Stereotypes Help Make People More Sensitive To Others

October 17th, 2012 | Categories: Uncategorized

The Stereotype Guru remains impartial for the most part about stereotype use. I prefer to discuss how they are used and with what consequences rather than to vilify or praise them.

However, many people find some value in stereotypes. Today’s guest blogger Dr. Bill Edwards enlightens TCS readers about how stereotypes are beneficial to improve sensitivity towards others by discussing a lost model he views as deserving further attention. This model provides some theoretical support for those who argue stereotypes are beneficial.

Dr. Edwards cautions his readers to be aware of the difficulties that using stereotypes can cause. Nonetheless, with awareness of these difficulties, he argues that stereotypes might actually help with sensitivity. Appreciating differences can make you more sensitive to others who you assume are different from you.

As a teacher of interpersonal communication, I want to train my students to be more perceptive. The model of sensitivity training which has most influenced me is that of Henry Clay Smith (1913-2005) in his two books Sensitivity to people and Sensitivity training: The scientific understanding of individuals.

Smith (1973) argued that there four skills:

Observational sensitivity is “the ability to look at and listen to another person and remember what he looked like and said” (p. 24).

Theoretical sensitivity “is the ability to select and use theories to make more accurate predictions about others” (p. 24).

Nomothetic sensitivity is “the ability to learn about the typical member of a group and to use this knowledge in making more accurate predictions about individuals in that group” (p. 25).

Idiographic sensitivity is “the ability to use increasing exposure to and information about a person in making increasingly accurate predictions about him” (p. 27).

It is the third skill set which is most relevant to our blog, nomothetic sensitivity (stereotypes or generalizations to use more familiar terms). What follows is how I seek to teach my students about stereotyping.

The third way we come to know a person is through stereotyping groups of people. There are many ways we can group people. Some common categories used include: gender, age, marital status, education, wealth, occupation, religion, race, weight, and community. If you are not aware of a category, you will not be able to use it. In India most people are aware of caste and in England many people are conscious of social nobility. A typical American does not use either caste or social nobility to organize their perceptions.

The most significant question about any stereotype, indeed about any perception, “Is it accurate?” People vary in their ability to form accurate stereotypes. A second significant question is “Is it reliable?” So a stereotype once accurate may later become a distortion. Learning to update stereotypes enhances this mode of sensitivity.

Stereotypes can be misused. Inaccurate stereotypes lead to bad communication. Even accurate stereotypes can be harmful when we do not allow for individual variations. The misuse of stereotypes is called prejudice. It is very useful to know that most Mexicans speak Spanish and do not speak English. Of course many Mexicans speak English. For an English-speaking American to affront a Mexican by speaking despairingly of Mexico, assuming that the Mexican does not understand English, is not only rude, but bigoted.

Accurate stereotypes are useful. Groups of people can be defined in many different ways. Canadians, mothers, teenagers, sailors, English-speakers, vegetarians, and Sikhs each have common characteristics. Knowing about the typical attitudes and preferences, activities and behaviors, and culture and language of any group can help you learn about a person. Stereotypic knowledge is more likely to be useful when it is combined. Assuming you have some useful information about each of the groups (divorced with two teenage children, etc.), then adding the information together can help you learn about the person. So the Canadian woman you are talking to turns out to be a mother of a teenage boy who is a sailor. She speaks English and you heard her say her religion is Sikhism. Your stereotypes can be used to appreciate the person. And if you don’t have a stereotype about Sikhs, getting to know this woman may offer both unique information about her and general information about Sikhs.

We use labels to identify ourselves with groups or separate ourselves from other groups. If a person says she is married, you can use the large store of stereotypic information you have about married women. As we find out about the length of marriage and the presence of children, we can be more selective about the stereotypes we use.

Labels are also useful to distinguish us from groups. An unmarried middle-aged man might seek to identify himself as not-homosexual. Not-being-one-of-those can be more important than the positive declaration about whom you are. This is a common identity problem that anyone can have about wanting to be identified with the majority, e.g., an American citizen in the United States. Sometimes we desire to be identified with a prestigious minority, e.g., Phi Kappa Phi, the college honor society.

