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.