Why you have to be careful when you categorize

I had a discussion with a number of my friends recently and was trying to explain why stereotypes are bad in all situations. This led me to start thinking about categorizing people and the way we group things.

I don’t think most people realize how many of our problems come from our basic human need to categorize things. We refer to most things in categories or types. It is just the way the human brain seems to work.

Where we have to be careful is how we categorize things, people included. For instance, I recently saw a quote from Tina Fey. In it she used stereotypes to illustrate her point.

This is a problem. I have spoken to many people who say it was ok for her to use those stereotypes. They say it was ok because she was trying to prove a point, because she was trying to even the playing field for women. Others say it was ok because they were “good” stereotypes.

What I have come to realize over the past few days is that stereotypes are never “good.” The other point they are missing is that when you use stereotypes, even to prove a benevolent point, you are still validating the stereotype and therefore hurting a LOT of people.

Secondly, “good” stereotypes are an illusion. There is no such thing as a good stereotype. Even good stereotypes hurt other people. There are many ways they do this. I am not going to take the time to go into all of them here but I would like to address one of the ways.

Think about the people who do not fit the “good” stereotype. They get hurt, feel ashamed, or like they do not belong. The stereotype makes them feel inferior. This is terrible: why would someone want to make another person feel bad? The answer is they don’t.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for us to use inappropriate language and not even realize we are doing so. The things we say at times can seem innocuous even though they are not.

The short lesson in this post is, think about every possible angle before you speak. Get in the habit of using communication that does not label, bias or stereotype in negative ways. Take a moment and think about how you would feel if you did not fit the good stereotype…or if you fit the bad one.

Slow down and take the time to look at every possible angle before you speak. It takes a lot of work but you will find over time that it becomes habit. This doesn’t mean you always have to get it right, but don’t be afraid to say “oops, I shouldn’t have used that term, my apologies.” You might be surprised at how people look at you differently, how much better you feel about your speech, and how easy it is to remember not to do it again when you acknowledge that you made a mistake.


Peace, love and happiness always,