When you think about single people, what comes to mind? My colleagues and I asked nearly 1,000 college students that question (or a comparable question about married people). In response, they could have said anything at all; they could have described any traits, characteristics, or anything else that they associate with single people. What do you think they said?
More than 1 in 10 (11.3%) said “looking for a partner.” The participants generated dozens of associations to “single people” but the only ones more commonplace than “looking for a partner” were “independent” (36.2%), “sociable, friendly, or fun” (21.4%), and “lonely” (16.8%).
It is not just single people who get stereotyped as interested in just one thing – becoming unsingle. People who write about single people get pigeonholed as interested solely in romantic relationships, as I have discovered all too often.
The eminent sociologist Erving Goffman has written about aspects of our identity that rise to the level of what he calls a “master status.” One thing about us comes to dominate everything else. A visible disability or some obvious stigmatized status, for example, can be the one lens through which other people view everything about you. To them, that’s what matters most about you; whether you agree is of no consequence.
In any given instance in which another person defines you by your master status (as they perceive it) rather than seeing your true, multi-dimensional self, the implications can be significant or they can be fairly trivial. Even the trivial instances, though, such as the one I am going to describe here, can be revealing about how entire categories of people are misperceived.
Here’s my story.
I have been reviewing books for Psych Central since 2015, and I have been writing about books, here and elsewhere, for much longer than that. Recently, I asked for a review copy of an important book about themes that are of interest to Psych Central readers. In my email, I said that “I write book reviews and blog posts for Psych Central” and included a link to a blog post listing dozens of them, “Books about single life: Reviews and discussions.” I added that I thought the book I was requesting would be “of interest to Psych Central readers.”
I sent my email to the person who handles such requests at the publishing house that published the book I wanted to review. I’ll call her Felicia (not her real name). At first, she ignored me. After a few weeks, I tried again and got this response:
I appreciate your follow up, we will not be sending a copy at this time, if we have future titles that would be a fit for relationship coverage we can send and you can feel free to be in touch.
All the best,
(Yes, she got my name wrong. That, I didn’t mind.)
“Relationship coverage”? I guess she saw the word “single” in my blog post and leaped to the conclusion that my interest is in romantic relationships. The introduction to that blog post says, “As you will see, I mostly avoid books about dating as well as books with a ‘poor me, I’m single’ sort of message.” Maybe Felicia never got that far; perhaps just seeing that I write about single life was enough for her to assume that what I write about is romantic relationships.
I looked up what the publishing house says about itself:
“Editorially, [this publishing house] focuses on number of key program areas, including: contemporary social issues, with an emphasis on race relations, women’s issues, immigration, human rights, labor and popular economics, and the media; education reform and alternative teaching materials; cultural criticism; art and art education; international literature; and law and legal studies. Across these disciplines, [this publishing house] has also taken a leading role in publishing a wide range of new work in African American, Asian American, Latino, gay and lesbian, and Native American studies, as well as work by and about other minority groups.”
My writings for this blog and other publications have addressed contemporary social issues, including race, women’s issues, labor and economic issues, education, cultural criticism, international perspectives, and legal issues. I’ve written about, or published guest posts about, issues relevant to African American, Asian American, Latino, and gay and lesbian studies. Some of that would have been evident just from skimming the titles listed in that blog post I mentioned. But why look for information about what I really do write about if seeing the word “single” tells you all you think you need to know?
My exchange with Felicia was the most recent example of the mistaken master-status assumption, but hardly the only one. In another example, a reporter doing a story on deception asked to interview me. I said I am mostly focusing on my singles work these days, and if she ever had questions about single people, I’d be happy to talk about any aspect of single life except for dating and other attempts to become unsingle. To which she replied, “Okay, I’ll get back in touch if I write a story about romantic relationships.”
The assumption that “single” means “looking for a partner” goes far beyond what college students think or what people in the publishing world assume when they encounter writers interested in single life. If you are single and you are catching up with a relative or friend or acquaintance, what do they ask you about most often? I bet it is whether you are “seeing anyone.” Maybe the other person knows that you have a life full of people and pursuits and interests that matter to you; maybe your job is important to you. But to too many other people, if you are single, the most important thing about you is what you are doing to change that.