“It’s Just African.”

Identifying African behavior as stereotypical is dangerous stuff. I’ve learned from experience to issue caveats about most any racial or ethnic stereotype, admit to stereotyping and beg forgiveness–especially before using an ethnic or racial stereotype. Even then, you’re liable to have to push through assumptions, in spite of the fact that the use of stereotype can be highly valuable for explaining behavior.

However, one of my young friends recently expressed his frustration at Nigerian and Somali friends who call to say they’re in town and want to go out for a drink the same night. After experiencing this behavior on numerous occasions, he asked why they don’t ever give him advance notice so that he won’t have to reschedule his time to meet with them. They both responded, “It’s just African.” In our diverse culture that kind of information can be highly useful.

Of course, if my friend had commented to an American Anglo that a practice was “just African,” there’s a high possibility that he would have risked the wrath of the politically correct. Because I’ve found myself on the receiving end of the anti-stereotyping faction, I’ve learned to be careful about stereotyping. Stereotyping, however, is not necessarily the ethical bugaboo the politically correct crowd believes.

Wrong to stereotype?
In an excellent summary of the issues, Doug Martin of the University of Aberdeen asks the question whether it is wrong to stereotype. Basically, he contends that stereotyping is neither right nor wrong. It’s an inescapable facet of being human. Like a lot of other formidable issues, the ethics all depends on how you use the stereotype.

Martin, a psychologist specializing in stereotyping, writes that stereotypes are different than prejudice, which appears in discriminatory language and behavior and which is usually negative. Stereotypes are “template-like depictions of social categories whereby group membership is associated with the possession of certain attributes.” For example, IT developers are nerdy, scientists are geeky, Blacks run faster and jump higher, Evangelicals are fanatics, and Democrats are liberals. The list of stereotypes is endless.

Furthermore, it’s interesting that research has shown that we all have similar knowledge about the content of stereotypes, whether or not we believe them to be accurate. Even those who display little racial prejudice have plenty of knowledge about racial stereotypes. Indeed, “we all carry the same stereotypes of social categories around with us in our heads.”

As Martin argues, the difference between a bigot and an egalitarian is their personal belief about the accuracy of the stereotype. Highly prejudiced people believe the content of their stereotype is completely accurate.

Value of stereotyping
Stereotypes are merely one form of category. A category is simply a group of people or things that share similar attributes. For example, bird, tree, fruit, furniture, Republican, Armenian, insecure, rich, smart, and so forth.

Categories simplify the way we process information. While most of us are good at processing information, our ability to do so is limited by the amounts of information available. Categories make it easier to understand and recall information. Humans create categories automatically and then they’re passed on from generation to generation. They’re easily learned because they’re simple. As shortcuts, we use them whenever a cue is detected. Fact of the matter, our use of them is usually out of awareness. They’ve become linguistic habits.

Using stereotypes and categories successfully.
As I indicated up front, it’s important to prepare your audience (whether one individual or more) for the use of a stereotype. Especially when the person you’re conversing with might be highly legalistic about behavioral stereotype, issue a caveat. “I know this is a stereotype–with all its limitations–but it strikes me that the person is. . . .” The same approach is necessary when you’re drawing a category conclusion about the behavior of another person whether commenting about insecurity, power needs, affiliation, victim orientation, smarts, limited ability. . . or whatever.

The second step–a very important approach for behavioral categorizing–is to data check the validity of your assessment. A major part of my role as coach is to help individuals work with difficult or unusual people. When necessary, I use psychological or business categories, but I insist that the individual search for 4 to 5 other incidents that support that category. Say the category is “control freak,” a category that might make for successful adaptation or influencing of the individual, I argue strongly that my client needs to identify 4 to 5 other incidents that support the stereotype before making any personal changes to work more effectively with the “freak.”

Bob Sutton makes similar recommendations in his book on asshole managers. In the very first chapter, he writes that a “precise definition is useful is you want to implement the no asshole rule. Admittedly, “some colleagues who are merely having a bad day don’t deserve the title (stereotype or category).” His definition makes it possible for readers to identify the “asshole” from others. Once the stereotype is secure, then Sutton’s recommendations for how to work with, manage or adapt to the asshole becomes much clearer. It simplifies the problem for readers with “asshole managers.”

Stereotypes may also be positive and should be treated with the same care as negative stereotypes. Labeling someone as an expert in a field, say coaching, architecture, law, development, etc., should be a data-based decision. Professional credentials do not guarantee expertise. As Atul Gawande, the well-known Harvard physician writes, it used to be assumed that differences among physicians and hospitals were usually insignificant. The evidence, however, reveals that the bell curve applies, even to physicians. That means that 5 – 10% are world class and positive deviants, 5 – 10% are disturbingly poor, and the rest are middling. In some professions that translates into mediocre. Although, I do not have the background to evaluate physicians, lawyers or financial officers, I can evaluate teachers, coaches and some counselors. So when someone recommends  a coach, I want plenty of data supporting that claim.

In sum, categories and stereotypes are very useful linguistic formats. They simplify your language processing, are easily learned, act as mental shortcuts and, with relevant data, provide means for working more successfully with others. But they need to be used with care. And significantly, categories and behavioral stereotypes are transferable to many different kinds of situations.

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