Flight 7076 out of O'Hare was delayed a half hour. Not bad for Chicago. It definitely could be worse, and the day was still young. Not enough time to go walking on the concourse, yet just enough time to sit back, enjoy my Earl Grey tea, and people watch.
Studying the group lining up for flight 7402 to Portland, Maine (which was leaving on time), I imagined what life was like for each of the passengers. Did the man in the blue sweater vest with the backpack teach at a college there? How about the woman wearing the hiking boots? Was she a true nor'easterner raised on the rugged rocky coast? Or was she simply a vacationer suited up for anticipated hikes through the fall leaves? Was the guy in the sports coat heading over the red carpet to first class anticipating a fresh lobster for dinner tonight? My mind was busy creating stories associating all I had heard about Maine with all that I saw in the passengers lined up to board.
If you ask people if they stereotype, most would answer no. Stereotype is a word typically insinuating a less than fair appraisal of a person or a group, often times linked to a negative prejudice. Most of us would not want to affirm that we stereotype because of this definition. As a member of some classification or other throughout the course of our lives we realize at least a bit of what it feels like to be categorized rather than seen as an individual. It does not feel good or just.
Yet in the airport passing time, I was unconsciously stereotyping, creating appraisals of the passengers, and placing each of them in my mind in simple formulaic mental categories. My categories were naive and based on what I thought I knew about Maine and what the people who lived there were like, combined with the strangers in front of me waiting to board. Although I would not consider myself someone who stereotypes, I was doing just that. Was this seemingly innocent classifying function of the mind as undesirable as the stereotyping most would not admit to? Is stereotyping always negative?
Stereotyping was first defined by Walter Lippman, a journalist in 1922. Lippman's work is reflected in the book "Communicating Globally, Intercultural Communication and International Business" (Sage Publications 2007). Lippman referred to stereotypes early on as "pictures in our heads". He defined stereotyping as a selection process we use to organize and simplify perceptions of others, forming the mental representation we then hold of them. Lippman felt stereotypes create expectations in our mind regarding how people of various groups behave, and as humans we unconsciously seek to confirm those expectations when communicating.
Why have these preformed expectations of the mind become so undesirable when obviously the process is natural?
It is because, in our interpersonal interactions with someone different than ourselves, we often allow the stereotype to dictate what we experience (or even if we will experience) rather than allowing it to be our first best guess, willing to adjust it based on our interaction.
As Lippman asserted, in communicating, humans tend to process information more readily that is consistent with their preformed mental model. Unconsciously doing that, our stereotyping can directly influence how effectively we initially get to know people. We run the risk of assuming what may not be entirely true, as well as not fully recognizing or seeing the actual similarities or differences that are present.
Stereotyping as a function of the mind will never go away, in fact we do not want it to, for it is a sign we recognize differences do exist rather than being blind to them or assuming false similarity and familiarity. The negative connotation and risk associated with them, however, can go away if we ask ourselves to do the following three things.
1. Become conscious and aware of the stereotypes we currently hold. What factual information can we add to what we know to increase the reliability of what we think?
2. Be flexible. Check our interactions against the preformed stereotype. Stay open to changing thought based on actual experience.
3. Monitor our thinking so we are describing rather than evaluating. Be aware not to assign value to difference. Simply describe the differences that exist. Staying descriptive prevents prejudices cropping up.
When we consciously use and manage stereotypes, they become an initial tool in interpersonal, transgenerational and cross cultural communication. They can provide us with a platform to begin collecting real time understandings of others who are different from ourselves.
Then if someone asks us "Do you stereotype?" We can answer "Yes, and effectively".
We can feel good that by initially stereotyping we are not culturally blind, recognizing differences do exist rather than not.
We can admit to ourselves and others any preconceived notions we might have collected along our way, and be reflective enough to recognize where the ideas came from and be ready to confirm how true or not they may be.
Most importantly we can demonstrate we are willing and able to suspend evaluating people based on expectation, and embrace the experience of being fully open and present when interacting with and getting to know others different than ourselves.
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