What happens when we do not know about a labeled group? You may not know much about Sikhs. So when you meet the Canadian mother who says she is a Sikh, a process of stereotyping can begin. First, you will be interested in determining whether you might be a Sikh, but not having known it. There’s the humorous story about the self-educated fellow, who upon learning the difference between poetry and prose, began bragging that he could speak and write in prose. Second, you will be interested in how the group is defined. In this case the woman who was heard to say it was a religious category. Third, you will be interested in the common elements of behavior, attitudes, and value of the group. Fourth, you will be interested in how the group is different from other groups.

Answering these questions is the way we build useful stereotypes. Observation can be the source of our stereotypic information. Most of our stereotypes are formed by sharing information. Most accurate stereotypes are formed by combining information from what the group members say and what others say about them. When stereotypes are unpleasant, the definition of the group is more likely to be controlled by the outsiders. “Idiots” as a group of people are usually defined by their victims. Someone might tell you, “Watch out for that guy, he’s an idiot.” Your approach to learning about that person and his membership in “Idiots of the World United” would be different from finding out about a Sikh.

Ignorance about a group, the absence of stereotypes, can be uncomfortable. We may react negatively to a person because of our ignorance. To that person our inquiries and assertions may have the look and feel of prejudice. Such questions and observations focus nearly exclusively on how your people are different from my people. Differences are important. So are possible commonalities, the nature of the grouping, and the defining elements of the grouping.

Bill Edwards, Professor of Communication, Columbus State University, 4225 University Ave., Columbus GA 31907-5645,

Smith, H. C. (1966). Sensitivity to people. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Smith, H. C. (1973). Sensitivity training: The scientific understanding of individuals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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  1. acalifano1
    November 27th, 2012 at 21:15

    This was an extremely interesting article. I had no idea there was a terminology for judging people based on their stereotypes but now I do! I hate to admit to this but I am definitely guilty of nomothetic sensitivity. With stereotypes so prevalent in our society, it’s hard not to make or know general assumptions of any group of people. I remember talking about gender stereotypes in my inter-gender communication class. We discussed for a while the stereotypes that typically exist about men and women and the assumptions we often make about individuals. One example we had talked about in that class was male ballerinas. The instant you hear that a guy is a ballerina you assume that he is gay. You may not say it aloud because that’s rude but you assume he is homosexual because ballet is very effeminate and according to our society, men are supposed to be strong, dominant and not ballerinas. Another example I can personally think of is when I hear my parents and relatives talking about some older women friends that are single. They assume there must be something wrong with the woman because she hasn’t married yet and is over forty years old. Women have been placed into this category where marriage is not an option. Every woman should be married and it is strange and bizarre when she isn’t. These are just a couple of examples of stereotypes being misused.

  2. mgersh13
    November 28th, 2012 at 18:40

    Stereotypes can act as a double edged sword. For instance, it’s impossible to live in our society today without grouping or categorizing ourselves. Whether we consider ourselves teenagers, students, sons, daughters, etc. we cannot go through life without being labeled. In one way it is useful because it allows us to identify with those people around us and helps us more easily find our niche in the world. When you find people around you that you can relate to you find yourself comfortable and more in tune with the world. However, having stereotypes can also negatively impact society because you find yourself closed off within your stereotype or group. You also tend to make assumptions based on other stereotypes that you have no personal knowledge about. It is hard to escape stereotypes because although you may change how you see yourself, it is much harder to alter how society sees you. I feel that more often than not, stereotypes present a false perception of people and it is disappointing that many times we never truly know someone, but assume we know them based on our presumptions. I think that a stereotype can never truly be accurate because no such thing exists as an unbiased opinion.

  3. cmastrangelo
    November 29th, 2012 at 09:59

    This article is unique in that it is one of the few times where stereotyping is being supported. When people stereotype, it can help them to be more sensitive to others and aware of them. They are forced to acknowledge differences between people, and respect that not everyone is the same. There is: observational sensitivity, theoretical sensitivity, nomothetic sensitivity, and idiographic sensitivity – these different skills allow people to learn about others, and get a closer look into different cultures. Generalizations can be made about what a particular group is like, in order to get to know them better. When people are too general with stereotypes, or have rude and inaccurate ones, that’s when they can be hurtful and judgmental. If a stereotype is accurate, it can be beneficial for people to get a better idea of what another group is like, and open their eyes to different cultures. I think this article can ring true in certain circumstances, but it is so easy for people to abuse stereotypes. They typically remember negative generalizations about a group, so they go back to supporting only their group. Also, many people are too proud and ignorant to have to curiosity to want to learn about other cultures and lifestyles.

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