A Milder Approach

June 23rd, 2011 | Categories: Stereotypes in General

When people ask me what my day job is, I usually reply that “I study interpersonal communication, which is a fancy term for conversation.” Most of the time the follow up question is “are you studying/judging me right now?”

What do you think your next step would be if we just had this conversation? Unfortunately, for me, it’s often that the person quickly finds a way to get out of the conversation.

Needless to say I am not a fan of small talk that involves what I do for a living.

Although not the best situation for my social life, I thought this conversation would be a useful example to discuss how we can get other people to stop communicating stereotypes.

Here’s why. When I tell people I study stereotypes, the same thing happens. Luckily they don’t leave the conversation. But they do avoid stereotyping.  In this case, unlike when I mention I study conversation, I don’t mind the result.

Why would people stop stereotyping or, for that matter stop conversing me, when they find out this is what I study? One reason is because people are self-conscious. We are aware of how others view us. More importantly, we care. Consider the last time you did something wrong at work. Regardless of whether you showed it or not, you probably cared that you messed up.

We have an understanding of how we want others to view us. We work to make this impression. This is called impression management.  For example, we may want to be the good child or we may want to be the rebellious child. Either way, we have to manage that impression so that how we want others to see us is indeed the way others do see us. Whether we realize it or not, we talk differently, dress differently, act differently depending on the impression we want to make.

So, stopping people from communicating stereotypes is easy. If we each make it clear that we dislike stereotypes or are offended by a communicated stereotype, then people won’t want to communicate these anymore. After all, people don’t want to make a bad impression.

The problem is that it’s not just the stereotyper who is concerned about impression management. Everyone in the conversation is concerned with impression management. In my case, the way stereotyping comes up in the conversation is natural.

Person A: What do you do for a living?

ME: I am a researcher.

Person A: What do you study?

ME: Stereotypes.

Person A: Oh.

In this small talk I am able to make a positive impression (ideally) and combat stereotypes at the same time (without even trying). But for most people discussing stereotypes is not a typical topic of conversation.  Spontaneously, stating your opposition to stereotypes would seem odd and could make a bad impression.

Even worse, if you do object to someone communicating a stereotype, you might well be considered oversensitive.

Person B: Well you know how they are.

Person A: That offends me.

Person B: Stop being so uptight.

Person A: Oh.

In this conversation political correctness works against you. Political correctness has come to be viewed as oversensitivity to diversity issues. Being accused of being too politically correct may cause you to make a bad impression.

So why is it still worthwhile to object to communicated stereotypes? Because prejudice and discrimination exist and are consequential.

Despite the potential long term benefit of preventing prejudice and discrimination it makes little sense to object to a communicated stereotype. The immediate cost of making a bad impression is too high. We have too much at stake in our conversations such as making and keeping friends, getting and advancing in jobs, seeking and developing romantic relationships. Impression management is too important.


you might try a milder approach to help prevent prejudice and discrimination without sacrificing impression management.

Person B: Well you know how they are.

Person A: That hasn’t been true in my experience.

Person B: Oh.

Here are some other options to say when someone communicates a stereotype:

How do you know?

What do you mean by that?

In other words, treat the stereotype the same way you would any statement you don’t understand or don’t agree with. Then see what happens.


let me know how it goes.

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  1. Kim Johnson
    June 23rd, 2011 at 13:01

    Congratulations on your blog. Good topic. Stereotyping is in my opinion one of the more detrimental attitudes of humans. The “Us” and “Them” point of view has caused the death and destruction of so many native societies throughout history you would think humans would realize that there really is no such thing as we are all individuals. It’s not easy to point out to others that they may be dealing in stereotypical thinking…they know that stereotyping is not good, but they don’t recognize when they do it themselves. I’m pretty sure I don’t always catch myself! It is so easy to group and label.

    I’m also a big fan of Myers Briggs (although it too is a form of grouping and labeling) as it usually helps me understand the communication preferences of others…and once I get that I can usually give and receive info in a more comfortable way.

    Keep up the communication. :)

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