Perceiving individuals accurately is an important skill for anyone who wants to get hired and be successful once on the job. And while most people strive to understand those who are different, the tendency to stereotype can skew perceptions. Still, it's important to comprehend the difference between a stereotype and a reasonable generality about a group of people.
The thing that distinguishes a stereotype from other types of generalities is that stereotypes are inflexible. When we generalize, for example, that all men may like sports, that women tend to be nurturing or that people from parts of Asia generally value saving face, we are making working generalities. These are flexible, and we clearly recognize they do not apply to all members of those groups.
Stereotypes are different from working generalities in that they are applied inflexibly to all members of a group. It is one thing to say, "Some gay men are artistic," and another to declare with certainty that, "All gay men are artistic." The latter statement, and ones like it, are just plain inaccurate. In fact, anthropologists have established that there are more differences within groups than between them. For those of us who like life and relationships to be simple, this is bad news and might make us a bit uncomfortable, but the brutal reality is that inflexible stereotypes will always be wrong.
Given that stereotypes are so wrong, it is odd how quickly we learn them. Our family, friends, coworkers and the media all easily implant these inflexible categories on our impressionable minds and hearts. The most powerful source of stereotypes, however, is our own negative experiences.
The reason negative experiences are more apt to create stereotypes is that we want so much to keep from repeating them. A child touches a hot stove and feels pain. From that experience, he generalizes all hot stoves will cause pain. This learning mechanism works great with hot stoves but is less effective with people and human behavior. Just because one man is sexist does not mean all are. Just because one disabled person takes advantage of status does not mean they all will. Just because one white person is racist does not mean all are.
Even the most enlightened among us resist giving up the stereotypes that make us feel more secure and in control. Here's how to let go:
- Identify Stereotypes: One challenge to ridding ourselves of stereotypes is the fact that we are unaware of what they are. Identifying your stereotypes is easier than you think. It is a matter of monitoring your thoughts when you hear an ethnic last name, see a skin color, hear an accent, see a disability, learn that a person is gay, etc.
- Look for Consistency: Do you have the same reaction to members of a given group each time you encounter them? Ask yourself: "Do I have these reactions before or after I have a chance to know the individual?" If the answer is before, these are your stereotypes. Practice labeling these automatic responses as stereotypes and reminding yourself that they have little validity as accurate indicators of an individual's character, skills or personality.
- Push Stereotypes Aside: After you have identified your stereotypes, learn to shove them aside long enough to see individuals for who they are. Stereotyping is a habit. Just as it is learned through repetition, it can be unlearned through practice. Each time a thought you have identified as a stereotype appears, push it aside. Do not judge yourself harshly; after all, it is just a thought and not an action.
Without stereotypes blocking your view, you will be able to see individuals accurately, not as mere reflections of your preconception. The more you do this, the more experiences you will have with individuals who do not conform to your stereotypes and, in turn, the less credibility those stereotypes will have.