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.



28 responses to “Is stereotyping wrong?”

  1. Yogesh says :

    I think the analogies you have used in capturing stereotypes of people. I think, inherent in it is also an assumption that people behave in a consistent manner. We see certain aspects of a group of people and evaluate their characters from it. For ex., something like rudeness. In certain situations, a group of people tend to behave rudely but some other time in the same situation or in a different situation, the same people would be very polite. Another example was when many were branding middle-class as selfish because of their political non-activism. While people could be right on political non-activism, there are many other areas such as volunteering and donating for charity organisations where many middle-class people are involved. But to see such shades would make it difficult to build a consistent theory. Probably people feel the need for consistent theories like in Science even in these imprecise social sciences.

    I think in India, this has spiralled a lot in the recent years because of many people (especially social commentators) trying to fit India within adjectives. As you point out, stereotyping can be a problem in general but it is exaggerated in India especially in the cultural context. I have faced this when i was abroad where people wanted me to define India’s cultural or social characteristics. Of course, i fell into the trap and then realized the mistake a few weeks later. Then, i was cautious enough to always add a disclaimer. As someone pointed out that everywhere there are counter-examples just that in India they run to a million or so ! This is where i think most of India’s cultural or social stereotyping run into trouble.

    But by far, the biggest stereotyping I have encountered or that irks me is the equating opinions of netizens to citizens of a country. How many times have people talked of India being outraged by something when it is actually a few hundreds/thousands on the internet ?

  2. Dhaval Rawal (@dhavalrawal) says :

    wellofcourse! The Gujarati language has a slang for afternoon sex – baporiyu! Only if they were doing it enough would they have to have aword for it. :P

  3. daddysan says :

    Thank you Dhaval! And I enjoy the attention :)

    On the “good in bed” I remember there was a India Today survey I read a few years ago which said Amdavadi couples are the most satisfied with their sex lives so there may be something to that stereotype after all! :)

  4. Dhaval Rawal (@dhavalrawal) says :

    Agree with the stereotyping you and most others here have mentioned. I love how perception management is helped by a good stereotype and I work hard to be stereotyped and regularly demonstrate the ones I have been included in, like ‘Gujju guys are great with money but much much better in bed’ and ‘I knows more than you, I reads all these cool blogs bitch’.

    What I loved the most about this post is how you have used your day job concepts (marketing) to explain a social situation. This happens a LOT to me when I use ‘let us make a small table’ and ‘the data is incomplete’ for making vacations plans or having a ‘touch-base call’ with mom if I plan to skip dinner at home. In my head I am this super efficient problem solver but IRL others just want to interpolate their palm to my face! 

    Don’t comment often, but I is big fan!

  5. Zennmaster says :

    Finally got around to reading the post after bookmarking it. Loved the marketing mix bits. Though reckon the bits which did stoke the fire to a raging inferno were

    a) The whole thing had this whole I am better than you. You are shit. Much like the scene from Matilda and the crazy school warden. Which I suspect is where most of the religions find their metaphorical rubber torn and wars breaking out like an untended STD.

    b) Absence of self deprecating humor. Like Eminem says, if I bitch about my bum ass then nobody has anything else left to say and I have everything to say about them.

    Though, like you said, open communication and sensitivity go a L O N G way. Though these are hard to find commodities in social interactions. Hope Tyke gets the point and the jokes (when he is of suitable age, of course).


    • daddysan says :

      Many thanks Zennman! Yes, it shouldn’t have been a put-down match, pity because I thought she was heading on a fairly entertaining track before it all went to hell in the second para.

      Love the point about self-deprecating humor. Take the wind out of their sails by taking it out of yours, I say.

  6. rads says :

    heh, That post of sidin’s been making its rounds for a longgg time now into our inboxes. :-)
    It does take a fair amount of delicacy to talk about generalizing differently no matter where we are I suppose, DC standup or on Mylapore streets.

    It’s funny though, you’d think with time, we’d grow, somehow, slowly, evolve. If am disappointed, I feel sorry for the anthropologists kind of folks. Surely, they must be bored by now.. Nothing seems to have changed and yet it has.

    The clarity of a midnight sojourn online is something else. :-)

  7. rads says :

    Good post, and well written. Reads like an essay, and I mean that as a compliment. :-)

    What bothered me was not the letter, which was in bad taste and reeked of a rant which is perfectly reasonable as u pointed out, as it was her space and women (there I go stereotyping ;-)) tend to write when in extreme moods; but the mob (read blogworld) that took it to the level it did.

    Seriously, that bothered me on why folks just don’t read a post in the tone it was written. A rant of some girl who maybe was not in her complete sense, or just not good enough for me to get my pants in a knot. I stopped after two paragraphs, coz my time’s valuable and I honestly couldn’t care to spoil or waste my morning reading what the whole twitter world was agog about.
    Nope, not supporting her. She was wrong, but it really seemed like a witch hunt what happened after.
    That’s mob mentality. imho, not something the rest of the community ought to be proud of.

    Have you read McSweeney? Those are some finer open letters there – for the reason they are written. Humor, relieving steam.

    • daddysan says :

      Thank you rads :)

      I’ve written some rants I wouldn’t necessarily defend today but they were the consequence of a circumstance that doesn’t exist anymore. Furthermore, they’ve remained on my blog where I’m not obliged to provide context, unlike publishing it in a magazine or newspaper.

