Stereotypes and prejudice

How often have you heard older people say that young people are like this or that? You know how different young people or teenagers really are. And how about boys talking about girls as if they were all the same, or the other way around? Many characteristics of teenagers, girls or boys can of course be partly true for a lot of people within these groups, but it feels unfair when somebody assumes they know what you are like just because you are young, a girl, or a boy.



How often do you say about other groups of people that they are like this or that? Most of us do that quite often. We have a kind of ”we-versus-they” attitude. It is easy to see the differences between people we know or people who are rather like ourselves. Everybody else, the ”strangers”, will just blend into large groups of people and be categorized according to the group’s characteristics, not the individuals’. One reason for this simplification is the tendency we have to put everything and everybody into categories. This is not negative in itself. In fact life would be very confusing and exhausting if we did not do this to a certain extent. The problem is that we easily judge people based on very little or unreliable information. It could be that we only know how people are dressed, the car they drive, the colour of their skin or their age. Based on this first impression we assume a number of things about a person.
Fixed general descriptions of a group of people are called stereotypes. Stereotypes can be false, partly false, or partly true, but they will always be based on oversimplification or too little knowledge about the group of people in question. Stereotypes are often used about nationalities. We can say that Swedes are ”serious”, the Germans ”well-organized”, and the Italians ”charming”. These characteristics seem to be quite flattering. Positive stereotypes are often nice, but they are still stereotypes. If we say that the same nationalities are “boring”, “inflexible” and “noisy”, we use negative and harmful stereotypes.

”Prejudice” means more than just pre-judgement or judging people in advance, as the word itself might indicate. It also means that we use irrational feelings when we judge people and that the result of our judgement is negative.

Some types of prejudiced feelings about other people may not seem very serious, but all forms of prejudice may at some point lead to discrimination. Unfortunately, prejudiced views are very hard to change, even when they are proved false again and again.
Fear or avoidance of a group of people without any good reason is a form of prejudice. An example of this could be a white Norwegian who avoids a person with a minority background, or the other way around. The reason for this kind of prejudice is usually that we tend to avoid what is unfamiliar to us. In the United States the fear which many Americans felt after the September 11 attacks in 2001 resulted in prejudice against people of Arab descent.
The most serious form of prejudice, however, is racism. Racism can vary in intensity from carefully hidden scepticism to open hostility. It is obvious that we talk about racism when one group of people feel that they are superior to another group of people. African-Americans and other ethnic groups in the United States have at some point experienced this form of racism, as have immigrants of Asian and Caribbean descent in Britain.



  1. What are stereotypes? Can you give a few examples of positive and negative stereotypes other than those in the text?
  2. What are the positive and negative stereotypes in this joke?

The European dream is where the French are the cooks, the English are the policemen, the Germans are the mechanics, the Swiss are the organizers, and the Italians are the lovers.

The European nightmare is where the English are the cooks, the Germans are the policemen, the French are the mechanics, the Italians are the organizers, and the Swiss are the lovers.