If I asked people to answer me honestly to the question: ‘Do you think you stereotype people?’ I’d probably guess that at least half of the people would lie and say ‘no’. I know I would. No one likes to think of themselves as judgemental, or to think of themselves as someone who would automatically put someone in a box just because of the way that they look, speak, or act.
I’ll put myself up for scrutiny here – I think it’s my journalistic duty to do so – and use an example. Whenever I see a dapper, well dressed man, I instantly start wondering if he’s gay. I know it’s a terrible thing to think, and it perpetuates the stereotype that only gay men know how to dress themselves, but I can’t help it. I also think a lot of the time it’s me living in hope, especially if said gentleman is attractive, that this person will see me, fall in love with me, take me in his arms and carry me into the sunset with him. But, all hilarity aside, I shouldn’t be stereotyping anyone based on how they dress.
Yet it happens all the time. ‘She’s wearing a dress that shows off her body, she obviously has no respect for herself.’ ‘He’s so quiet and never joins in on our jokes about girls, he’s probably a virgin.’ ‘He’s never had a girlfriend, he must be gay.’ ‘Oh my God, I love Sex In The City, do you love Sex In The City? You’re gay, you must do!’ I could have a fun time listing more, but I’m sure you get my drift. These are all genuine quotes I’ve heard from real people. And these people aren’t shallow, vapid, judgemental arseholes. They’re very real, very genuine and lovely people who are all just as guilty as each other when it comes to judgements about other people’s personality.
But is stereotyping really just an inevitable part of human nature? A recent poll on debate.org showed that 63% of people agreed that it was, with many stating that it is rooted into our natural way of thinking and even some saying that it isn’t a bad thing. British psychologist Henri Tajfel, known for his pioneering work on prejudice and social identity theory, stated that ‘once […] a categorization has been imposed, our subjective judgements of the objects are changed‘.
The question is, what can we do to stop ourselves from stereotyping in a harmful way? The answer is pretty simple.
An involuntary passing thought that is stereotypical is not the problem. The problem begins when you take on that passing thought and make it into a bigger thing. The first thought that comes into your head isn’t necessarily what you think; it’s what you’ve been programmed to think. The thoughts that follow are more important because that’s what our brain actually perceives. Cognitive theory suggests that we can control our thoughts beyond unconscious brain activities, so instead of thinking, ‘Look at her hideous shoes, why would you walk around in that state,’ it’s instead possible to think, ‘Perhaps that’s all she can afford, and either way, her finances and wardrobe choices aren’t my business anyway.’
There’s no shame in our involuntary thoughts. The important thing is what we choose to do with them.
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