What is wrong with stereotyping?

The conversation was lively and interesting. Our hostess had prepared a delicious dinner and served a good red wine with it.

We talked about London and how diverse and cosmopolitan its population is.  Almost inevitably, we classified the various populations into groups and used over-simplified and over-generalised descriptions to categorise them. In other words, we were using stereotypes.

Stereotypes associate and attribute certain conventions to individuals on the basis of his or her background or group they belong to. The initial stereotyping is linked to their national culture. For example, French are good cooks, Italians make good lovers, Germans love rules and order, Americans are loud and brash, etc.

This approach lacks any critical analysis. We have been frequently been told by our parents, managers, teachers not to use stereotypes, and yet we still do.

It could be to retain our sanity, to follow in the steps of the group or what we have learned. We are constantly being bombarded by an increasing number of stimuli from advertising, by announcements, by reminders any where we go, including on our mobile phone where news and other items constantly vie for our attention.

If we tried to keep track of each individual item our brain would explode. Thankfully we have learned over time in our evolutionary story to filter want is important to us, what is of interest and what is vital for our survival, and categorise it into manageable bite size groups.

Stereotyping is categorising certain behaviour norms to a group of people or population and ascribing them to members of that group. It will allow us to have a mental map we can refer to when we meet someone from a different group for the first time and make them less of a stranger and therefore less dangerous.

Stereotype in themselves are neither helpful nor harmful. It is the way they are used that can lead to a positive or a negative experience and outcome.

When we meet someone for the first time, we use stereotypes to position de individual within a familiar framework. The positioning is, more often that not, done in relation to our own culture and behavioural patterns used as benchmark.

What happens next is important and will determine the course of the relationship. For the stereotype to be helpful, the first thing is recognising that a stereotype is being used. For examples, French executives describing British as perfidious, hypocritical and vague or the British executives describing the French as distant, superior or distant are using negative stereotypes to describe value differences; once recognised as stereotypes and going beyond the surface, those differences can be used to create great synergy.

Negative stereotypes use negative adjectives and compares the ‘other’ with our own values, comparison that will always be unfavourable. They call for a judgement of good or bad. Value judgement, and in particular negative values, should be removed from the stereotype for it to accurately describe the norms of the group.

I want to underline the use of the word ‘accurately’ above. To be helpful, stereotypes need to be accurate, avoid ambivalence and be true to the norms they are describing.

The impressions we have of the norm group or of the individual we stereotyped can only be an initial or first impression. Let us take the example of a family name that sounds Jewish, so when meeting the person, we assume they are. If we don’t go beyond this first impression, we will never find out that in fact he/she is Muslim, a member of the Tatar community that established itself in Europe over 400 years ago.

As we continue the observation of the person or people and of the situation, the stereotype must be modified. This is the more difficult part, because we subconsciously hold that what we believe in reflects the reality, even after we acquire information and evidence that contradicts such beliefs.

To stereotype effectively, we must place the people in the right group, we must accurately describe the group’s norms, we must describe the group’s norms not evaluate it, we must not confuse a description of the individual with the stereotype, and modify the stereotype based on our observation and experience.


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