The term stereotype comes into the behavioral sciences such as psychology, communication, and sociology from the world of printing. A stereotype in printing was the mold or plate that was used to print the same image or piece of text over and over again. In his Public Opinion (1921) journalist Walter Lippmann used the term to refer to the “pictures in our heads.” These pictures or ingrained images in our head lead us to interpret what we see or hear in terms of these images. And so instead of seeing a particular migrant worker as an individual, you perceive this person filtered through the image you have in your head of “migrant workers.” Stereotypes are thinking-shortcuts; instead of concerning yourself with the specific individual, it’s a lot easier to simply apply the stereotype (the fixed image).
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines stereotype as “a generalization, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that is used to describe or distinguish a group.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image. The Media Awareness Network (www.media-awareness.ca) defines stereotype as “A fixed, commonly held notion or image of a person or group, based on an oversimplification of some observed or imagined trait of behavior or appearance.”
Although we often think of stereotypes as racial (and many are), stereotypes may actually refer to any group covered by the same label. If you can name the group to which an individual belongs, it’s possible to entertain a stereotype about that group and hence that individual.
Here’s a quick way to begin examining your own stereotypes. Consider the images that come to mind when you hear such group names as the elderly, lesbians, Republicans, grandparents, college students, or athletes. If the images that come to mind are vivid and clear cut, it’s likely that you have strong stereotypes. If no images or a varied group of very different images come to mind, then it’s likely that you don’t have strong stereotypes. Recognize too that stereotypes are, especially within the college environment, negatively perceived and so people are likely to minimize their own stereotypes at least when talking with others. Yet, stereotypes exert considerable influence on most people, even those who deny they have stereotypes.
Stereotypes—as the definitions cited make clear—are usually offensive; they have negative connotations. The elderly as absent minded, the athlete as dumb, or the mother-in-law as trouble maker—and you can easily fill in many others that are a lot more offensive—are examples that come readily to mind and that are negative. But, there are many stereotypes that are positive; the grandparent as all-loving and all-caring, the Asian student as dedicated and bright, and the African American as strong and athletic are good examples.
Three main problems that can result from stereotyping should be mentioned here.
First, stereotypes influence what you think about specific people who are members of a group. Because stereotypes are overly general, they frequently distort your perceptions of others, especially your initial perceptions. If you see a person through a stereotype, you’ll apply characteristics that go with the stereotype (illegal, loyal to family, dirty, hard working, and so on) but these characteristics may not apply to this particular individual. In this way you fail to perceive the individual accurately.
Second, you may fail to see the uniqueness in an individual if you only see him or her through your stereotype. And after all, meeting and interacting with other people are enjoyable largely because of the individual’s uniqueness. If you fail to see this, you’ll fail to enjoy and perhaps profit from this individual’s uniqueness.
Third, stereotypes—because they assume all members covered by the same label have the same characteristics—can often form the basis of (and often a misguided justification for) discrimination. If you can say that all members of X group are Y (and if Y is something negative), then discrimination in hiring, promoting, respecting, or learning from can easily follow. If all Martians are stupid or lazy or uneducated, then there’s little sense in hiring or promoting them and you certainly wouldn’t respect them or feel you could learn anything from them. General Semanticists, in their emphasis on recognizing uniqueness in everything and everyone, put it this way: “The more you discriminate among, the less you can discriminate against.” The more you distinguish among Martians, for example, the less you can discriminate against the group. The reason is simple: If you distinguish among members of a group, any stereotype will surely break down and be shown to be inadequately descriptive because you will see the enormous diversity within any group of people.
Stereotypes are relevant to all forms of communication but perhaps especially to intercultural communication. When you communicate with people who are different from you in terms of religion, nationality, ethnic background, affectional orientation, age, or gender, for example, you run the risk of interpreting them and their messages in terms of stereotypes.
With increased exposure to a wide variety of the members of any one group, your stereotypes are likely to breakdown. The reason for this is that through such exposure you’ll see the variations between and among individuals rather than the sameness that defined your stereotype. Once you see that gay men, for example, are as varied in their attitudes and values as are heterosexual men, you’ll have trouble retaining generalizations or stereotypes; you’ll see that there are just too many differences among gay men for any stereotype (despite Will and Grace) to seem reasonable.
Perhaps the best kind of exposure is through actual communication interaction. Reading about different groups or watching movies portraying group members will also help. And that, to my way of thinking, is one of the great advantages of a college education. It ensures that you’ll get this kind of exposure—to a wide variety of types of people (teachers and students) and to a wide variety of ideas about people, through lectures and readings.