Stereo types come from somewhere

I love to thwart stereotypes. When I ride my bicycle into Stellenbosch kitted out from head to foot in corporate gear complete with high heels, while all the other cyclists are heading out of town kitted out in helmets, gloves, tight padded shorts, water bottles and cycling glasses, I get a kick.

On this day, though, it would not be me who broke the stereotype.

As I often do, I drove down to the train station on my bike and chained it inside the station to the outer fence visible from the road, but safe inside. I boarded the train to Cape Town. It was mid morning and somewhat quieter than in early morning rush hour so I checked to see if I would be alone in the first class carriage or not.  To be safe, I get onto the third class carriage.

Even though I had never been mugged in the 5 years of train travel, there is a risk to a lonely carriage.  In third class are always lots of people, but this time of day it is not so sweaty and crowded as during rush hour. Here I break another stereotype usually being the only white woman in the crowd. This often causes motherly coloured ladies to watch over me and warn me to hold my bag close and keep my phone hidden. They make it safe for me here – there are far more people who care than people who don’t. I smile to the folks around me and listen to Daniel Pinks latest book on my ipod shuffle pinned to my collar underneath my jacket.

An hour and 10 min later, I meet a co-speaker friend of mine at the Cape Town station. Together we drive to our meeting in the 4 star lodge selected for its elegance and private boardroom. As we drive, I relish in the idea that I can straddle the two worlds of 3rd class travel and 4 star luxury this way. It makes me feel alive – even though I sometimes curse the late trains and the inconvenience of not being taken to the door of where I want to be.

After our meeting my friend colleague informs me that he will take me all the way home to Stellenbosh – he does not want me to take the train. This has happened before. People think the trains are less safe than their cars, but in truth, the trains are less familiar and one has less control over them. To me they are familiar enough and I have relinquished my control – or rather – I had never had control over my own transport, so I do not miss it.

I appreciate it very much, I say, but please understand that I am happy to travel by train and used to it. And, I think to myself “it leaves me feeling less dependent and indebted to you.” But I keep my thoughts to myself.

He insists and we leave. “You realise”, I try once more, “this will take you the better part of 2 precious hours”.

“If I was your husband and I knew a friend could have brought you home, I would expect that friend to do so.” I smile and think “Tell yourself whatever you have to, but my husband has made peace with the way I travel, otherwise it will take over his life. We both value my independence.”

On the way I tell him about a new client that wants me to work with their bottom level employees. Absenteeism and lack of motivation is writhe. They also feel entitled to all sorts of benefits, but are not willing to put in the hours.

“I don’t touch that level of employee”, he tells me, “it is too difficult to have an impact there.  I don’t think you can change anything on that level, the problems are too complex and ingrained in societal forces.”

“Wow, I would think these guys would have the most to benefit – call me an idealist, but who will spend time motivating them and really listening to their dreams and ideals?”

“No, I don’t touch them.”

We draw close to Stellenbosch and I ask him to please take me to the train station because that is where I left my bicycle. I secretly wish he could just take me straight home. The train ride does not u irk me, it is the long way home uphill at the end of a tiring day, but there is no way out. I shouldn’t leave my bike there overnight, its not safe and there is no room in his car for it (a luxury sedan is no pick-up truck). We are near the station now and we see a guy on a bike.

“We will see my bicycle from the street inside when we stop, unless that is my bike over there” and I point to the guy on the bike driving away.

He laughs and I smirk at the thought. Jokes like this one is only possible because of the stereotypical idea that the people who travel by train are the same people who would steal a bike if they get a chance.  Yes, we both know it could easily have been my bike – stereotypes come from somewhere.

We find my bike where I left it inside the station, but visible from the road.  My friend says he will wait to make sure everything is ok. I can understand his concern: where my bicycle stands a group of workers, or commuters have made themselves at home in a clump on the ground. They are laughing and talking and playing dice – a ruckus bunch of workers waiting to go home. It is the type of group you could find on a street corner congregating on their way from work, or having a smoke and a drink before heading home – but they were ‘not our people’.

For a moment I think of the time I found my bike with the saddle loosened and almost removed – one guy in a group like that can easily fiddle with the bike to see if he can take it apart or remove a piece to sell somewhere. Yet, I choose to  travel on trust not suspicion.

