The patterns: labelling, stereotyping, and ADHD

A few weeks ago, I had an odd experience of my feeling. Having a right feeling from an odd experience might sound better fitting. I was visiting Korea for a holiday and first thing I did was go on Youtube and watch almost everything that I couldn’t in internet-deficient rural Malawi. Then I stumbled upon one video showing 2 children asking which one had an ADHD. It was a bit of eye-opener given that ADHD symptoms I know was just about lacking focus and having lots of distractions. The child with ADHD answered questions calmly and very grown-up-like, compared to the other non-ADHD child. After all, the disorder wasn’t just about lacking focus and being hyper-active. I instantly got interested and searched for more about it until I made it to ADHD in adult topic. Upon reading related articles, I had some feelings and got curious if I had ADHD in adult. So I tested myself using the unofficial ADHD test for adults. (Author’s note: The points really don’t matter. This is meant to be a fun and educational video on ADHD. Lots of this can be normal behavior. We’re adding a note to this video soon to help avoid confusion. ‘WARNING: Many of these ‘Symptoms’ are common human behaviors. With ADHD they occur often, and they impair you.)

I thought for a while, wondering if I might actually have ADHD. I wasn’t worried even if I turned out to have it, though. I was more like, “this could be an answer to my problems.” Although I don’t have adult ADHD at least not serious enough to impair my life, I should have felt shocked that I might have an adult ADHD when I started having the suspicion. On the contrary, I felt relieved. I felt defined and understood. If I had spoken out loud, the words would’ve been like, “so it has a name.” That moment kind of empowered me to think that I’ve been normal all along and I’m not weird, it’s just ADHD, I’m not weird, everybody! The moment it gets a name, all the out-of-order behaviours then become reasonable within the boundaries within which the “name” allows. I thought I hated being labelled by anything. After all, I was happy to label myself “disordered”.

Yet, labelling others is predisposed to create stereotypes which to some extent can go as far as racism, sexism, or other kinds of discriminations. Like saying “she is always loud because she’s Chinese,” or “he is sophisticated because he’s from Europe.” (Trust me these are commonly heard.) Stereotypes may or may not be true as the idea is based on over-generalised, over-simplified experiences. Assume that the label accurately reflects reality instead of being stereotyped, like I call someone who’s 230m tall a tall guy. It’s a distinctive feature which most people can notice and remember him by. Is it his identity then? Of course not.

We come to earth already owning some attributes. Nationality, gender, ethnicity, social class, etc. We grow to create and discover our attributes like loyal, creative, punctual, eccentric, intelligent, nerdy, lazy, loud, polite, foreign, cynical, etc. And we gain new attributes; doctor, writer, engineer, teacher, scientist, domestic worker, mother, etc. We have so many to describe ourselves with. But there are probably not many attributes that we grew to identify ourselves with. For example, I rarely identify myself as a woman or a Korean. Even though they are facts, I believe they don’t tell who I believe I really am. I’d prefer words like creative, empathetic, and probably outsider however negative it is. I know I do when I get excited to meet people with similar qualities. I asked my friend who is an adoptee, whether she identifies herself as an adoptee. To speak the truth, it’s easy to forget about every other qualities when someone reveals private and intimate information like that. But for her, she said it’s sometimes easier to tell people the private information because otherwise, in my opinion, the conversation might not go as smoothly as people secretly trying to solve the puzzle. So it’s common for her to face the moment in social events. Her answer was no. Despite that it’s the part of her, she acknowledges, that’s not what she defines herself with.

Yet, we need definitions and we keep trying and define others and ourselves. It’s in human nature. Grouping, which conveniently justifies the small number of samples, helps us easily make sense of different things that are happening around us, even things that we are incapable to understand. So we take the shortcut by categorising and putting patterns of thoughts and relationship to it. It’s called schema. It’s our mental framework that shows how we organise the categories and how we perceive new information. We notice things that fit into our schema and other information that doesn’t then get strained or distorted to fit. It happened to me many times so I had sufficient number of opportunities to observe.

I once invited one of my colleagues who then worked with me in a language school. After she had a short tour at glance in my small studio apartment, she said something like, “so you really do favour western culture.” That was the most puzzling deduction I had to infer back to. Her statement came after she saw a collection of usual kitchen appliances such as a toaster, a coffee maker, and other utensils like wine opener. These are as common as refrigerator in households. My logic arrived at nowhere, I couldn’t understand why any of these stuff were related to western culture. The fact that she spent some time in the US for studying made me more puzzled. She must be familiar with the toaster invention. After she left, I kept thinking why. I’m sure the toaster and the coffee machine were not the reason she thought I was a West-lover. They probably acted as triggers to gather all the previous impressions on my West-loving behaviour. My biggest suspicion was then my boyfriend’s nationality. He was from the very West. And he was very white which helps build the Western impression in Korea. Or was it the stack of English literatures? Or my complaints over Korean stuff? But I complain about every stuff! Later I got to figure out thanks to all the “you’re so different” comments which changed how I view the world.

The way she defined me wasn’t something I did but it’s something I didn’t. My behaviour and attitude did not fit into her schema, which I call Korean standard. She knew that I only lived abroad for 1 year so my Western-like life style isn’t a habit. Then what other factors could possibly explain my attitude? The one that I actually like the Western life style. By distorting the information, now it fits! During first conversations, people often ask me how long I lived abroad assuming I actually came from abroad. And that comes when my attitude is slightly different from theirs. The thing is, I’m certain if they didn’t know I spoke English or give them any sign that I’ve been to abroad, they will find some other explanations like asking if I’m home-schooled. People will find something and often distort the perceived information to make it fit to their standards because otherwise it has no explanations or definitions. Although, schema is not always a negative brain function. It’s designed to help people understand and adapt to the changing environment. Plus, it’s energy efficient since all that is required is following the previous paths without any proactive thinking.

Schema and stereotypes which often are incorrectly encoded definitely don’t describe us. So I will cross out inaccurate reflection as a way to define us. If both accurate and inaccurate reflection aren’t the way to a proper definition of person, what is? I realised it from my ADHD case. I want to be defined by the name that understands me. We can’t get away from defining others and ourselves. I believe it’s true that we want to belong to certain categories. Because we want to make sure that we are not alone. It’s really not about accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s the qualities that I actually take care of for having, presenting, and improving.

Photograph: Peter Clarkson

Published by


An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *