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Singled Out: The Cultural Bias Against Single People02:40

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Twenty percent of Americans over 25 are single. So why, over and over again, are singles told in ways both tacit and explicit that we are different, not normal? (Ryan McGuire/flickr)closemore
Twenty percent of Americans over 25 are single. So why, over and over again, are singles told in ways both tacit and explicit that we are different, not normal? (Ryan McGuire/flickr)

Towards the end of a long and tiring day, I turned to an email asking that I set up an account with a client’s payroll processor. I was zipping through the digital template when I hit an unexpected obstacle: I could not answer the site’s required security questions.

In what city did you get engaged?

Name of the place where your wedding reception was held?

What high school did your significant other attend?

As it happens, I am single. What to do? I looked for alternate questions but couldn’t locate any. I tried typing in N/A for all but still, no dice. By now, the clock was ticking, my exasperation levels rising. I invented responses, got a green light, and, finally: done and done.

Over and over again, we singles are told in ways both tacit and explicit that we are different, not normal.

When I followed up with the payroll company via Facebook, I received a polite apology with an offer of help to locate drop down menus featuring alternate questions. That might seem like a good resolution, but here’s the thing: What if the default questions had excluded all women, all blacks, all Jews? Would we be equally comfortable saying, "No problem," and directing them to another drop down?

Many of us would say no. Perhaps the strongest voice on this issue is social psychologist Bella DePaulo, author of “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After.” As DePaulo sees it, “[t]he stigmatizing of people who are single — whether divorced, widowed, or ever single — is the 21st-century problem that has no name.” She dubs it singlism.

Some may argue that a business website’s security questions are no big deal, and if this were just a matter of one website, I’d likely agree. But it’s not. Over and over again, we singles are told in ways both tacit and explicit that we are different, not normal. Even if we accounted for just a tiny sliver of society, this would seem a poor choice, both unnecessary and unkind. But, given the nation’s demographics, it’s also bad business: Singledom is soaring in America, with 20 percent of adults over 25 checking the box as of 2012, according to a Pew Research report published late last year. Do you really want to risk alienating a huge swath of the population?

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These days, many of us, both by choice and necessity, spend much of our time online, and our perception of the world and our place in it bears the imprint of this reality. This was certainly the case when I ran afoul of the payroll company's security questions, and it’s an issue that’s just starting to get the attention that it deserves. In a recent Medium piece, Harvard University’s chief digital officer, Perry Hewitt, urges businesses and others to “check your normative defaults” — digital speak for precisely the sort of assumptions that troubled me in the security questions I confronted. Among the examples she offers is the common practice of auto-checking  “male” when sex is in question. “I wouldn’t put constantly having to un-check male anywhere near the category of microaggressions, but is sure gets wearing,” she writes.

If we are to survive -- let alone thrive -- in a world that is increasingly awash in violence tied to differences in race, religion, politics and lifestyle, to name just a few flash points, we need to examine the 'default assumptions' that inform our daily lives.

Wearing is one word for it. We — and I am confident I speak for many here — are tired of being asked to explain and find workarounds for our single status, pretzeling ourselves to fit into a Noah’s Ark world. Some are even transforming this frustration into a business model. One prime example is Melanie Notkin, author of “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” who has become an expert in marketing to the single, childless women demographic through her Savvy Auntie brand. Sara Eckel’s essay “Sometimes, It’s Not You,” published in The New York Times, recently made it onto the paper’s list of “The Best Modern Love Columns Ever” and paved the way to a book deal for “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.”

At the end of our Facebook exchange, my unnamed interlocutor told me that the company would take my complaints seriously, and I believed that it will. I am hopeful that, by the time this is published, those questions will have changed. That is a start.

But there’s a larger metaphor here. If we are to survive — let alone thrive — in a world that is increasingly awash in violence tied to differences in race, religion, politics and lifestyle, to name just a few flash points, we need to examine the “default assumptions” that inform our daily lives. The thing that makes it tricky: Default assumptions almost never present themselves as such. Rather, they tend to call themselves “reality” or “truth.” Yes, our intentions are good, but good intentions aren’t enough. Our world demands nothing less than acts of empathic imagination. Facing up to singlism may seem small, but it’s excellent practice.

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Amy Gutman Cognoscenti contributor
Amy Gutman is a facilitator for the OpEd Project.

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