I walk in among the crowd of men. “good evening guys, thanks for looking after my bike.”

“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I step over legs and make my way through the gazes. As I unlock the chain the front wheel twists and the bike falls over. Immediately there is a guy at hand to help it up again.


“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I smile over at my friend in his car, but cannot see his face. I am so proud of myself. I steer carefully through the group and they make way. I go around and out. I am back on the other side of the fence and my group of bike guards are still watching me as I get ready to mount the saddle and leave, but one of them had followed me outside.

“On no,” I think to myself “here it comes. He is going to ask me for money or net ‘n stukkie brood, Mies (just a small piece of bread Ma’am.” I look up and smile at him, ready to do my usual head shake and disappointed expression. (I am not so proud of myself as I write this. Where is my trust now? Yet, stereotypes come from somewhere.  I look at my friend mournfully: his own misgivings will become justified…

“what do you want?” say my face.

“No problem , Madam, no problem. Just remember to put your pant leg inside your sock so it doesn’t catch in the chain.”

He smiles and waves as I leave.

I smile and wave at my friend. But I cannot see his face.



Skin Sisters: A story for women about making peace with skin colour

About the story

I created this story for a women’s day celebration on a wine farm just outside Stellembosch. In our audience were women with their domestic helper and other women from all walks of life who came to celebrate each other.

Skin Sisters

I was always very embarrassed about my skin. It wasn’t the kind of skin that could tan evenly and become a golden brown in the sun. It wasn’t the kind of skin that freckled evenly like my sister’s either. It was not even the kind of white skin that was milky and smooth all over. It was the kind of skin that was a see through white that turned red in the sun and when the red was gone, there would be the occasional dark large ugly freckle.

When I was around 11 or 12, I found a way to fold my arms so that I could cover the ugliest spots with my hands and spread out fingers without looking too unnatural. I used this hold especially when there were good looking boys around: in the bus on the way home from school mostly.

All through high school I cringed in summer when the girls would line up against the wall sitting with their legs straight in front of them, pulling up their school dresses as high as individual chastity allowed and waited for the tan… Everyone wanted to be as golden brown and gorgeous as Susan, the blonde bombshell 2 years ahead of me.

Having left school and having made peace with most of my teenage demons, I entered the era of sunscreen and umbrellas. If I couldn’t tan, I would bleach. Every morning I would cover myself with factor 40, take up my red umbrella and walk to class or shops and later to work. I would smile and wink at my landlady’s domestic help, Miriam, every morning as she came to work and I left – each with an umbrella in hand. I giggled with my Pedi students about the fact that black girls all wanted to stay as light as possible and all white girls wanted to become as dark as possible. “We all gravitate to the same colour”, one laughed.

Years later when I was in hospital with my miscarriage, I finally found peace. I did not have medical aid then and ended up in the better of the two state Hospitals in my town, Pietermaritzburg. Next to me on the bed was Gertrude, a gorgeous golden brown woman, proud of her half Indian half koi san heritage. She was in for an ovarian cyst removal. We were both in pain after our procedures, we both needed a bath and there was a staff shortage. Somehow we made up our minds to help each other get clean. Side by side we stumbled out of bed, down the corridor to the next bath room, the closest one was out of order, and into the small room. Side by side we removed our hospital gowns, ran the bath and took turns getting in, and scrubbing each other.

I saw with surprise that what looked on the outside like a smooth golden brown skin was mottled in places, rough in others and even speckled here and there. Gertrude remarked that she  had never seen so much white skin in one go. Exhausted from the exertion, we collapsed on the side of the bath side by side clutching our sides giggling at the relief of years and years of unspoken truths around skin colour. And as I looked at the two of us side by side on the edge of the bath, I saw that next to Gertrude’s gorgeous golden brown skin my own white skin had never looked more beautiful


Petro Janse van Vuuren.

Story secrets for Speakers #4 – Your Secret Weapon

Every speaker faces resistance. If you have done a good job of Painting a Picture of the Possibility , Story Secret #1, you can expect at least 5 types of resistance: personal, relational, practical, social and cosmic. Here we focus on the third kind: practical, also called contextual, resistance.

Apart from the personal and moral objections of Story Secret #2, and the doubts they may have about you as the mentor, Story Secret #3, there is a very real practical resistance. How will I do what you ask? What is the plan?  Will it work for me?

