The Danger of Believing in Generalizations

Tam Nguyen, Staff Writer

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We, as a collective society, are exposed to a lot of stereotypes and assumptions, whether they apply to us or not. Some people stereotype without even realizing it. Negative stereotypes such as “old people are cranky” elicit negative feelings and responses. Intuitively, then, the reverse should be true: positive stereotypes, such as the generalization that all African-Americans are athletic, should flatter people. In truth, however, feelings are mixed when it comes to these “praises.”

Any person probably has, at some point in his or her life, heard about the stereotype that young people do not have any worries. While being worry-free is a good thing (in most cases, at least), young people are not flattered by the statement. Youths and adults face different kinds of problems, and, depending on how much experience they have in life, the magnitude of adversity varies. The statement, which seems like a harmless reassurance or, at most, a benign foreshadow of adulthood, makes young people feel as if their efforts are overlooked and undervalued.

Stereotypes also direct attention away from one of the things that matter most about a person: their story. People stereotype because stereotypes are easy to carry forward and to fall back on. No matter the group, the stereotype origins may lie in the way the people are raised, their home environment, experiences, work ethic, or even the fact that they feel pressured by stereotypes about the populations they belong to. Those who stereotype, however, only care about the part that stereotypes exist, not where they come from.

Moreover, stereotypes, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, put a weight on people that belong to a stereotyped population. Imagine being expected to always be affectionate and gentle because you are a woman, or to always take the initiative because you are a man. These normalized expectations hold people to unrealistic standards and pressure them to become somebody who abides by conventional norms and expectations rather than their own beliefs and values. Worse, people accept stereotypes and social norms as if they were something naturally given and feel disappointed in themselves when they fail to meet these expectations.

Positive stereotypes, ironically, may carry negative undertones as well. By “complimenting” a feature of a certain person or population, one might be undermining other features or capabilities the person or population possesses. Saying “Old age is full of peace and serenity” for instance, could suggest that the elderly lack adventure, interests, or freedom. If a person is perceived to be academically gifted, their athletic ability often diminishes in importance or relevance. When a man is masculine, he is stolid and impassive, which suggests that masculinity comes hand in hand with the inability to express oneself, or refusal to do so.

Positive stereotypes are most often not meant to cause harm, but they quite frankly do not have a nice ring to the listener. Beside the fact that they diminish a person’s hard work and put pressure on them to fit in with the stereotyped population in which they belong, stereotypes also lead to a loss of individuality and uniqueness, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. Instead, simply giving credit where it is due – in hard work and experience – would suffice for any praises or compliments.

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