Stereotypes: A “Solid Impression” or a Funhouse Mirror?

Imagine you’re trying to navigate yourself to a restaurant in a big city.

You open up Google Earth, plug in the address, and find the coordinates.

At first, you’re in satellite view. So many details – lines, colors, buildings, trees. With such an intricate bird’s-eye perspective, it’s hard to focus and find the way.

Gps Maps Google Map Navigation Location Navigator
Gps Maps Google Map Navigation Location Navigator

However, when you switch over to map view, everything is suddenly simplified and much clearer.

Analogies are the map views of a culture. They simplify a culture’s complexity, clearing the way to understanding by providing less – but more pertinent – information.

Analogies strip away the details you don’t need, leaving only those that you do.

While this is most certainly helpful in a lot of ways, you must be careful with simplified views.

A simplified map can leave out roadblocks, traffic jams, or other valuable information that might have altered your chosen route or decision-making.

This can especially happen when we use stereotypes as our simplified cultural maps.

A “Solid Impression”

The word “stereotype” is rooted in the Greek words for firm/solid (“stereos”) and impression (“typos”).

Literally translated, stereotype means “solid impression.”

In the late 18th century, the term was used by Firmin Didot in printing to describe printing plates that duplicate typography.

Rather than using the original plate, the stereotype (duplicate printing plate) was used for printing.

The meaning of the word changed in the early 20th century when American journalist, Walter Lippmann, used it analogously in relation to the characteristics of a group of people.

As a stereotype is a solid impression in the printing process, so it is in people’s minds in relation to groups or cultures.

Lippmann saw this, defining the word as,

“a distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.”

Stereotypes are like a funhouse mirror: conditioning that distorts our image of “the other.”

Lippmann warned of the dangers of such bias. In Public Opinion (1922), he wrote,

“The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event.”

In this way, our feelings about an event (or a people) are not based in truth if we have no experience with said event/people.

They’re based on a stereotype.

Stereotypes condition us to deflect valid and true claims that do not align with our own, grounded in often negative attitudes and perceptions of “the other” – attitudes that are regularly driven by social and political motivations.

How Are Stereotypes Different Than Analogies

Although stereotypes and analogies work in a similar fashion in that they simplify the mechanics and behaviors that drive a culture’s people, the aim of creating analogies is to enable one to work effectively in a cross-cultural environment.

The aim of stereotypes, on the other hand, is often to contrast characteristics of other cultures that conflict with one’s own, essentially blanketing them over an entire group.

Stereotypes can often be intolerant, toxic, discriminatory, prejudicial, and downright dangerous.

Swiss are punctual; Indians are late.

Italians are jovial; Brits have a stiff upper lip.

Russians love vodka; the French love wine.

Americans are superficial; the Japanese are polite.

While stereotypical characteristics may not always be negative or evil, applying them to an entire people can result in prejudice of said people and individuals, which is of course ineffective to cross-cultural leadership and understanding.

Next week, we’ll talk about taking a wise approach to stereotypes.

Sociolinguistics, Language Prejudice, & Regional Stereotypes

Y’all come back now, ya hear?” – Ellie May, The Beverly Hillbillies

No one ever lived after he’d decided ter kill ‘em, no one except you, an’ he’d killed some o’ the best witches an’ wizards of the age — an’ you was only a baby, an’ you lived.” – Hagrid, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Whether you realize it or not, you may judge each of these phraseologies and their accents based on where you live.

If you’re from America, you might associate certain stereotypes with the South, and the obvious Southern drawl might trigger prejudice, whether consciously or subconsciously.

One example of this appears in The Routledge Handbook of Sociolinguistics Around the World, wherein a detailed study was conducted by Bucholtz, Bermudez, Fung, Edwards, and Vargas on the perceptual dialectology of California in 2007.

The study found:

“that the most salient linguistic boundary is between the northern and southern regions, although, reminiscent of Clopper and Pisoni (2006), category labels ranging from ‘surfers’ to ‘hicks’ played a role in the social map.”

Essentially, the way you speak – often regionally-based or relative to your sub-culture – may result in a label of some kind.

If you’re from Britain, a coarser accent, like the one spoken by Hagrid above, might be associated with lower-class stereotypes, as opposed to those considered “posh.” 

As mentioned last week, the wealthier classes have always attempted to distinguish themselves through their language’s social patterning. The lower class accents and phraseology, therefore, are often distinctly different from those of the aristocracy.

Either accent might trigger conscious or subconscious prejudices as well. As soon as a person’s mouth opens to speak, their class may be revealed, and the prejudices associated become sharp and glaring.

Sociolinguistics visits all of this and more.

What is sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is “the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, and occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.” – Oxford

The sociolinguistics of a country are often nationally-based.

Funnily enough, Americans, who speak English, might not be able to differentiate between the stereotypically “posh” accents and the stereotypically lower- or middle-class ones in the UK.

They may not feel the same prejudices against the person speaking as their British counterparts, whose ear is attuned to these differences and mind is attuned to the prejudices associated with them in their country.

Likewise, those from other English-speaking countries likely don’t have the same associations with the American Southern accent and the South as Americans do.

Therefore, for foreigners, specific social patterning might not reinforce the regional prejudice related to these stereotypes, such as a person’s level of education or intelligence.

This is all deeply entrenched, rooted in the history of the country, regions, and the values, norms, traits, and behaviors associated with them across time.

Whether the regional values, norms, traits, and behaviors have evolved or not, the linguistic stereotypes remain.