We stereotype every day all the time.
One glance in your direction and I form a dozen assumptions and stereotypes. In our culture we have a great deal of information to process on a minute-by-minute basis, and as humans we often create quick categories to drop people into just to make the day a little easier. That is normal and ﬁne, as long as it stays in your head or in a journal entry. Once you begin describing people on paper, more work and research is required.
A woman in the Chanel suit alights from the Lexus SUV in front of Saks Fifth Avenue. What do you think about her? Is she a good person? Is she someone with whom you can be friends? Stereotypes can be handy categories as we negative a complex world. But they are deadly if you strive to create lively, original writing.
Many stereotypes come from assumptions based on your own local experiences either from direct contact or assumptions passed down from family and neighbors. Assumptions based on “the members of this group always behave this way” or “the members of that group always look that way.” “Those people” — an especially nasty phrase when uttered by a political candidate — can be of a different nationality, creed, color or just shop at a different store. (By the way, does anyone know what is “different creed?” Is it a bad credo that rhymes with Speedo?)
You already know about the perils of judging a person by the color of their skin, got that. The new challenge in stereotypes is assumptions about a person’s socioeconomic and job status. Can we discern to a great extent, what a person is like and what their socioeconomic background is just by looking at their clothes, car and hair? Sometimes we can — and sometimes our assumptions meet with dismal failure. The boy wearing sandals and an old Burning Man tee shirt, what kind of person is he? He could be here to deliver the mail or he could exist solely for comic relief. Nope. He is actually the CEO of a start-up company.
The woman dressed like a bag lady? Nope, she is not here to get her complimentary bag of food from the food bank; she is a famous author notorious for resembling a bag lady.
People do wear uniforms to help others discern who they are and what they can do for you, while they wear that uniform — ﬁreﬁghters, police ofﬁcers, store clerks, maintenance workers, cowboys, tour guides. But many don’t. Socially we are better at pushing past stereotypes, in writing it takes a bit more consciousness.
Dolly Parton was once asked if she found all those blond jokes insulting. “I would,” she replied, “if I were a real blond.”