Underlying Messages: Musings on unconscious stereotype reinforcement.

Underlying MessagesImagine two people standing at a window staring out into the rain.

The first is a young girl who’s seeing her dreams of playing soccer with her friends transformed into mud.

The second is an adult gardener seeing his plants nourished so they can grow.

Are either wrong? No.

But they are different.

Now imagine the same scene with the same people. Only this time, the reactions have changed.

The young girl is watching the raindrops glistening on the leaves in the garden, knowing it means fresh, plump tomatoes to show her grandmother who is coming for a visit in a few weeks.

The man is seeing his plans of a barbecue with friends canceled.

The rain is the same, but its meaning comes from context, a context we each provide based on our own unique circumstances.

This is why it’s dangerous to assume.

To the outside observer, a man and a girl are staring out the window at the rain. Any assumptions as to motive or reaction are formed based on stereotypes and social expectation.

Now imagine you are staring out at the rain. Whatever your thoughts about it, nothing much shows on your expression, or at least nothing clear enough for me to interpret.

I come up and tell you the rain means the opposite of your reaction. If you’re looking forward to a stroll under clear skies, I say the rain is the perfect, natural state and should continue forever. If you’re hoping it’s a sign of the drought breaking, I say it’s an annoyance and should stop this very moment.

Whatever your reaction, my opposite statement of “fact” carries with it the underlying message that you are wrong.

This is social pressure. The instinct to conform when faced with someone who is adamant.

It’s been recorded time and again that people who know the correct answer can be swayed from that knowledge by a firm statement as if confidence overrides fact. It’s part of the herd instinct, I believe, where it’s safer to stick with the herd even when it goes in the wrong direction than to set out alone. Of course if that wrong direction is across a desert away from the waterhole…

Now I’m going to do something that looks like a segue but isn’t really. I want to talk about how we react to things outside of our expectations, specifically behaviors that don’t fall into the so-called “norm.”

This came up on one of my writing listservs as a piece of feedback, but it has a deeper meaning both in fiction and in real life.

Remember the adamant statement overruling the truth? Well, it can also be used to reinforce social stereotypes until so few exhibit the behavior that they become the exception proving the stereotype true. This fails to recognize the myriad ways others have been convinced to change their behavior to match the stereotype.

Simple example:

“You sound much younger than your age. I never would have guessed.”

This statement is a supposed compliment. I say supposed because look at some of the underlying statements hidden here:

* It’s better to sound younger because old is bad.
* You are different from everyone else your age.
* You are not normal.

These are all designed to get you to change your behavior, or to establish you as an outlier, an outsider, and therefore not quite part of the group where you should belong. You’re not invited to change groups, of course, because you can’t change your age, but you’re not allowed to be part of your age group because you don’t fit the social picture. You are, by your very nature, a loner, weird, and potentially dangerous.

Whether or not the person speaking is aware of using this social influence is irrelevant. It’s trained into us from birth and the reason why unconscious racism, sexism, ageism, etc. is a real problem. Even the most consciously positive person may use statements that subtly ask the question: Do you belong in the group? And there are consequences when the answer is no.

How can stereotypes change when they are constantly reinforced, even by those who are trying not to?

If a statement can support a tag with the following structure, it’s problematic at best: “for a girl,” “for an old person,” “for a kid,” etc.

If you’re expecting an answer to this problem, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m into helping people think about these questions, but I don’t believe there is a simple, or easy, answer to the problem of stereotypes, and the conscious or subconscious reinforcement of same.

That is one of the beauties of writing stories where we have the chance to draw readers into our worlds, based on modern times or not, and let them see different perspectives. It’s also one of the reasons that realism can be problematic, since writing does not reflect true realism but rather the socially/culturally accepted version of reality. It’s the reason why some stories don’t translate well between cultures, or have a completely different meaning to readers of another culture. It’s also, though, a chance to encourage people to think about their world, and the people in it, in a different light.

When I critiqued In the Service of the Queen for Lazette Gifford a while back, I was struck by how the queen reflected many of the issues faced by young people in the U.S., being disenfranchised and ignored as though she could not possibly have anything to add to the conversation. The book doesn’t hammer on that point. It comes to light based on the events that the characters are working through. However, it’s one example of how a work of fiction can draw you into the story and open your eyes at the same time by making you aware of how all people outside of the “optimum” age-range in the U.S. are treated.

While reading about older folks who don’t fit the cultural image can help people revise that image, though, I say we should take it further. Look around at the people in your life. Do they match the stereotypes? And if not, are their differences being encouraged so those limited, cardboard images forming the stereotypes can grow flesh and bone?

One bit of social conditioning carries more weight than a hundred bits of encouragement because it has the pressure of a whole culture behind it. Whether that is suggesting girls aren’t good at math or pointing out how one person is uniquely talented among their racial group, the result is the same, and is negative.

That doesn’t mean we should give up. Instead, it means we need to provide a hundred and one bits of encouragement. But more than that, it might be time to look at some of our own compliments (I’m no more innocent than any) and see if there’s a hidden “for” tag that reinforces an often harmful stereotype.

I might not believe in an easy solution, but I do believe if enough people work together, we can enact change. It won’t be simple, quick, or easy, but there’s the chance for permanent improvement if the herd instincts are put to use toward accepting difference rather than rejecting it.

Since recognizing the problem is the first step toward a cure, what are some of the compliments you can think of that might contain an underlying reinforcement of social stereotypes? And can we think of ways to say the same thing without bringing along the “outsider” stick?

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2 Responses to Underlying Messages: Musings on unconscious stereotype reinforcement.

  1. Linda Sprinkle says:

    Good article, Margaret. People have said I’m wrong when I say that the words we use matter. But your article is yet another example of why they do matter. Here’s a real life example of another way words and stereotypes matter:


    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      A wonderful example, thanks. Yes, the old rhyme about sticks and stones is denial. They’ve found the same results in test takers exposed to prominent grade letters as well. The people who had an A tended to score above average while those with an F at the top of their papers scored lower regardless of general performance and when the letters were there before taking the test.

      To be clear, I’m not talking about political correctness either. Changing the word only pushes the meaning to the new word. The only way to break the cycle is to change the meaning.

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