The harm comes when a demographic belief hits actual people instead of concepts of people. (Learn how to resist assumptions in the book Time to Listen.)
References to groups of people by demographic, coupled with phrases about their behavior, intentions, or worth, is common in media and in our day-to-day work and chats with friends. For example, The survey says 66% of teachers want online learning in fall 2020, but those respondents who are 55+ are less likely because they are less tech savvy. Or, My daughters are just like typical teenagers: whiny and self-centered. These kinds of demographic generalizations are the foundation of racism and other demographic discrimination. Discrimination comes when you apply these thoughts you have about big groups to a specific person.
Notice when demographics are cited, and notice when you cite them yourself.
A seemingly innocuous example: I was walking down to the bakery last Spring when I turned a corner and encountered a woman in a down vest walking her little brown terrier dog. The dog started barking when it saw me from about 30 feet away. I just kept walking. And about two seconds later, the dog ran straight at me still barking ferociously. From three feet away it launched itself at me and bit my hand. “Hey! Ow!” I yelled. By this time I realized it was not on a leash. I looked at the woman to see if she would control her dog. When our eyes met, she said, “You’ve got to be firm with him.” The little barking dog circled around for another go at me. What went through my mind was this: I am bigger than this creature; I can kick it away. But that would make it yelp in pain; the woman would yell at me for intentionally hurting her pet. So instead, I spun away from it and pulled my hands in close to my body as it launched itself for another attack. Its attempt went wide, I hurried off a few paces, and after I was around the corner, I regained my ability for rational thought. I should have told her, “Please put that dog on a leash! It bit my hand!”
This is not the only time a terrier dog has acted aggressive around me. I check my hand where I was bit, and the skin is broken. There is a little drop of blood. I start complaining to myself about terriers. I grumble about people who don’t walk their dogs on leash in the neighborhood. There was another incident last year involving a huge black Bouvier, a deer, and a lot more blood. What is it about dogs and leash-less owners around here?! Don’t they care about the rest of us in the neighborhood?
Then, I start thinking from the owners’ points of view. The Bouvier’s owner told me he was certain the dog was under voice control. There was pride in that accomplishment. It took hours of training and also constant focus on his dog while walking. Perhaps the terrier’s woman was training her dog to voice control. I’m not about to go back and ask her, but I do realize my grousing about leash-less owners is a demographic generalization. I can’t assume they don’t care about the rest of us in the neighborhood.
There is a global tendency to generalize behaviors of a group when referencing or using research results. Many people have a subconscious habit of naming a demographic and extrapolating or implying a behavior. Even thought-leaders and highly experienced people do it. When you find a pattern in your data, like, “59% of product managers and UX designers aren’t interested in learning how to work better together,” the human mind simplifies and shortens it to something more black-and-white like, “product managers and UX designers aren’t interested in working together.” It’s a reflex.
There are obvious problems with this reflex. One is that people are likely to subconsciously believe the simplified statement, even though most would be reluctant to say it that way out loud. When asked, they’d say the simplification is not true for all members of the demographics mentioned. Maybe they’d react with a personal story to refute the premise or something to explain the exceptions. “I have a friend who is ________, and they’re nice.” But deep down, that simplification is taking root. It causes a bigger danger: a risk of treating someone–or designing software–according to the simplification. For example, it might be an app that helps product managers and UX folks collaborate, with the base assumption that the two groups are reluctant to do so. The software will only feel right for the subset of people with the “demographic behavior” distilled from data. That subset is much smaller percentage than the survey data makes you think. People are complex.
But it’s just a way of talking, right? Wrong. Often demographic statements are made in an attempt to call attention to something, or to establish camaraderie or humor. For example, an explanation I heard of the 2000 Florida butterfly ballot recount went like this: “Pat Buchanan is a religious fundamentalist kinda guy, not the sort of person a bunch of Jewish grannies are going to vote for.” The phrase “Jewish grannies” is cute; it makes you smile. “Jewish grannies” stands in for the concept of people who were New Deal beneficiaries 70+ years ago who have been showing their gratitude to the party by voting Democratic ever since. Of course, not every person who has grandchildren, is female, and identifies herself as Jewish has benefited from the New Deal or voted strictly Democratic for the past seven decades. And not everyone who has benefited from the New Deal has loyally voted Democratic or is female or has grand kids, and so on. Why quibble about a cute phrase? The harm comes when the phrase hits actual people instead of concepts of people. This is when a person can feel discord because of a statement or because of the way someone or some algorithm has treated them based on an incorrect demographic assumption.
There’s something slightly, subtly, or aggressively painful going on here that you can work to correct.
Replace the demographic habit
- Make yourself aware each time you say something that is a behavioral generalization based on a demographic. Decide you want to notice it, and you will start to notice it. You might avoid calling it out when other people say something like this, lest you come off as sanctimonious. But there are situations where it’s called for.
- After a few months, once you’ve got that awareness, then you can try stopping your sentence midway through. Allow yourself to re-think what you were about to say. Then try to restate it based on a pattern of thinking. “Pat Buchanan is a religious fundamentalist kinda guy, not the sort of person a bunch of New Deal beneficiaries who’ve been showing their gratitude to the Democratic party for the past 70 years would vote for.” Yes, it’s more wordy, but it clarifies that there are other related patterns that could also be acknowledged. Yes, someone may call you “politically correct” because you sound like you’re trying to avoid giving offense. So this leads to your next stage.
- Try to acknowledge several of the underlying patterns that may apply in the situation, especially if you’ve listened to the people you’re referencing and have heard their inner thinking. Instead of “migrants” or “refugees” you could reference three patterns of thinking you know about: “those whose livelihood at home fell apart and are seeking a livelihood in another country,” “those whose personal safety is threatened at home who have decided to flee their country,” “those who are seeking their identity and want to be part of another culture,” and “those who are using migration as a cover to move across borders for covert reasons.” Saying these variations out loud helps establish the variety of thinking and behaviors that exist in any group of humans.
Practicing awareness of demographic assumptions will help you expand your curiosity about the multiple perspectives within any group of people. It will help your organization develop the cognitive empathy needed to understand the different purposes people have, and to support some of those purposes in better ways. Exploring the problem space is an important way to mature and diversify your product — and pull your assumptions out of the shadows.