The Temptation of Generalization

Ike, loyal friend and renegade pee-er. He has no idea what a generalization is.

“That is not a toilet for dogs,” the woman said, shaking her head at me as she peered over her fence at my dog, who was peeing on a tree planted in a scrubby patch of ground sandwiched between the sidewalk and street in our neighborhood.

I briefly considered apologizing, but I was genuinely confused. This couldn’t be the woman’s private garden; she was behind her fence and I was across the sidewalk. Moreover, I had recently seen a sign posted on the tree, I presumed posted by the city or a nearby business, advising dog owners to clean up after their dogs. If the sign asks you to clean up, aren’t you allowed to be there? And you don’t have to clean up pee, right?

I mentioned the sign to the woman (it wasn’t there anymore) and pointed out that the dog had only peed. She shook her head. “This is not a toilet for dogs,” she repeated. At that point, realizing my explanations were not appreciated, I walked away.

But I walked away in a huff. And in my huff, I made a few silent sweeping generalizations about elderly ladies in Germany. Now, it’s true that I’ve received more unsolicited criticism here in Germany than I did in the United States, and it’s true that for whatever reason that criticism, whether centered on my choice not to put mittens on my child or on the alleged fact that the mown path I’m walking on shouldn’t be walked on, has come from elderly ladies here.

However, the difference between “fact” and “generalization” is fairly significant. “Fact” allows me to appreciate both the benefits and drawbacks of people’s heightened sense of social responsibility and obligation to address others who might be “out of line.” “Generalization” only leaves room for resentment.

You would think I’ve lived in enough places to learn that generalization is pointless and narrow-minded. But unfortunately, I think it’s a human tendency we continually fight against. Even when I lived back in the United States, I knew it was dangerously easy to generalize about different groups–political, religious, regional, you name it. It’s much harder to appreciate human complexity and nuance.

My kids and I continued down the path and eventually to a field where we tossed the ball for our dog and he peed again, this time without controversy. As we headed back, we heard a car approaching behind us and I turned to look. The silver-haired woman waving vigorously and smiling out her window at me was Iris, who regularly admired my son’s curls, cooed over my daughter sleeping in the stroller, and scratched my dog behind his ears whenever she ran into us on our walks. I waved back. As we headed into our apartment building, a tiny elderly woman stopped on the sidewalk and beamed at the kids and me, then at our dog.

“What a handsome guy,” she said admiringly.

“Would you like to pet him?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” she replied, and stroked his head. We chatted briefly about how nice it was to have dogs, then wished one another a good day and went our separate ways.

“Two against one,” I had to think to myself as I headed up the stairs. If not a little cosmic slap on my wrist for making snap judgments in the first place, this was at least a good reminder that every stereotype is just as quickly refuted as it is defined. I decided to revise my generalization. Elderly German ladies? They’re actually really sweet.

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2 thoughts on “The Temptation of Generalization

  1. Love this. So true. We never know what an elderly person’s reaction will be to things. My elderly mother can be totally critical one minute and hysterically funny the next. It matters not if your friend, foe or total stranger she tells you whatever is on your mind. Something to look forward too. Oh no!

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