Whatever your solution is: 3 steps to losing weight, 5 principles for being an extraordinary leader, or Seven story secrets for speakers, your audience needs to know it will work for them.

Like Aslan in the Narnia series, Dumbledore for Harry Potter and Griet for Liewe Heksie, the guide in the hero’s story can cut to the chase and bring light to the befuddled mind of the main character. The magic weapon often come in the form of three (wishes), five (stones) or seven (dwarfs).  Finally, the guide provides very specific instructions for its successful use: before the clock strikes 12, only when used by an innocent child or only if you use the right words like ‘Open Sesame’.

1. It cuts through darkness

The magic weapon is often a blade of some kind, like Arthur’s Excalibur, or a light, like Aladdin’s lamp. Sometimes it is even both like Skywalker’s light sabre.  The blade or light symbolises its power to break through darkness or cut through the woods of uncertainty

Your solution  must cut through what the audience experiences as darkness. Clean up the myths and misunderstandings around personal tax returns, what diet to follow, or how people deal with fear.  Give them a torch to guide them through the woods.

Your solution must therefore be  simple to understand and easy to remember and yet show that it really gets the audience’s context and obstacles.

2. The power of three, five and seven.

The numbers 3, 5 and 7 each have an internal logic helping your audience grasp and remember it. Stories have used these numbers over and over again.

Think of 3 little pigs, 3 bears, 3 wishes, 3 days in the belly of the whale, or in the grave, 3 time frames (past, present and future), 3 elements (substance, liquid and gas).  The number 3 has an internal logic because it sets up a pattern. Often the first two are the similar and the third is special, a punchline. The older pigs make mistakes, but the third gets it right. Because of the power of 3, 9 also gains popularity: 3 main ideas with 3 sub ideas under each. The logic of 3 is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that speakers use it as often as possible.

Likewise 7 has made its mark: 7 dwarfs, 7 brides for 7 brothers, 7 days of creation and 7 days of the week and 7 holy sacraments. Speakers and writers  employ 7often:  Covey’s 7 Habits or Bruce  Wilkenson’s 7 Laws of a Learner. However, seven similar points can be difficult to remember while five is easier. So 7 items are often broken into 2 of one kind and 5 of another: 5 working days and 2 weekend days, 5 loaves and 2 fishes, or 5 types of resistance speakers face and 2 other secrets that frame the 5.

This is also how 5 gets its significance, although it hardly ever features by itself in stories and myths. . Remembering the 5 is made easier by the practicality of having 5 fingers on one hand. Many writers and speakers find acronyms with 5 letters to strengthen the internal logic of their ‘weapon’ or model:  David Rock’s SCARF model, or the SMART goal model.

3. Rules for correct usage

To ensure that the hero is successful in the use of the secret weapon, the mentor provides specific rules for its correct application. But if practicality was the only reason for specific rules, why make it so difficult: Get out of the Ball by the stroke of midnight… Why not let the magic go on forever? By restricting the use of the weapon, you also restrict the number of people who are able to be successful, making your audience become part of a selected, special group. This makes your model so much more desirable and your audience feel so much more like chosen ones (see Story Secret #2).

While your solution is simple, it is not necessarily easy to apply. It will take skill – but if your audience ‘buys’ it, they will then be open to further training in its use creating longer term clients for you – should that be part of your business model..

Now, think of Neo in ‘The Matrix’.  Remember how you as audience member discover that there is a chosen one who has a special gift and a destiny. Together with Neo you discover that he is the One, but you know it before he does and so the tension builds as you watch him get closer and closer to the discovery.  Then there is that moment when it all dawns on him and his entire life up to that point finally begins to make sense…   He is the chosen one, the one who fulfils the conditions of the prophesy, the one who can manipulate the matrix in a way no-one else can.

Imagine you can recreate that moment for your audience, where, suddenly, in the light of your insights or your model their whole experience around a certain subject suddenly makes sense.  If your conditions for use are such that your audience turns out to be exactly the right kind of people in the right kind of context to use it, you will ensure that their resistance on this level crumbles.

There are only 2 more types of resistance to address, so keep a look out for Story Secret  numbers 5 and number 6

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Researcher, Speaker and Coach

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