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Maximizing a Valuable Social Tool
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic challenges the oversimplified assumption that stereotyping is bad. In this exploration, we look at what stereotypes are, how they are applied and misapplied, and how to leverage the strengths and avoid the pitfalls of this powerful social tool.
Introduction to Stereotypes
Stereotypes have been getting a bad rap for quite some time now. They’re often viewed as an insidious manifestation of sexism, racism, ageism, or pretty much any negative fear. We can quickly bring to mind common negative stereotypes but have we considered their positive role in how social humans interact?
The humor of the video is that some of the most common stereotypes are true to a large portion of the population and to a large degree of application. If they’re so accurate, but they’re also supposed to be so bad, what are stereotypes?
ster·e·o·type /ˈsterēəˌtīp/ Learn to pronounce
a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
I think this definition is pretty accurate but I disagree with whether these really are ‘fixed’ images or ideas. Clearly, stereotypes ebb and flow and are added and removed over time as the context or target of the stereotype changes. Therefore I propose this definition to provide a bit more context:
A stereotype is an average of the observed characteristics of a population or population subset.
Stereotypes, also known as profiles1 are applied at all levels. Americans writ large, Black Americans, Hipsters, Catholics, East Coast, West Coast, Southern, Midwest, Rednecks, Golfers, Football Fans. The more you dig the more you uncover an unending clustering of every conceivable grouping of identities. But why is this?
We have stereotypes for the same reason we have 200 other named biases working in our brains. First off, we can’t compute every possible permutation and second, we don’t have the time to spend trying to identify a friend or foe. A stereotype is simply just a measurement heuristic based on population averages.
Counterintuitively, stereotypes are also known as social graces. The way we act with grandma vs. the way we act with our friends at a sports bar is a great example. Stereotypes allow us to walk into a new situation and, with a solid degree of accuracy, identify not only friends and foes but also a workable profile of social engagement rules to avoid being terribly awkward.
For example, consider the motorcycle groups Hell’s Angels and Bikers for Christ. There’s a lot in common as they drive the same bikes, wear the same-looking clothing, and group together in the same ways. As such, you could be confident in walking up and talking about the nuance of a Harley motorcycle and could even communicate on the road using hand signals. But beyond that, there are going to be a lot of differences to be aware of. But for a first engagement you have a pattern to work off of that can reduce the risk of getting crosswise with the Hell’s Angels. Conversely, even knowing the name of the groups provides a powerful stereotype where you can assume a level of difference even though, on the surface, they appear 90% similar.
At a larger level, we train people to understand and recognize the stereotypical behaviors and expectations of populations through studies of organizational behavior and cultural studies. This is as simple as the style of dress and engagement in an east coast office building versus the same job at a San Francisco office. It can also be as complex as the unique cultural idiosyncrasies of behaviors and expectations that are so well outlined in the book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. By understanding cultural expectations, you can enter with a baseline stereotype and adapt as you learn more.
Fundamentally, stereotypes and profiles are ubiquitous, underpinning how humans naturally process the world and define cultures, in-groups, and out-groups. Not applying stereotypes, or specifically, lacking the mental ability to create profiles requires learning every characteristic of every individual and is incredibly socially awkward. It’s also a characteristic that some severe autistics express and is largely due to the separation of emotion from reason. Stereotyping is a social necessity and a sign of normal, and healthy brain function.
Why Stereotypes are Humanrecently captured a great insight into human personalities in a wonderful essay titled Your Personality Has To Be Load-Bearing where he proposed:
The thing is that it’s hard to be a person. It’s hard! Our personalities are something that we both are and do, and we are always being evaluated by the others around us. Appearing attractive or admirable to other people, for most people most of the time, is something like the work of life. And like any other kind of work, there’s pressure to do it well. To fail at the construction of a self could hardly be more fraught with stakes and meaning.
Constructing this self is twofold. First, it means you have to have an identity, and second, it requires that you find community. A self who is not included in a group means the identity is counter-productive to human flourishing. To succeed at both an identity and a community means you apply identity profiles, or stereotypes, to yourself constantly. Even the counter-culture / profile eschewing Hipsters ironically were so uniform in dress and behavior that they spawned their own, accurate, stereotype that could be lampooned such as the Garagista beer advertisement below:
Everything from the styles of clothing to accessories, to vernacular, slang, and even posture are crafted to form personas of identity that help define us. We even apply stereotypes to avoid other stereotypes in a never-ending cycle and this forms the basis of concepts like “dress for success.” In fact, what we can call culture, as the video up top captures, is an amalgamation of stereotypes that define a group and which groups often proudly display like a hipster with a vinyl record or a German with lederhosen during Octoberfest.
The reason we apply these stereotypes is complicated. René Girard, a French polymathic thinker, wove together history, philosophy, anthropology, religion, and sociology discovering what he coined mimetic desire., writing for in the Substack, captures mimetic desire as:
Human beings are expert imitators (mimetic comes from a Greek word meaning “to imitate”). Science has shown that we are the most imitative creatures on the planet, and we imitate in a far more complex, symbolic way than any known animal. While we are good at imitating the speech and fashions of others, Girard’s discovery was that humans imitate the very desires of other people.
This means that we not only willingly apply stereotypes to form our own identity but also apply stereotypes to fulfill other people's desires.
