1.10.2011

Communication Strategies: Confront Your Stereotypes

Originally, the word stereotype was a printing term that referred to the plate that printed the same image over and over. A sociological or psychological stereotype is a fixed impression of a group of people. Everyone has stereotypes—images of national groups, religious groups, or racial groups or perhaps of criminals, teachers, or plumbers. Consider, for example, if you have any stereotypes of, say, bodybuilders, the opposite sex, a racial group different from your own, members of a religion very different from your own, or college professors. Very likely, you do. Stereotypes may be negative (“They’re lazy, dirty, and only interested in getting high”) or positive (“They’re smart, hardworking, and extremely loyal”).
If you have these fixed impressions, you may, on meeting a member of a particular group, see that person primarily as a member of that group. Initially this may provide you with some helpful orientation. However, it creates problems when you apply to that person all the characteristics you assign to members of that group without examining the unique individual. If you meet a politician, for example, you may have a host of characteristics for politicians that you can readily apply to this person. To complicate matters further, you may see in the person’s behavior the manifestation of various characteristics that you would not see if you did not know that the person was a politician. In online communication, because there are few visual and auditory cues, it’s not surprising to find that people form impressions of online communication partners with a heavy reliance on stereotypes.
Consider, however, another kind of stereotype: You’re driving along a dark road and are stopped at a stop sign. A car pulls up beside you and three teenagers jump out and rap on your window. There may be a variety of possible explanations. Perhaps they need help or they want to ask directions. Or they may be about to engage in carjacking. Your self-protective stereotype may help you decide on “carjacking” and may lead you to pull away and into the safety of a busy service station. In doing that, of course, you may have escaped being carjacked—or you may have failed to help people who needed assistance.
Stereotyping can lead to two major barriers. First, the tendency to respond to a person primarily as a member of a (national, racial, religious) class can lead you to perceive that person as possessing qualities (usually negative) that you believe characterize the group to which he or she belongs. Second, stereotyping can lead you to ignore the unique characteristics of an individual; you therefore may fail to benefit from the special contributions each person can bring to an encounter.
You’re not going to lose your stereotypes. But, you can become mindful of them and, when appropriate, ask yourself if your perceptions of another person are being unduly influenced by your stereotypes.

2 comments:

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Anonymous said...

maestra replying:

Starting around 1870, American newspapers and literary works used both verbal and pictorial content to label southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants as inferior, undesirable, semi-barbaric, excitable, impulsive, inherently criminal, etc. One Ohio newspaper even described them as “descendants of bandits and assassins who were transported to this country with lawless passions and cut throat practices…” As a result of such stereotypes, they were not permitted to enter certain movie theaters or eat in certain restaurants. The extreme outcomes of such stereotyping were the lynchings and murders of 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891, and the executions in the state of Massachusetts of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti. Prejudice against southern Italians immigrants was strengthened by the absence of any real knowledge about them, according to Dr. Leonard Covello, an Italian born immigrant and NYC educator. History has certainly taught us that such negative stereotyping can have dire consequences.

While we cannot completely eliminate our stereotypes, we can certainly work at minimizing our usage of them. We are still constantly being exposed to the negative stereotypes being promulgated by the media concerning various ethnic groups, such as the Italians in shows such as The Sopranos, and individuals of different sexual orientations in shows such as Will and Grace. As one reporter has written: “While many are pleased that gays are finally in the mainstream, the stereotypical portrayal of many of these characters raises an important question. Are programs that feature gay characters a step forward or a step in the wrong direction? While gay characters add diversity, they may unintentionally be reinforcing negative stereotypes.” Not all gay males that I have personally known have lisps or effeminate mannerisms, yet in some television shows, these very same characteristics are being displayed and emphasized. These characteristics seem to be put forth before us so that we can distinguish characters based on their sexual orientations. But does seeing two males holding hands not tell us they are gay, or seeing two men kissing not communicate this same message to us? Do we need the high-pitched voices and the effeminate mannerisms too? I think not.

Being different is what makes each of us a unique individual but, when we cloud our perceptions by stereotyping individuals as members of a particular group, then we adversely affect our communication and interactions with those same individuals. While most of us will not go as far as murdering others based on a stereotype, some of us may go as far as completely shunning communication with a person based on a negative stereotypical image of the group to which he/she belongs. In order to communicate effectively with anyone, be that person of a different ethnic or cultural background than ourselves, or of a different sexual orientation, etc, we need to “have some real knowledge about them” at the onset of our interpersonal communication. Otherwise we may find ourselves using verbal and/or nonverbal content, which deeply offends that individual and results in a breakdown of communication between him/her and ourselves.