Posted by: lwagner10 | October 23, 2009

Stereotypes are Strange Things

Stereotypes are strange things.  They are often demonized by minorities but are they really bad.  In reality, they are a normal human way of sorting data about classes of people. When we meet several people in some class, we observe and note commonalities. We use these commonalities to prepare us for further interactions with that class of people.  In themselves, they are neither good nor bad.  It is only when we fail to recognize them as statistical assessments of classes of people that stereotypes become a problem.  This is particularly true when we have no personal observations but are reliant on stereotypes that we have learned from others.  When we believe that everyone in that class is narrowly defined by our learned or emerging stereotype, we fail to understand the statistical nature of the observations. 

Stereotypes can, in fact, be quite useful.  On my first visit to Japan on business, I received a lot of advice on how to interact with my Japanese coworkers.  The stereotype this advice generated was helpful in dealing with the stresses of my first overseas business trip and better interact with my Japanese coworkers.  It prepared me to not have snap reactions to many of things I experienced.  When used properly, stereotypes can prepare us for encounters with people who fall into various classes.  The stereotype can keep us from have a negative snap reactions to people in stressful situations because we are better prepared.  The key to recognize the stereotype as a statistical analysis of observations.  We are going meet people who are clearly outside of the stereotype.  Without this realization, we deprive ourselves of getting a fuller understanding of that class of people.  This type of approach allowed me to get a much greater appreciation of the Japanese people I have worked with since this first visit to Japan.    

Stereotypes become most dangerous when we fail to allow them to develop naturally.  After all, statistics improve in quality as we get a larger sample. As we met more people in a class, we need to continue to update our statistical observations, our stereotype.  In the worse cases, people can reject any data that doesn’t reinforce our stereotype.  This is particularly the case with learned stereotypes and can lead to strong biases and bigotry.   During much of my life, my knowledge of gay people was dictated by learned stereotypes since I had not met anyone I knew was gay.  This was largely because being closeted was the norm for gay people during much of my life.  The stereotypes were extremely negative and depressing.  As I began to meet gay people, I realized that very few of them met even a few of the elements of the stereotype.  I still have a gay stereotype but it is far different than the initial stereotype I had.  Like the Japanese stereotype, it is much richer and fuller from experiencing more people who are LGBT. 

My key learning is that experiencing different people and forming richer stereotypes is a very rewarding thing to do.  It allows growth as a person and builds respect for everyone as both differences and likenesses are stored in our statistical database.  It is all too easy to value the likenesses, but the real learning comes from understanding and respecting the differences.  Some would tell us to embrace the differences.  This does happen as I have learned to embrace the differences between my partner and myself.  For example, we are an interfaith couple, Catholic and Buddhist.  I have come to embrace both religions for what they teach (see my Buddha and Me blog  at  For other situations such as work, respect of differences is really all we should expect.


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