      Either junta have too much time on their hands, there is nothing called “passive-aggressive” anymore, or her post really had some grains of truth which compelled people to think she was talking about them. And yes, what happened afterward was “mob mentality” but there were pro and anti mobs if you peruse the comments on each blogpost. To me, that’s the really disturbing part – echo chambers.

      McSweeney’s is amazing :) On the subject of regional stereotypes in India, I don’t think there has ever been a post as well-written, genuinely funny, partly true, partly tongue-in-cheek as Sidin’s “Travails of Single South Indian Men”. True class.

  8. Anmol says :

    Lovely post. You sure have a way with words. Don’t tell me you don’t write for a living; that would be such a bummer!

  9. Krish Ashok says :

    Lovely post. You nailed it when you speak of separating the stereotype from the intent. For instance, I sometimes go into meetings having prepared for a certain sort of response that I predict based on a stereotype, like “Germans are anal about detail, so make sure all the numbers in your presentation are double-checked, no matter how trivial”. I believe it helps me sell better and there’s no harm done to ze Germans. It’s a whole different matter if I had one ice cream cone to give and 2 kids (one German and one Dutch) and I gave it to the Dutch kid because Amsterdam is a cooler place than Frankfurt.

    I also think stereotyping is as natural a habit as masturbation. I mean, our brains process a great deal of information all the time and the use of patterns to prevent us from going completely bonkers is precisely one of the traits that makes us masters of the planet, so we’re slave to patterns, no matter how flawed they might sometimes be. Belief in astrology and numerology are among the more dangerous effects of what is ultimately stereotyping.

    • daddysan says :

      One of my clients, also a good friend, is German. He narrated a story of how he traveled to Brazil to attend a meeting meant for 9am. He and his colleague (also German), were in the room at 8.55 sharp and the rest of the crowd sauntered in at 9.30.

      Totally agree with second point, it’s a natural thing. However, in Rabi’s point above, it also occurred to me that this should not be used to condone ills like casteism.

      Astrology is a case of confusing correlation and causation. We seek patterns, bias ourselves to find them in the alignment of stars and the movement of planets and then force-fit those observations to real-world events. Madness! (BTW, don’t we do this all the time with stock market analyses? What’s the difference between a stock market analyst and an astrologer?)

  10. Gargi Mehra says :

    +1 to Bandragirl. I thought of the exact same scene from Up in the Air while reading your post. I love that line – I prefer to stereotype, its faster!

  11. Ankeet says :

    Brilliant article. Just endorses what I have been saying along. Stereotypes are good as long as they don’t affect your decision making abilities.

  12. Ketan says :

    I have a blog post in drafts on exactly the same theme, and the course of ideas in it would have been very similar (but perhaps not articulated as succinctly and coherently), so there is nothing much for me to say (on your post) except that well analyzed and comprehensive! :)

    I just want to focus on the open letter in question. Because I was having a hard time explaining to people why I found it totally unacceptable. And that has got something to do with the “motive”. Had the author restricted herself to simply stereotyping and insulting of ‘Delhi boy’, it would have still been understandable to me, but she also tried to pitch ‘her own’ community as better than the Delhiites, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because this very process of trying to substitute individual identity (and associated pride more often than associated shame) with a group identity is a big problem in that it is polarizing. It invites passionate responses even from those most mentally liberated of such affiliations and the conflict spirals out because of a positive feed back effect. Apart from its ‘sociological’ hazards, it is wrong to me on a personal-philosophical level, because we do not usually get to *choose* such affiliations. So, to get so passionate (shame v/s pride) about something that was an outcome of random chance is silly (though, I must admit, I must have and will indulge in the same in the future without even realizing it).

    Last point – people tend to disapprove of only negative stereotypes, not the positive ones. :)

    • daddysan says :

      Ketan those are two excellent points you made. She used group identities for the wrong motive and that’s why it degenerated into pandemonium.

      Also, good-looking actors must be happy, successful and a source of inspiration, whom we can live vicariously through. You’re right, positive stereotypes are cool :)

    • rads says :

      “people tend to disapprove of only negative stereotypes, not the positive ones” – Word.

      As widely aware that is, it’s just human nature to balk at criticism. Some more than the others.

  13. Yasha says :

    Interesting – what do u do with the stereotypes? But its not always that ud remember u r looking for a pdf – u r looking for the matter inside. May work in case of stereotypes but not in the case of files :D
    Ahem rude puneri from sadashiv peth?! ;) touche!

    • daddysan says :

      The pdf example was simplistic and just a way of illustrating how one basic level of classification can simplify decision-making. Of course, one would want to peruse content and make the right choice so that may require additional classifications like “Marketing whitepapers”, “Corporate Balance Sheets” within the pdf.

      Also the sadashiv peth puneri, surely you’re not like that?! :)

  14. Rabi Agrawal (@rabiagr) says :

    During school I had read an article called “Jatiya Charitra”, which talked about how like people, we can associate some characteristics to specific castes or regions. It should be used to make things simpler. But in India it is used mostly to make fun of others.

    BTW,you have a way with words. You put your thoughts so simply yet clearly! Great!

  15. Aashish says :

    Except for the rude Puneri from Sadashiv Peth, I usually manage to ensure that well cultivated stereotypes don’t afflict my sense of judgment. But inside this city, it is a difficult task :-)

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