How do stereotypes impact our lives?
What do we mean by stereotypes? The dictionary defines ‘stereotype’
- A person or thing that conforms to a fixed or general
- A standardised, simplistic image.
The background to this edition of Inspire came about from a
discussion I had one night, where two different individuals came up with two
classic stereotypes. One person from overseas was talking about how reserved
British people are and that all they engage in is small talk. Another talked
about how women are good at talking, in fact, they can talk for hours about
nothing, while men tend to be less talkative. I think you will agree that these
are perhaps ‘standardised, simplistic images’ of us Brits, and of men and
I certainly know many talkative men and quiet women. I also
know a fair few Brits who happily open up and talk deeply on a range of topics.
However, these two people were fairly convinced that their view of the world
We can have stereotypes about different professions, races,
politics, gender, hair colour (fiery tempered reds, dumb blondes!!), short
people, tall people, thin or fat people, people from the country or from
cities, or from the North or from the South. You name it, we will have
stereotypes about it. And we can all fall into using stereotypes, even if we
believe we are quite even and fair minded. Having started to write this edition
of Inspire I am amazed how in the last 24 hours in discussion with others some
minor stereotypes can be revealed by our conversations, including mine!
What stereotypes do you have of others? Think about recent
conversations, what stereotypes have they revealed in your thinking or in others’
How are stereotypes formed? In order to make sense of the
world and the massive amount of information that we gather from our five senses
every second of the day we do need to cognitively make generalisations, and delete
some information, or else we would become overloaded. Our generalisations are
usually based on a mixture of experiences and beliefs. When we are growing up
our experiences start to imprint on and create our own unique map of the world.
If you were surrounded by extravert, talkative men and quiet
women, then you might start to believe that men are chatty and women aren’t,
this would become part of how you see the world. If, however, our father was a
‘silent type’ and our mother was an extravert, we might have a very different
view of the world. Our brain then looks out for and tends to pick up evidence
that will confirm our beliefs. We only see and hear what we want to see and
hear and will tend to dismiss evidence which is contrary to our beliefs. We even
have the expression: ‘The exception that proves the rule’, which basically says,
‘oh yeah, there may be exceptions but we are going to ignore them and stick
with what we believe’!!
What ‘exception that proves the rule’ have you come across?
'Man is what he believes.’ Anton Chekhov
Stereotypes – good and bad influences. Of course, at its
worse, stereotypes turn into prejudice, division, distrust, hatred, conflict
and even wars. Stereotypes can also lead us astray in other ways:
- We can avoid certain professions and jobs, which we might be
suited for, but our stereotypes and beliefs might put us off, or we might think
we are not right for them as we think we are not that ‘type of person’. I
remember wanting to be a trainer but thinking I was not extravert enough to be
one. It was only over time that I realised that there are many different types
of excellent trainers who do it in their own unique way.
- We might be put off potential partners, as they did not
conform to our stereotype of a romantic partner. With having a number of
friends who found love later in life, they often said that their partner didn’t
seem the type of person they would usually go out with, but they found they
were very well suited. Perhaps with age comes some wisdom to overcome the stereotypes
that draw us to unsuitable partners.
- What we believe, we tend to attract into our lives. If we
believe that all strangers are friends we have not yet met, we are going to
approach people in a very different way than if we believe that we can’t trust
anyone. These two beliefs will impact on our demeanour, body language, how we
communicate with others, either attracting or repelling others, creating our
own self fulfilling prophecies.
Not all stereotypes are negative. We can think that certain
groups of people have lots of positive characteristics. However, as with any
stereotype this might not be accurate, and also is often at the expense of
another group of people whom these esteemed people are held up against.
What positive and negative consequences of stereotypes have
you seen in your work, your life and your community?
Stereotypes in the workplace. It is very easy for people to
get stereotyped at work. Having worked with many diverse teams and
organisations it is interesting how this can play out in some organisations
(but not all, of course!).
- Field people seeing office staff as unhelpful, not
understanding the pressures that they face out in the field. And office staff
seeing people working outside of the office ‘gallivanting around the countryside’
and hopeless with paperwork! In one organisation they organised work shadowing
so that the office staff went on the road with the field staff for a few days,
and vice versa, for them to understand the differing pressures and frustrations
that each faced, as well as understanding why they might each have different
needs and want things done in a certain way.
- Staff seeing managers as being controlling kill joys, and
never satisfied with anything. While managers seeing their team members as
irresponsible, not able to take on responsibilities, can’t be left alone for a
minute. On my team working events we explore Transactional Analysis, which
helps managers and team members to see that they each need to take
responsibility in order to develop Adult to Adult interactions that will foster
effective and more enjoyable team relationships.
- Personality stereotypes are a classic and when I use Myers
Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) with some teams and I warn against people saying
‘I am a ENFJ, that is just me, take it or leave it.’ When actually the whole
point with MBTI is that we can use our least preferred personality types when
we need to. It might take more effort but we can do it. Or we can negatively
stereotype personality types that are different from us.
I had one senior manager who was convinced that ‘Perceiving’
types never got their work in on time. In a tower building team exercise with an
equal split between ‘Judging’ and ‘Perceiving’ types, both groups actually
conformed to type with the J’s getting down to building their tower with little
discussion of the various options, just keen to finish the task on time. The
Perceiving types spent 15 minutes of the 20 minutes discussing options, then
with 5 minutes to go they built a tower that was not only taller, but stronger
than the other team, proving the manager wrong about ‘Perceiving’ types, and me
correct in that they might leave things to the last minute, but they deliver
the goods on most occasions!! Click here
for more information on MBTI or email me at email@example.com
if you want to use MBTI with your team, or on a 121 basis.
What can you do to challenge stereotypes? The first thing is
to address them in yourself. Catch yourself when you start to think or say:
‘All X are Y’, or ‘The problem with all A’s is they are lazy, good for nothing’
or even ‘All B’s are bright, engaging and sociable’. Start to challenge
yourself: is it all people in that group, are their exceptions that you come
across that you have dismissed because they don’t fit in with your beliefs and
stereotypes? What evidence do you have which supports your beliefs or counters
With others it can be harder to challenge stereotypes
because they can be built on people’s beliefs that are not always logical,
therefore logical arguments do not necessarily work. Also, if we are faced with
stereotypes that offend us, we can become emotional which does not help the
situation. Therefore, take the following steps to help you to deal with your
emotions and react in a constructive manner:
- Take a few deep breaths, calm down, and even leave it a
short while until you are calm enough to talk rationally and logically about
- Ask questions, seek to find out their point of view, ask for
examples, and ask them if they have ever found people or situations that don’t
conform to those stereotypes.
- It is often easier to take the approach above, rather than
try and argue your differing point of view, as stereotypes are not necessarily
based on logic, therefore logical arguments can often lead nowhere.
- Perhaps agree to disagree, as your viewpoint will be based
on your own experiences and beliefs and might be as strong and long held as
- As stereotypes are part of how we process and structure the
world, perhaps we can just view them as different ways of seeing the world.
‘Never try to reason
the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be
reasoned out.’ Sydney Smith