am a trusting kind of guy. I trust in the basic goodness of people. And still, whenever I pick up a hitch hiker, I check where my backpack is and when I drop hitchhikers off, I make sure it is still there. The other day, I picked up a hitchhiker who told a story that gave me an example of another way to cope with the suspicion of picking up a “bad apple” hitchhiker.

He said that he was picked up by an old woman and after he got in the car and she started driving, she said, “I’ve been picking up hitchhikers for long time, and so far not one of them has hurt me or stolen anything from me.” She then looked at him and asked, “You’re not going to be the first, are you?”

We both stereotype the hitchhikers as suspicious and possible of theft. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with stereotypes, and in fact, all humans do it with everyone we meet. The key is recognizing and acknowledging that we do it, and not blindly reacting to it. Once you do that, stereotyping can actually be a resource, not an obstacle.

With the hitchhikers, neither of us ignore the fact that we are stereotyping. But how we cope with the stereotype, what we do with it, is different. I do not ignore that the suspicion comes up inside of me, and I am hoping that the subject won’t even need to be brought up between us. The old lady not only acknowledges that it comes up within her, she tells the hitchhiker that it does, and what her expectation is around it.

It’s hard to change the stereotypes we all have about each other. It is much easier to change what we do about those stereotypes – what we act on. And by being aware of the stereotypes I make, and how I cope with them, there are not as many intrusive thoughts/questions in my head when I am talking to others, and I am better able to listen to their stories and connect with them.

As far as me, the old lady, and our hitchhiker stereotypes go, I can’t really say that one way of coping is better than the other, and both have resulted in no stolen articles yet – although I’m quite certain the old lady has been giving rides a lot longer than me. So, I guess I’ll get back to you in another couple decades on that.