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The placemat test for narrow mindedness


July 2, 2014
By Dorothy Cotton

I recently bought some ultra modern, white lacquered dining room furniture, quite out of character for me – but that’s another story altogether.

It occurred to me that a white table is inevitably going to get stained, thus there is a need for placemats or a table cloth. I decided to go with placemats and began looking for the definitive one. In my mind, it would protect from the single item most likely to stain a white table – and I would guess that would be red wine.

Have you ever noticed that placemats are not designed to accommodate wine glasses? They typically either do not have room for one or require you to cram all your utensils and dishes together in such a way that virtually guarantees you will knock over your wine glass. This seems like a bad plan to me.

I hunted high and low but, to my surprise, found that placemats come in very few sizes and shapes. Basically there is rectangle… and rectangle. You see the occasional oval one and maybe a shell shaped version for round tables. There are animal shaped placemats – I think you have to be under 10 to use them – but no parallelograms or other quadrilaterals, octagons, triangles or diamond shapes. If the rectangle ones did the job perfectly then I would understand the lack of variety – but they really don’t work that well.

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If placemats are not your thing, let me talk about jeans. Have you tried buying them lately? If you are one of the 98 per cent of people who look really awful in skinny jeans, then you know there’s not a lot of variety on the market these days. (If you are one of the two per cent who think you look good in skinny jeans, I hate to tell you this – but you are wrong.) On the other hand, heaven help you if you find and buy un-skinny jeans because they are not in fashion.

So much for diversity. Usually when we talk about it we mean ethnic, racial and cultural diversity. Canadians pride ourselves on being “diverse” and embracing diversity; Alas, I think it is a crock. Don’t get me wrong, I think we are better about embracing diversity than pretty well anyone else – but we are far from “there.”

Aside from being quite stuck on one shape of placemat and one style of jeans, consider the other things that we reject as undesirable:

• People who wear white socks with their sandals (Criminal Code 354.1(d)2, I believe)
• Fat people – and thin people
• Old men in hats driving Buicks
• Ugly people – and very attractive people
• People who speak with accents
• People who articulate perfectly and clearly
• Lawyers, politicians, psychiatrists and people in any number of other occupations
• Accordion players
• Men with “comb-overs”
• Old people – and young people
• Anyone who looks a little weird
• People with thick glasses

I could go on but I suspect you get the point. Without going anywhere near the ‘Big Diversity Factors’ like race/ethnicity, religion, gender, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation, I can name off a whole variety of factors that cause us to judge people adversely. The fact is that we are pretty well programmed to be a little suspicious of anyone who is not pretty similar to ourselves. One can argue about whether this has been an advantage evolutionarily, but it would be hard to argue that it is adaptive nowadays.

Needless to say, some of us are much better than others at challenging our biases and being open to alternative ways of doing things. People exposed to a range of options and possibilities while they are growing up tend to be more open minded than people taught to be dogmatic and to follow-the-rules-no-matter-what-and-don’t-think-about-the-options. (This is one of the reasons that it is not unusual for very religious people to be less tolerant – many religions are kind of “my way or the highway,” a philosophy that does not engender tolerance of diversity.)

Perhaps you have spent your entire life surrounded by people very similar to you so you don’t even know where to begin when you encounter something outside your range of experience. Maybe you are anxious and pretty well anything new scares you.

Mind you, if you had a whole lot of these sorts of characteristics, you would not likely be in the job you are in. When psychologists assess police candidates, one of the things they look for is reasonable openness to change and new and different ideas. You don’t want to hire people with no regard for the rules and happy to try just about anything – but if you have always ordered the same kind of pizza since you were 15 and avoided that new Ethiopian restaurant down the street because… well… you’ve never had Ethiopian food and it is probably gross, you just might not be as open-minded as would be ideal.

Do you find phrases like the following coming out of your mouth?

• “But we’ve always done it this way”
• “I am sure I would not like it – but I have never tried it”
• “If it ain’ t broke don’t fix it”

Do you like to vacation the same place very year? When was the last time you changed your hairstyle? Do you order at a restaurant without opening the menu? Are all your friend and business associates exactly like you?

You might want to give it some thought. It’s not just an abstract concept. Open minded people are not only more open minded but more tolerant, forgiving, happier, less judgmental, less stressed… and generally a lot more pleasant to be around. They also tend to make better police officers.

Of course. the hitch with trying to decide whether you’re open minded is that you are not likely to know if you’re narrow minded. You may well see yourself as very principled and having high moral standards. If you’re not sure, I refer you back to the “pizza” question.

Or you can have a look at my new prototype placemat. If you don’t like it, then you are narrow-minded.

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