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Overcoming Social Stereotypes When Communicating

Overcoming Social Stereotypes When Communicating

One of the greatest barriers to genuine empathy towards people is social stereotyping.  Social Stereotyping is the process of ascribing particular behavioral or attitudinal traits (although it can also often also include physical traits) to individuals on the basis of their apparent connection to, or membership of a group or class.  This may or may not be realistic or based on any personal evidence, but still acts as a mental ‘filter’ through which judgments are then quickly made (often without further evidence to enrich the perception or base it on any facts about the individual).

In broad terms, stereotypes are typically used as a short-hand or time-saving way to “conveniently” categorize people, and/or to ‘simplify’ individual reactions or to help determine how ‘the world’ operates in general. Modern neuro-scientists suggest that as part of the effort to survive in the world, the human brain was “wired” many thousands of years ago to make fast intuitive judgments like this, at least initially, and then add to this preliminary data if and when there was time. In theory, perhaps we have greater capacity to be reflective about other people in modern times. However, in practice, these early assignments of people to stereotypical groups can still prevail for many years if we are not careful.

At the positive end of the spectrum, some stereotypes can be helpful and convenient generalizations which help to bracket how a type or class of people may think or act, such as “a person with a degree is often able to assimilate quite complex data”. However, it is also the case that stereotypes can be applied in a less than helpful and even negative or discriminatory kind of way. A common example here might be something like “People who teach others can’t get a real job” or “female managers can’t take high levels of pressure”. Even these fairly innocuous and broadly aimed stereotypical opinions often leads to not only unwarranted and possibly unfair attitudes in the perceiver when communicating with individuals from this class but may cause harm or suffering to the individual(s) to whom the stereotype is being applied (especially when it is personalized).

Social stereotypes are often formed around groups or classes of people. This may include groups such as:

  • Men or women (Men are strong, Women are gentle etc.)
  • Groups of people from a particular geography (Country, Region, Area etc.)
  • Groups of people with a particular physical characteristic (Blonde, Fat, Wears glasses etc.)
  • Racial groups (Kurdish people are.., Black people are.., Asians are…etc.)
  • Religious groups (Rastafarians are.., Muslims are… The Christian Right is…etc.)
  • And many others…

Although many of the very broad stereotypes are applied in organizational life, the workplace also has its own particular stereotyping examples such as:

  • Groups of people from a particular occupation (Accountants, Engineers, Librarians etc.)
  • Groups of people from a particular department (Sales, Legal, HR etc.)
  • Classes of people (Senior managers are.., the Board are.., Trainees are.. etc.)
  • Classes of people with a perceived work attitude (Ambitious, Boss pleasers etc.)
  • Generational groups (Teenagers are…, Boomers are…, Older people are…etc.)
  • And many others…

As we can all readily see, we are easily able to generalize from very little information to form what may be quite a strong opinion based on the particular group affiliation or membership we have in mind. In other words we mentally infer that an entire set of people are likely to possess a particular characteristic or behavior, even though we also know that this is a huge generalization.

Although it is easy to laugh at social stereotypes, they quickly become dangerous when they are used as a basis for decision-making. In these circumstances, the stereotyper may increasingly hold on to an opinion about a person no matter how much contradictory evidence is presented. In these cases the target individual’s attitude or behavior is pre-determined and often leads to their input being minimized or even disregarded. When this happens communication with whole groups of people can break down, irritation can grow and workplace productivity can suddenly plummet.  What all of this entails is that we should continually question our own attitudes and assumptions about any groups of people and always ensure that our communications are open, genuine and non-judgmental, are far as this is possible. The more we discover real facts and are open to actual experience about an individual, the less likely it is that the group stereotype we may have been applying breaks down or becomes a poor substitute for our experiences (and can therefore be disregarded).

Summary

Stereotypes are not necessarily a problem in and of themselves, as they often help us to summarize information in our minds as a form of short-hand so that we can react or decide more quickly in similar circumstances (especially when we may not have the time to make a more detailed appraisal).  However, the problem arises when we forget the basis of the summary stereotype or apply the model too rigidly and by extending it way beyond its useful purpose-into possible dogmatism and even unfair discrimination. In some cases we may even deliberately start to use the stereotype in a pejoratively negative fashion. When we do this we can not only severely limit our own ability to understand or appreciate another person’s perspective (as an individual and not as part of the group to which we may have assigned them) but cause them undue suffering at the same time. We should therefore very carefully challenge stereotypical thinking that we may adopt in all of our interactions.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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