The movie Grease is a great example. The T-Bird gang, led by Danny Zuko (actor John Travolta), has a very stereotypical image and behavior based on the 1950s Greaser culture as do their counterpart Pink Ladies. Sandy Olsson (actress Olivia Newton-John) falls into a completely different stereotype of the prep/jock creating a Romeo and Juliet-esque story of conflicting cultures and identities. In the end, both Danny and Sandy take on the inverse personas with Danny lettering in track and Sandy becoming a Greaser. Both change their identities, through the application of stereotypes, all in an attempt to attract the other person.
Another term for this is code-switching, a behavioral theory rooted in language that also includes cultural and socio-economic influences and studies how humans can move or shift between different average group behaviors. Not only do we apply stereotypes to form our identity, but we apply stereotypes to conform to others’ identities and we change our stereotypes over time and circumstance as life moves us around.
When I was a waiter in college, stereotyping and code-switching were essential to good service and good tips. Being able to ‘read the table’ meant I had to pick up on stereotypical cues quickly and switch myself to the right persona. The elderly couple I demurred and used lots of “Sirs” and “Ma’ams.” The table of golfers was chatted up about courses, scores, and beer. The table with kids was immediately presented with crayons, paper, and kiddie cups of water. The table with the ladies’ night out got compliments and flirting. I stereotyped like crazy and I code-switched myself appropriately even when these tables were all seated in my area at the same time. The thing is, they appreciated it, and I made a lot of money from skillful stereotyping and code-switching.
The ability to apply and decode stereotypes successfully allows us to navigate a complex world with graceful engagement. For example, back to waiting tables, when I misapplied a golfing group stereotype on a Christian men’s group. What they had in common was that both were similarly aged men and wearing polos. Realizing my mistake I immediately re-stereotyped, code switched, and instead of delivering my go-to edgy golf joke, I asked if they needed a minute to say a prayer and I nailed it gracefully.
Stereotypes are typically so accurate that they are the basis for much of modern comedy which plays on these stereotypes such as Jimmy O. Yang and his take on “How to American.” Stereotypes are also so specific that we have a term for the type of person who tries, and fails to apply one. We call them a poser because their mimicry falls short of the true profile.
We place a lot of personal value in our ability to accurately emulate and be interpreted as accurately emulating, a certain stereotype. This might explain my desire, when seeing an ostentatiously rich lady in a grocery store, to walk up to her and ask her to run a price check for me. The absolute, and intentional, miss-stereotyping is the basis of insult and comedy, or as I prefer to call it, comedic insult.
The Negatives of Stereotypes
We don’t, typically, have a problem with positive stereotypes, specifically if they elevate our perceived status in life. One of the simplest examples is a woman feeling complimented for being mistaken for a younger woman because she displays more stereotypical characteristics of a younger woman than an older one.
Concerns are emerging on the negative side of positive stereotypes but I find this to be more related to not living up to a positive expectation rather than a problem per se. Examples of a negative on a positive stereotype might be:
An Asian who is bad at math
A mom who doesn’t like babies
A tall person who doesn’t play basketball (like myself)
I don’t find these misapplied stereotypes to be nefarious but they do lead to a lot of minor offenses and highlight the limitations of a stereotype. Because just as a stereotype is an average of the observed characteristics of a population or population subset, we have to accept that a lot of people fall outside of that distribution. For example, if our stereotype captures one sigma on each side of the mean of a standard distribution, that means our stereotype includes approximately 68% of the population (dark blue in the graph below). That also means 32% of the population doesn’t fit the stereotype (light blue in the graph below). This is where we start to hit the really negative implications that tarnish this useful social tool.
The main negative aspects of stereotypes are twofold.
If the stereotype is intentionally hostile or demeaning. This normally takes an exaggerated caricature of a culture where you intend to reduce the majority of the population to a negative characteristic of one of the tails of the distribution. This application of stereotypes is specifically intended to otherize and exclude. Examples include:
The negative depiction, during WWII of the Japanese and the Germans
Clear racial depictions of Blacks, Asians, Mexicans…
When you refuse to allow someone to violate the stereotype. This is where you hear things like “All [Group X] are [Characteristic Y]. Just like any good data collection, if the stereotype reflects the average of your observed characteristics, and someone doesn’t fit, you either have to accept that they aren’t in that group or your sample has to adapt to include them in the distribution. This means that your stereotype will also have to adapt. If you don’t allow an individual to violate a stereotype, even an accurate stereotype, we aren’t seeing them for who they really are. Also, if you don’t allow your stereotype to expand to involve new information, it will quickly become unusable and socially awkward.
Another counterintuitive insight is that there is a third, subtle, negative aspect. I’ve experienced this one personally. I love violating stereotypes and can code-switch between stereotypes as simply as I can swap into the appropriate clothing. The consequence of this is that it creates a risk to the people I associate with. It can also create a risk to myself, as the person switching if it begins to fray my own identity. If I constantly change the essence of who I am to others, I become too cognitively jarring to those people and I’ll likely be excluded in order for others to create psychological safety.
Stereotypes are a tool, they can be incredibly useful, and they can be incredibly damaging. But this isn’t different from virtually any social, or even mechanical tool. Stereotypes are absolutely critical to smooth social functioning. We fundamentally can’t, and I say we shouldn’t get rid of them. We just need to understand why stereotypes exist and the dramatic value that they offer such as being able to quickly adapt to new social situations by having a 50% solution on hand for how to engage. By understanding the benefits we can then clean up the intentionally negative stereotypes and gracefully allow people to ‘break’ and improve our stereotypes. In doing this, we can mature our engagements, reduce offense, and appreciate, value, and skillfully interact with the diversity all around us. Who knows, you may even find a new stereotype you’d like to apply to yourself and integrate into your identity.
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