Is this categorizing? Is this intolerant? Is this normal? What is stereotyping?
Before you settle down with your thoughts however I’d like to share a couple of definitions that would set up the grounds for the below post.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary: to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same
Cambridge Dictionary: a set idea that people have about what someone or something is like, especially an idea that is wrong
Oxford Dictionary: A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing
It’s interesting how the definitions from these three widely recognized and valued dictionaries vary when describing the word stereotype.
First two definitions in my eyes simplify stereotyping too much, as they imply that these beliefs are unfair or wrong. I also saw definitions mentioning that it is a pejorative idea too. The Oxford definition though takes into consideration that this idea or image may be widely held – so it doesn’t relate to only one person’s views which are wrong. This gives us a nice link to culture studies approach to stereotyping. In addition, the Oxford Dictionary definition does not mention that this idea or image is wrong or unfair, it says it is fixed and oversimplified. This I think is the closest to my understanding of stereotype.
I believe that it is not wrong that we have a certain image of certain groups of people or things in our heads. We need to be extra careful and politically correct when speaking about stereotypes in the context of cultural differences, but I think that it’s equally important to be aware of the stereotyping we make everyday towards some other groups of people as well.
Stereotypes at school
I don’t know about you, but when I went to school I had my own images of certain groups of teachers. For example, I imagined history teachers as quiet and serious, physics teachers as very strict, PE teachers as very fit and handsome/pretty. It might seem superficial, but these are expectations with which I have been entering a classroom in a new school. Whether they were right or wrong, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that I had my own ideas about certain groups of people, that have been shaped by a) my own experiences with these subjects’ teachers, b) my parents’ experiences throughout their education, c) my friends’ experiences at schools. In my case all these three perspectives were often very similar, and therefore enhancing my beliefs. Of course there have been times, where these views failed, and I had a history teacher who was a really funny guy and was really engaging when running his classes. What everyone said then however, is that it’s the exception that proves the rule. How can you argue with that? 😀
When you are moving abroad, you might also have a fixed image of schools themselves in your head, not necessarily only the teachers. I had an idealized image of English schools in my head to be honest after watching many British films. But after reflecting on that a little bit more I managed to point out some pros and cons sides of both Polish and English schooling system through conversations with my colleagues.
Stereotypes at university
After finishing school people often go to a university. Stereotyping doesn’t end there. I would even risk saying it might get stronger as you have more experiences to draw upon when building the stereotypic images. Have you heard people in Poland (I want to refer specifically to the stereotypes I heard about Polish students) say ‘The ones who go to private unis or weekend studies are worse than full-time students because they weren’t smart enough to go to a proper university’, or ‘Law students are boring’, or ‘Medical students have the best parties!’ ? Well, in that case you heard them using a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person. Were they right or wrong? I don’t know. What I know however is that probably there are students who only study at weekends because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to afford their studies, probably there also are law students who are fun and outgoing and probably there are medical students who don’t party hard.
Stereotypes at work
People laugh at certain traits that people in these professions m i g h t have, but what makes them funny is a common understanding of these stereotypes. Whilst some of these jokes may be funny for both, a given professional group and people from outside of this group, some might be hurtful and taken personally. You should therefore always be very careful and take who you’re with into consideration.
Stereotyping may also refer to dating. Have you ever heard people say something like: ‘Don’t date guys from XYZ, they are jerks!’? Well, that’s a generalization as well 😉
And finally, I want to mention cultural stereotypes. So the kind of things you know for sure about certain cultures. Italians are loud and use gestures a lot. Spanish pick up girls on the streets and are all machos. Germans are very down-to-earth and organised. French are great romantics and lovers. Polish drink a lot. And the list goes on.
Are these statements unarguably true? I wouldn’t say so. Do these statements have some truth in them? Certainly! The nature of stereotypes is that they don’t form out of the blue – they are formed based on people’s shared experiences of given cultures also mixed with the messaging from the surrounding media. This is why I would even encourage you to get to know the stereotypes before you go to a foreign country, if you’re not too comfortable when meeting new people. They all have a kernel of truth in them. Stereotypes are of course oversimplifications, caricature of reality, but once you get to know them, I think it is easier to understand certain behaviours in a foreign country and be more relaxed about them.
In my opinion stereotypes although are not a direct reflection of the reality, they are very useful in our multicultural world. There is a very thin line between stereotype, availability heuristic and bias. They may cross each other at some points. But even if we say about a pure stereotype – it might be helpful for us. Imagine a situation when you have no clue that there is a general tendency to a vivid using of gestures in Italy and you come from England. The shock you might have when going to Italy is inexplicable. Am I using a stereotypic thinking now? Yes. But in that case I’d rather be surprised that someone is n o t using gestures (as I would have imagined), than to be surprised (and annoyed) by every other person from Italy I meet.
Hearing the stereotype about your own country, professional group or other group you belong to, people sometimes get easily insulted. My guess is that it is because they actually see these pieces of truth in the stereotypic statements. Especially when working with people from different cultures, it is good to know what stereotypes function about us in the society. It will be easier for us to understand their prejudices and start a meaningful communication. It works both ways though.
As long as we are aware that we are coming to a new country with pre-defined stereotypes in our head, they might help us adapt to the new place.
It’s good to keep stereotypes at the back of our heads and be aware of our prejudices, but we should give priority to keeping an open mind for the experiences yet to come.