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The Dangers of Stereotypes: Be Careful of Generalizations

In order to make sense of the world, people tend to generalize about groups within our population. We form stereotypes and prejudices based on some perceived common characteristic of a particular category of people. These stereotypes could represent positive, negative or neutral tendencies believed to be common for a group. Without them, we would have to put everyone into a different category, and making sense of any group similarities would be quite challenging.

Here are some fairly common and harmless stereotypes:

Accountants tend to be introverts.

Italians are good cooks.

Lawyers are argumentative.

Of course not everyone in these categories fits the stereotype, but enough do to perpetuate the belief in its accuracy.

Let’s face it: Stereotypes come into existence because a significant percentage of that group fits the stereotype. Stereotypes are established on the basis of age, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion.

However, the more people you meet in any group, the more you will see some variation and divergence from that norm. Categories are never monolithic — there are always exceptions to the stereotype. Though many accountants might be introverts, not all of them are.

Though we tend to focus more on negative stereotypes, we can also misjudge people because of positive stereotypes. Some people believe that most Asians are good in math. Though many Asians might be gifted in math, not all of them are. Positive stereotypes can be as misleading and dangerous as negative ones.

Let’s say that your belief is that Samoans are generally large people. When you are about to meet a Samoan person, do you assume that they will be larger than average? What if they had a Samoan surname but that was their married name? In fact, surnames can be very misleading.

There was a Seinfeld episode where a woman had an Asian surname but was not Asian. Some people incorrectly assumed prior to meeting her that she would be Asian and would adhere to certain stereotypes. They were quite perplexed when they found out she was not in fact Asian.

Assumptions about others, correct and incorrect, can lead to beliefs that aren’t true. It is wise to be careful with your assumptions and your first impressions of others. They might be accurate, but in some cases they are totally incorrect.

Be cautious in your generalizing and use of stereotypes. Let’s say you are going to meet someone who graduated with honors from Harvard. What immediate assumptions would you make about that person? A fairly safe assumption is that they are intelligent. Less safe assumptions are that they are highly successful, have fond memories of Harvard, or read a lot. As seen, some assumptions based on stereotypes are more likely to be accurate than others.

Another apt example could be a stereotype about salespeople. Let’s say that you feel that most salespeople are pushy and manipulative and are only concerned with making a sale. If you have that negative preconception, it will influence your perceptions of people you meet who are in sales. Though some salespeople are overly aggressive, not all of them are. In order to build a wide and diverse network, you are better served by dialing back your strong opinions and trying to give people the benefit of the doubt about their intentions.

Another related example is to refer to people as vendors. Although this category might have some validity, it is unwise to overly stereotype people because of their profession.

I went to UCLA and follow Bruin sports to this day. When I meet someone who is also a UCLA alum, I use this as a conversation starter, like asking about their graduation year or their field of study. However, I can’t be sure that they are a UCLA sports fan. The same is true of having similar religions or being born in the same city. For topics that would seemingly be in common because of shared backgrounds, you should always check that they are more than a generality, and are actually common ground.

In sum, though stereotypes might be somewhat useful in organizing the world, be aware of the dangers of inaccurate or misleading biases associated with them. Keep in mind the exceptions to your generalizations. Check your perceptions, and be willing to revise your assumptions and stereotypes when new data is presented to you. Assumptions based on categories might provide some useful data, but cannot be counted on for completely accurate perceptions.

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Dr. Bill Saleebey is a foremost expert on the psychological and practical aspects of business and personal networking.

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William Saleebey

Dr. Bill Saleebey is a foremost expert on the psychological and practical aspects of business and personal networking.