Generalizing is part of what it is to be human. In his doctoral thesis, “Transformational Grammar,” the late linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky argued that people use what he termed “mental filters” to make sense of reality. He identified three filters through which we sift incoming information: deletion, distortion, and generalization. Once we accept and understand these mechanisms, we can readily see why we often speak of generational groupings and how, with a better understanding of where others come from, we can navigate generational friction that can drive misunderstandings in life and in the workplace.
According to Chomsky, we use “deletion” to winnow down incoming information. The brain filters out stimuli that it perceives as not important. We don’t even notice white noise, for example. Many short-term memories are deleted without being saved as long-term memories, as we only preserve the important or memorable. We also tend to exclude information that doesn’t conform to our preexisting biases and beliefs. As a result, what this might mean in generational terms is that we don’t readily notice what we have in common, but are more likely to notice what we don’t.
While deletion limits what we take in, “distortion” edits what we keep. We edit memories. They aren’t what we actually experienced, but what we think we experienced. Our brains aren’t camcorders; they are interpretative cognitive machines capable of creativity, adaptation, and context. Thus, our memories are distortions of reality. As this relates to generations, when we read about some inferred trait of a particular generational cohort, we heighten our awareness of the possibility of its occurrence and when we witness it, we consider it as representative of the entire group.
When generalizing, we use past experiences to make assumptions about present encounters. Our brains would struggle to make sense of the world if we had to process all the stimuli around us as if it were novel. Instead, we interpret experiences in the context of past experiences and use these to construct general rules about what to expect from similar experiences going forward. This is a useful mental process–within limits. When we see a dog barking, we interpret the meaning of the bark automatically based on a past experience. We know what an angry bark means. It means we are about to be bitten, or at least chased!
When it comes to generations, generalizations allow us to assign traits to groups engaging in what Pascal Boyer in his book, Minds Make Societies, would call “folk sociology.” We extrapolate based on what we think we know and so create categories – Traditionalist, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z. These categories aren’t necessarily reflective of everyone in the group, but it becomes a heuristic for how we interact with someone we identify as being from that group. And that is where we can get into trouble.
The Risk of Generalizing
All three filters factor into how we perceive others. Dr. Shelle Rose Charvet, in her book Words That Change Minds, wrote that “Generalization is about how we unconsciously generate rules, beliefs, and principles about what is true, untrue, possible, and impossible.” Essentially, generalization is how we navigate our way through the world.
Generalization, if we are not careful, can also lead to implicit bias, stereotyping, and misunderstanding, especially when people of different generations cross paths. Have you ever had an encounter at work with someone from another generation who you deem mystifying and then march down the hall to talk with someone your own age to share how “weird” they are? Since our peer most likely shares our assumptions, we simply validate that they are odd and we are not.
Generational Myth Busting
Before you start stereotyping, classifying, or pigeonholing others or yourself based on assumptions about age, consider these four important caveats:
- Generational narratives are not destiny.
- Generational narratives are neither global nor universal.
- Generational narratives apply primarily to the American middle class.
- Generational shifts are distinct from the “stages of life.”
Our generational moment, place of birth, and life circumstances shape how we interpret new information and experiences. For the first seventy thousand years of being on this planet, we were programmed for living and interacting in small groups. We weren’t designed for having to deal with billions of us. If we are to face the inevitability that, as longevity increases, we will be interacting with people of vastly different experiences, we must learn to give our other generations the benefit of the doubt. Rather than running down the hall to discuss your misgivings when you see them acting in a way you would not, try to imagine they are rational human beings, just like you, and so maybe it’s not they who are off, as it were, maybe it’s you.short url: