Prejudices and Communication
America is known as the "melting pot", meaning that our country's population consists of many different cultures and ethnic groups under the name Americans. Because all of these groups live in the same country there has to be communication amongst and between the different groups. However because of our differences and the fact that it seems people don't like uncertainty, people tend to try to classify others in groups and make certain presuppositions about those people in order to reduce anxiety and feel some sense of certainty regarding others. So what are these presuppositions that we try to classify others called? These presuppositions are called stereotypes. According to Shuli Zhang in his paper Stereotypes Communication , stereotypes are "cognitive representations of another group that influence our feelings toward members of that group" (Zhang 25).
How Do Stereotypes Effect Communication?
So how do stereotypes affect communication? In order to understand how it does we need to define what communication means. Communication according to Hutchinson in Understanding Human Communication is " the process of creating meaning through symbolic interaction"(Hutchinson 5). Theses forms of symbolic interaction comes in various forms, through speech, body language, facial expressions, writing, mass media, etc. The next question we have to ask is if stereotypes affect communication, is that a good thing or bad thing? According to Zhang, " Stereotypes, in and of themselves, do not lead to miscommunication and/or communication breakdown"(Zhang 25). So taking this information, we can conclude that stereotyping isn't inherently bad, however stereotypes that lead to communication breakdown or miscommunication is bad. So when can stereotyping be useful? Zhang says that "our stereotypes should lead to accurate interpretations of behavior of members of that group who are typical ...[and that]... When we place someone in a category, our stereotype of people in at category helps us predict his or her behavior"(Zhang 25). So in other words if our stereotype leads us to an accurate interpretation of how a certain individual is going to behave it is not necessarily bad and can be useful in making decisions in communication with others.
So in what ways could these positive stereotypes be of any use? I can think of at least two practical examples in which stereotypes can be positive and possibly life saving. The first scenario is when looking for a babysitter or allowing your child to go over to someone's house. When your children are involved, their safety is always in mind, so in this case you would check to see if the babysitter or the person who's house they are going over is not a convicted sex offender. Now I am in now way implying that the person on a sex offender list will ever offend again and I don't believe that someone on the sex offender list necessarily committed a crime against a child and they do deserve to redeem themselves, when it comes to the safety of a child it does allow for a safety net that could potentially keep the child out of harms reach. Another would be if you knew that a certain area where there is a high amount of drug usage and drug selling is taking place, I would think it would be ok to be safe to assume that if you drove up into that area and someone approached your car that the person would be up to no good.
When would stereotyping be negative? Stereotyping I believe would be negative when we overgeneralize a group of people and we allow our stereotypes to be crystalized and not give individuals a chance to show us anything different. According to a paper titled Priming and Stereotyping, we as Americans are primed towards certain stereotypes by media content. In this paper they talk about the activation-regency hypothesis that "suggests that individuals who are primed with media content are more likely to use the content for subsequent information processing than those not primed"(Monahan 1).
How Should We View Stereotypes
A researcher by the name Ford used the the activation-recency hypothesis "to test whether stereotypical portrayals of African Americans increase the likelihood that European Americans will make negative social judgements of an African American target person"(Monahan 1). In his experiment he used stereotypical and neutral skits involving characters of an African American descent as the stimulus for priming. Afterward the participants of the research were given a description of a legal case where a someone was accused of physical assault. When the research came back the portrayal of the European American offender was less likely than the African American offender to be thought to be guilty of the crime.
How then should we view stereotypes? I think that even though stereotypes are not necessarily always negative, stereotypes should be used sparingly and we should always keep an open mind when communicating with members of other groups. Zhang says it best " if we rigidly hold our stereotypes and are not willing to question them, we can never reach a point where we know strangers as individuals(i.e., we can never make psychocultural predictions about their behavior), and our attributions about an individual strangers' behavior will continue to be incorrect...[and that]...in order to increase our effectiveness in communicating with strangers, we need to increase the complexity of our stereotypes(e.g, include a large number of traits in the stereotype and differentiate subgroups within the group being stereotyped) and question our unconscious assumption that most, if not all members of a group fit a single stereotype"(Zhang 27).
Hutchinson, Carrie, Ronald Adler, George Rodman. "Understanding Human Communication". Oxford University Press. New York. 2012. Print. Page 5.
Monahan, Jennifer, Sonja Brown Givens, and Irene Shtreillis. "Priming and Stereotyping: How Images Affect Perceptions in Interpersonal Conflicts". Conference Papers International Communication Association(2003). 1-9. Communications and Mass Media Complete. Web. 7 Apr 2013.
Zhang, Shuli, and Dongyuan Deng. "Stereotypes Communication". International Education Studies.(2009). 25-27. www.ccsenet.org/journal.html. Web. 7 Apr 2013