I started volunteering with a group that hangs art in a hospital. About every 6 weeks we turn over a new show with about 80 paintings from local artists. It's a surprisingly large time commitment, much of it during the workday, so most of the volunteers are retired. (I'm the young blood - scary!)
I took some offense from remarks one of the older fellows made to me -- he was operating on a lot of sexist assumptions. Like ... my husband made the frames for my own paintings. (I paint as a hobby, and I build my own frames. I even have tools!) He assumed I was a lady of leisure, with lots of free time. (Nope, I still run a business.) There was something terribly patronizing about his whole attitude that I really took offense to. It was hard to put my finger on it. He was amazed that I took offense, genuinely surprised. I guess he doesn't encounter women like me very often in his world, or if he does, they suffer in silence.
He was operating from stereotypes. But I have to admit, I know almost nothing about this guy myself! I'm also operating on stereotypes based on his age and a few brief exchanges. Which may be why I took offense, instead of just laughing at his foolishness.
The first time I did research into online stock trading, I found my assumptions challenged. If I saw these people in an airport waiting area, I would not have guessed they were avid online stock traders. That was more than a decade ago, and I still find my stereotypes challenged on almost every project I do. Clients observing a focus group are often amazed to see what their customers really look like.
You can stereotype even with just an accent.
I recently conducted a series of interviews with senior executives of companies. Some of these folks are based in the southern US. They are measured in their speech, polite and gracious. Even when they were telling me they were quite upset with my client, their words and tone conveyed little of their real emotion, they were understated. In order to properly interpret what they were saying, I needed to read between the lines. If I had responded to a stereotype I would completely have missed the learning.
In reports, I often try to disguise gender so that opinions are not instantly stereotyped along those lines. We all stereotype. It's a built in mechanism for making the world easier to navigate quickly, and make sense of a lot of data without starting from scratch all the time. But it can also get us in trouble when we are trying to gain insights.
When I think I need to control my response to a stereotype, here are the things that I do:
- Imagine the words are being said by someone else entirely
- Imagine I am dealing with a person of a different ethnicity. If I am talking to a black person, imagine they are white. Switch up male and female.
- Keep pushing my own context - if I think I am responding negatively to clothing, imagine different clothing.
- Challenge my assumptions -- about people who aren't as computer savvy as me, or who don't cook at home, or who have a thick accent, or wear unfashionable clothing, or don't own a car, or have too much mascara. Whatever it is, check your biases if you want to understand what is going on.
All of these contexts are important, of course. A black experience of the world is rarely the same as a white experience. A young experience is different than an old experience.
But if all we see and hear is a framework based on our stereotypes, we miss the content. Or misinterpret it, which is just as bad.
In the world today, our stereotypes about those in other parts of the world matter. With little direct experience, we rely on stereotypes.
The recent spate of celebrity bad behavior (Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi) has really brought home how much our individual and collective judgement is colored by unrelated facts. We can all learn to suspend judgement, to listen better.