The dangers of stereotypes we are not aware of

The dangers of stereotypes we are not aware of

First published on Argonaut website on 06.07.2021

I was having dinner in the hotel restaurant, a teenager in his blazer looking very European in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was visiting business schools. A family a few tables away invited me over and to dinner at their home next day. I immediately created the stereotype that American people were most welcoming and friendly. Being my first experience with the Anglo-Saxon world, by inference, I extended it to all English-speaking people.

Based on my observation, I have created for myself the stereotype that native English speakers are welcoming and friendly. Later on, I would learn to nuance my stereotype when moving to the UK.

My observations have led me to attribute behaviour to individual members of a group according to the group characteristics or traits. In other words, each member of the group will behave as per the description of such behaviour of the group.

That is the essence of stereotype, a word which comes from the printing world. It was in 1798 that Firmin Didot coined the phrase to describe a printing plate that duplicates any typography. The duplicate printing plate or stereotype was used instead of the original. It was first used in its modern psychological sense in 1922 by journalist Walter Lippmann.

The well-known iceberg analogy used in intercultural to illustrate the national cultural values in which the visible part of the iceberg represents the conscious actions, and the much bigger and hidden section represents the subconscious and cultural values, can be used for stereotypes.

We can distinguish between explicit stereotypes and implicit ones.

An explicit stereotype is the one in which individuals are aware of holding and use it to judge people. Reverting to the iceberg analogy the explicit stereotype would fall in the visible portion of the iceberg. Individuals may try to mitigate the stereotype they hold but they often fail to be impartial by either overestimating or underestimating the amount of bias created by the stereotype. The stereotype created in the example above would fall in the category explicit stereotype.

Implicit stereotypes are those that are in the subconscious of the individual and therefore they have little awareness of it, if any at all, and thus have little control over it. Such stereotypes are frequently assumptions about members of out-groups, such as other cultures.

Meeting a member of an out-group for the first time may trigger a cognitive process during which the individual will either have his or her assumption in the stereotype confirmed or refuted, or the individual can resist the recognition of the assumption and reject it. In the above example, if I meet an American and I note that he or she is welcoming and friendly my assumption will be reinforced and in so doing strengthen my stereotype. To the contrary, should the American I meet clearly not be friendly and welcoming, my assumption will be challenged to the point of doubt or even annihilation.

Stereotypes impact not only the individual holding the stereotype but also the member of the out-group subject to the stereotype. This happens in very many ways, it can be ambiguity, threat, self-fulfilling or even self-evaluating.

We are told over and over again not to use stereotypes, but we keep doing it. Why is that?

Stereotypes are an efficient tool to create categories and to make sense of the world around us. Our senses are constantly bombarded with information. If we try to retain all of it, our brain would explode, so it is for the brain a matter of survival and the way it does that is by retaining only the information that is relevant to its survival, discarding the rest and organising what is kept into some sort of order including creating categories into which content can be added.

There is a dual danger with stereotyping. One is that the stereotype may well not be accurate in reflecting reality, and two is that it may impede any new information on the individual in front of us differing from the stereotype from being accepted and therefore being locked-in in the assumption or belief and becoming impervious to any notion of revising the holder’s assumptions.

Stereotypes held by individuals are likely to impact on the social behaviour and communication with members of groups other than the one to which the individual belongs.

Stereotypes in themselves are not bad, it is the way we use them we have to be attentive to. In other words, if we meet a member from a group other than ours or out-group, and certain traits and behaviour of that individual do not correspond to what is expected from the stereotype, we must keep an open mind and accept that a group is made up of individuals who may show some characteristics of the group but these are not universal to all the member of the group.

Therefore, awareness and understanding of other cultures and an open mind to notions that may be going against assumptions in stereotypes are crucial in the framework of international exchanges.

Image licensed as Creative Commons 2.0 Share Alike by Cochese via Flickr, adapted

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