Is stereotyping wrong?
Here’s what I think happened. A girl got her heart broken and penned an angry letter. Instead of letting the page lie buried deep within the recesses of her computer’s file system (or deep in her drawer, if she’s the old-fashioned writer), she posted it on her blog and titled it an “open letter”. An open letter to a stereotype she built (I felt) semi-humorously before tearing it down ruthlessly using the perceived superiority of another stereotype, her own. An own-goal, really.
After its daily fill of nyancats and lolcats, the internet turned its attention to this post and things really heated up. That’s because the stereotypes were chosen very carefully to offend. There were replies, some temperately-worded, some not so temperately-worded. Passions stoked enough for folks to choose a side. Some bravely fought against the tide by murmuring “generalizations”, “individuality” etc, to no avail.
I learned a few things about stereotypes and want to put them down here mostly because I want to be very clear about what I’m going to tell Tyke.
Stereotypes classify people based on a set of standardized, widely-held beliefs. This isn’t very different from segmenting consumers in Marketing theory. We use terms like behavioral segmentation, attitudinal segmentation, etc and stereotypes are a special case of segmentation where nuance is sacrificed for the convenience of reducing complexity. Why complexity? Because dealing with humans is an arduous task. Stereotyping may also be an offshoot of the need to process information efficiently to survive. Decision-making becomes tougher as the number of discrete pieces of information we have to process increase. It’s what you’d do in a disorganized folder with a thousand files spanning different names, dates and file formats. Perhaps you’d create separate folders for pdfs, powerpoints, word documents etc, so the next time you need to access a pdf, you spend less time searching through a mass of documents and simply go to the folder for pdfs. We can utilize the time saved to formulate sophisticated survival strategies instead of spending it merely coming to terms with our environment.
Files and folders are inanimate. How would classifying people serve us better? I applied classifications at work and tried to look beyond roles,responsibilities and geographies. Hypothetically, I could classify my clients based on certain behavioral traits – e.g. seeks quantitative validation vs prefers qualitative judgment. It works very well for me because the level of effort required to consult to either type is very different. Furthermore, I’ve used my experience and instructions from my predecessor to apply these criteria. When my successor steps in, I’ll probably instruct her/him on this aspect of categorizing clients so they work more efficiently.
– Does the process yield distinct results? No. If one asked the clients themselves they would disagree saying it’s a “mix of both” although they would admit to leaning toward one more than the other.
– Is the process fool-proof and dependable? No. There could be a situation where a judgment-heavy client swings to numerical validation because the boss demands it. Then I’m in hot water for making assumptions.
– Does the process work for me? Yes. 90 out of a 100 cases it does and I’ll live with those odds.
So is this process of applying experience, precedent and biases inherently wrong? Not every time.
So why do cultural sterotypes always sound so wrong? “Rapist Delhi boy”, “Studious, culturally evolved, doe-eyed tamilian girl”, “Stingy marwari”, “Rude Puneri from sadashiv peth” are some prime examples.
Motive, open-mindedness, communication and sensitivity.
If my motive is malice, it’s rather easy to put together the least desirable characteristics of a community and paint everyone with the same brush. Malice could be driven by revenge (assumed in the case of the offending blogpost above), humor (cultural and racial stereotypes are perfect fodder for comedy, as evinced by Chris Rock’s hilarious takedowns of African-Americans and their quirks) or utter joblessness and a nasty streak to put down people perceived better than themselves (trolls). On the other hand, like my example of categorizing clients, one may genuinely be looking to reduce complexity in decisions. Classification in such cases is just that, classification. They turn into stereotypes when there is lack of open-mindedness.
I think of open-mindedness as a feedback loop into decision-making. In my work example, the “going-in assumption” about the client is based on long-term memory. However, if I don’t include real-time observations and correct the course of my analysis, I’m heading for disaster. For example, I may have historical proof that a certain client focuses only on insights that can be backed up by numbers instead of taking leaps of faith. However, one day as I launch into a detailed analysis of the numbers behind a certain analysis, the client rejects my findings and decides to go with her gut instinct. I must incorporate this new observation into my mental model of the client to avoid nasty shocks in the future. With religious and cultural stereotypes, the conditioning since childhood is so strong, we end up closing our minds to what’s happening in the present.
Communication matters. As a marketer, you’d be committing career hara-kiri if you put out an ad that said “and for those who are lower middle class, earn salaries of less than 40,000$ per annum, don’t aspire for sophistication and are very conservative in your views, there’s this wonderful new brand of shampoo…” A gun to the head would be easier. Although these characteristics helped focus marketing efforts, sharing these as-is could lead to trouble. Similarly, if I let on that I consider a client number-heavy with no emphasis on qualitative judgment, they may take offense. So, either you take the trouble to provide the right context to a stereotype or just shut the hell up.
Finally, sensitivity. The African-American audience at a Chris Rock show roar with laughter when he talks about their quirk of adding spinning, chrome rims to their vehicles. Of course every black person in the audience doesn’t spend money on rims but they know where he’s coming from. They don’t have ten sticks, a couple of iron rods, two horses and a cart with rims stuck up their backsides about it. It’s always better to be less sensitive unless the motive is malice directed at you personally, in which case a little resetting of expectations is called for.
Stereotypes aren’t “wrong”. It’s what you do with them which makes them right or wrong.
To the writer of the open letter, perhaps you’d want to recalibrate your stereotype whenever you meet a Dally boy (open-mindedness). If you meant malice toward that one special person no longer in your life, I hope the post was cathartic and you’ll move on (motive and communication). To the readers of the open letter, relax! Of COURSE not every Delhi boy owns an SUV and is a cad (sensitivity).
PS – I intend to be open-minded about this post so please feel free to share views that add better detail or may differ from mine.