i’m not the kind of person who likes the phrase "i’m not the kind of person"

“i’m [not] the kind of person who…”

since the start of grad school, and even more since i got involved in a predominantly white church, this phrase — once nearly absent from my daily conversations — has popped up with increasing frequency. whenever i hear it, my reaction is visceral; i have to consciously restrain myself from wincing. it sounds, to me, like fingernails on a chalkboard. and i think the reason for it is that… i’m asian.

allow me to explain.

western culture, generally speaking, values the uniqueness of the individual. it prizes the understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses and believes that these characteristics are important. western culture also values self-knowledge. thus, it makes perfect sense that the phrase under discussion — about oneself, about the kind of person one is — would emerge in western culture, or at least in ours, and be seen as useful and perfectly inoffensive.

when i hear that phrase, however, i hear one of two things:

1. an excuse. “i’m not the kind of person who is good at numbers.” “i’m the kind of person who doesn’t do well in x or y situation.” what sounds to some like an understanding of one’s weaknesses sounds to me like an excuse for poor performance or low effort. didn’t do well on a science test? oh, it’s not you, how little you studied, or how little you tried to understand the material; you’re just not a science person. you are constitutionally incapable of doing well. it’s just not who you are.

this attitude would never fly in my asian home, nor in any other asian home i know. asian parents, broadly speaking, do not care what kind of person you are or are not; you are expected to perform. no excuses. i was expected to excel as highly in english and social studies as i was in math and science. any talk of not being “the kind of person” who could do this or that would have been read as the whining of a lazy, insolent child. and hell, even if it were true that i wasn’t some kind of person, it didn’t matter, because i could become it. i would just have to work harder. (many thanks to amy chua, tiger mother, for helping me articulate this idea in a way that i couldn’t before.)

though i left my asian home more than 10 years ago, these values have persisted. whenever i hear someone say “i’m not the kind of person who does well in this kind of environment,” i roll my eyes. because the reality, in my mind, is that you could be if you tried harder. i see this phrase as an excuse to give up, to let oneself off the hook, and i have very little respect for that.

2. a boast. “i’m the kind of person who doesn’t put up with BS.” “i’m the kind of person who dives into things headfirst.” the other function this phrase serves is to highlight a quality that makes one awesome. this also irritates me — again, largely because of my asian values. in asian cultures, a large premium is placed on modesty (edit: the new york times‘ david brooks just wrote a timely and salient editorial about this). you are never to make note of your own great qualities, even if they actually exist, because it’s off-putting to other people. ergo, i have a very low tolerance for bragging, and this phrase is an oft-used vehicle for that.

i have especially little patience for this phrase because it makes the user sound incredibly self-unaware. you’re the kind of person who always shoots other people straight? but you aren’t. no one is like that 100% of the time. human behavior is so contextually bound that these kinds of statements are indefensible. so using this phrase, to me, makes you sound like you’re not terribly aware of your own behavior and the variations therein — which is ironic, because use of the phrase is intended to demonstrate that you know something about yourself.

so. given my hypotheses about culture and the use of this phrase, it now makes sense to me 1. why i very, very rarely hear asian americans use it and 2. why i hadn’t heard it very often before grad school. my friends growing up didn’t need to tell me what kinds of people they were, nor did we really know when we were 9; the friends i made in high school and college were nearly all asian; and not until grad school did i start meeting significant numbers of non-asian people as an adult.

now, i’m not saying that:

– … i don’t value self-knowledge or understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses. i’m completely for these things, though clearly, i’m particular about how they’re discussed. even saying “i don’t do well in these kinds of situations” is more palatable to me, for some reason; maybe because it sounds less absolute, less rigid.

– … everyone who isn’t asian uses this phrase, makes excuses for poor performance, and/or brags about themselves. i’ve only heard the phrase from a small minority of non-asians i know, perhaps because most of them are both humble and self-aware.

– … the asian way is better. asians aren’t known for being particularly self-aware, and i include an excruciating number of qualifiers whenever i’m required to describe or disclose any personal attributes (“i feel like usually, in situations like this, i tend to…”).

anyways. i apologize if i sound like a judgmental biznatch — i am, at least some of the time. but using this phrase, in my mind, is essentially putting oneself in a box, be it negative or positive, that simply isn’t true.

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