In psychology, we were taught that a stereotype is a very natural phenomenon. Humans tend to attach a brief explanation to everything in order to make sense of the world. For instance, a person from Switzerland is expected to be on time and a person from Australia is expected to say ‘no worries’ at least thrice in one sentence.
There is nothing sinister in this act; it is a widely exhibited trait in the best of us. With so many new things in the world, we require some backdrop, some simplification of what we behold. A product is more convincing if we learn a bit about it. No matter how little can be written on the label we must read it. Most times its impossible to get the full picture on that tiny piece of paper, but we still insist on having them.
Are Labels Useful?
Labels, one has to admit, do make matters simpler. For example, it is easier to arrange my closet according to the colour or type of the article. I seem to fold all my shirts together and even among them, my yellow shirts have their own dedicated spot (I love yellow).
So naturally, we do this with everything. In supermarkets too, the aisles are designed to hold one type of something. Huge labels guide us to exactly where that item might be in that humongous labyrinth. Labels do make matters simpler.
The stereotype we so often hear is the label we put on each other to simplify our understanding. We know almost nothing about each other, which is quite unnerving to most of us. Hence we try to put only a tiny brick in the foundation so it’s mostly harmless; and when we do start to know the person, that stereotype may be confirmed or revoked.
A Swiss man might be late on principle because he adores Oscar Wilde, likewise, an Australian woman may dislike the phrase ‘no worries’ with a passion. Therefore, we realise that there are always exceptions and we often discover them.
Stereotypes are assumptions. Assume is spelt like ASS-U-ME, and it is true, we do make an ass out of everyone when we assume. Assumption is synonymous with arrogance.
Are labels Bad?
If the function of a stereotype is only that of a label then where does the problem arise? We have all bought a product that stood the chance of both, exciting or disappointing us based only on a label. Are we perhaps not accounting for the exceptions as much as we should when it comes to people? Or are we believing that exceptions confirm the rule?
A study suggests that people tend to stick to their first impressions fiercely, meaning the initial understanding of an individual can persist even after one discovers many exceptions. So no matter how many Swiss people we meet, we will relate them to cheese and chocolate. Likewise, most of us will admit that an Australian somehow always reminds us of a kangaroo.
A stereotype can be positive or negative, however, a prejudice is a negative belief or feeling about a group of individuals. A stereotype, on the other hand, is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image of a particular type of person. And the definition of a label is ‘a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive’. Labels seem to symbolise prejudices more than stereotypes.
That means, our label based on nationality or profession is a prejudice, not a stereotype because they grossly restrict our understanding of them. Remember how I explained that we can build structures with 5 pieces of Lego as well as with 10?
We believe that we have sufficient understanding of something but as soon as we get the 6th brick in Lego, our perception evolves. Our understanding of the same person will or at least should change spontaneously. So how come it doesn’t?
Are Labels Inevitable?
Evolutionary psychologists say that stereotypes and prejudices are hereditary. It provided our ancestors with an adaptive advantage. If we can decide quickly which group we belong to, then we can distinguish a friend from a foe.
Along with the survival skills our elders teach us, such as swimming or cooking, they also pass down their prejudices. That’s probably why they are difficult to shake off, they are a cultural inheritance. They show up in our jokes and conversations so innocently, that we see nothing wrong with them. I acknowledge that our world would be dull if we couldn’t laugh at our differences.
So we come back to the same question, if labels are evolutionary then how come we see them causing so much harm? Is it because they just no longer describe our world? Because we now do have ample opportunities to challenge our long-held restrictive notions? Or is it because our world has changed rapidly and we need newer labels? Or is it simply because it is time to evolve in another way?
The idea of belonging to a group is evolutionary, however, we no longer are restricted by the lines drawn in the sand, we are looking forward to a whole new universe beyond this planet we inhabit, so the stereotypes of yester years are obsolete. They are only impeding our evolution; preventing us from growing a thumb.