Stereotypes are Not Evil

Is a chair something you can sit on? Is it a four-legged object with a seat and a back? You can’t sit on Barbie’s chair and stools don’t have backs. Do you even know what a chair is? Of course, you do. You know what chairs are and how to use them, but you have trouble defining them because they come in such a variety of forms. Although you can’t describe chairs fully, you do know how to use them. Or do you? Haven’t you ever misjudged a chair and found yourself on the floor? Thought something was a chair, yet were told not to sit on it? If you can’t accurately describe a chair, and you make mistakes about using them, why do you continue to use the word, “chair?” For efficiency. If you need to sit, it is inefficient to say, “Do you have an object, possibly made of wood, maybe covered in part by fabric, upon which I can rest my entire weight, comfortably, in an upright position?” You don’t have time for that. You must say, simply, “Do you have a chair?” We need to use single words to identify things and all single words are inaccurate, but we agree to use the inaccurate words to save time. If “chair” works to get you what you want, it’s all that was needed. If you ask for a chair and you get a stool, you might clarify that you want a chair with a back. If offered a recliner, you may specify that you need a portable chair. We add more words when it is necessary. The idea you have of a chair, is a stereotype. Your stereotype of chairs consists of things you have seen, heard, and experienced about chairs. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is your understanding of chairs. To the degree that your stereotype is accurate, you will be able to interact with chairs successfully. To the degree that your stereotype contains rare, unusual, or incomplete information, you will make mistakes about chairs, perhaps embarrassing and painful mistakes. In any event, you cannot simply throw out your stereotype of a chair simply because sometimes it’s wrong. You still need to use it for efficiency. If you had to describe your every interaction with a chair in detail, you’d be talking about chairs all day! So, we use stereotypes – all day every day – because we need to. They are not inherently bad. They are simply more useful the more correct information they contain and more useful the more flexible they remain. When we encounter a hammock chair at the fair, our stereotype becomes more useful when we incorporate this new understanding of a chair. Therefore, it is not necessary to do away with stereotypes. Rather, it is important to constantly work to keep your stereotypes as accurate as possible and understand that regardless, they’re never perfect.

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