What do you think you know about those people?

Stereotypes (which, unfortunately, a whole bunch of us think we are immune to because we are “good people”) are at the root of a lot of dysfunctional stuff that happens in the space between us. When you believe you know something about someone based on the social groups they belong to (or that you believe they belong to), you have planted the seed of dysfunction. You will likely find a way to blame that dysfunction on them and their difference, but it belongs to you.

The image below is based on the Bogardus Social Distance Scale. I sometimes have folks fill this out (for their eyes only), rating their comfort level when they think about being in these types of relationships with folks from these social groups on a scale of 1-5.

5 is very comfortable, 1 is very uncomfortable, and the other stuff is the other stuff.

social distance scale

After I give them a few minutes to fill it out, we discuss the exercise, and I am not sure how honest that conversation is…the only social group that the audience is generally willing to admit they have some negative feelings about is the used car salesman. In fact some groups really dump on used car salesmen, until someone interrupts the conversation because their spouse or parent or sibling or friend sells cars and is “actually a really good person.” I use a variety of different social settings and a variety of different social groups, but the results are pretty consistent.

Here is the thing…

If we are courageously honest in filling this out, the scores in these boxes are probably going to vary. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but they are probably going to vary. And we have not met any of these people yet. We know nothing about the person, all we have to go on is the social groups, or labels provided and what those labels means to us.

And they mean something. Nobody ever asks for more information about the people, the labels give them enough of an idea to work with.

Where does that come from? How can you have an idea, an image, or a feeling about a person without ever meeting them? Stereotypes, that’s how. You do not have to agree with, believe in or endorse the stereotype, you only need to have been exposed to it. And we are inundated we stereotypical ideas and images about every social group there is.

Think you are immune? Think your good intentions protect you from stereotypes? You are part of the problem. And now you you have the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Be good to each other.


  1. Mandy Mowers

    I got a bit uncomfortable thinking about having a non-English-speaking person as my boss. I think this is because it would be tricky to have good communication when we don’t speak the same language, at least as far as I’ve experienced communication with a boss. It’s really interesting to consider how limited my ideas are about communication, and to start imagining what this could mean for ways to explore communication in my future.

    Thanks for the prodding, Joe!

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