„Heaven is where the police are British, the lovers French, the mechanics German, the chefs Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the police are German, the lovers Swiss, the mechanics French, the chefs British, and it is all organized by the Italians.”
This little gimmick perfectly sums up the meaning of prejudice, stereotype and the difference between them as well. They are different, yet strongly connected. So let’s have a closer look at them!
A stereotpye is, briefly, an opinion, a thought, a set idea people have about a certain group. It can concern countries, cultures, subcultures and basically every kind of group. It appears to be an idea based on generalizing the information we have about certain groups. This derives from the human need to understand the world by categorizing the information, this way making it easier to process them. If we think about it, it is perfectly understandable: huge amounts of information and stimuli are coming towards us each minute, and our brains needed to come up with a system that helps processing all of it. And if we think about today’s globalized world, it is clear how stereotypes are a tool that helps us navigate in the „cross-cultural chaos”. It also helps us strengthen our identity and sense of belonging to a certain group – by defining the other group as something completely different to us. So creating stereotypes is mainly a cognitive function, it stands on the base of rationality and thinking.
The idea of Heaven and Hell presented above points out another important characteristic of stereotypes as well: they are not necessarily always negative. When someone says that the British are bad cooks or that the French are amazing lovers, they are both mentioning cultural stereotypes. They can be positive, negative or even neutral.
Prejudice, on the other hand, is a personal attitude which is not based on knowledge or actual experience. It usually implies a negative connotation, but there are positive prejudices as well. But as compared to stereotypes, prejudices are not as much of a cognitive, but more of an emotional function. This can also explain why prejudices tend to be negative or positive, but there is no such thing as a neutral prejudice.
Stereotype and prejudice are often linked as cause and effect: the stereotype being the cause and prejudice the effect. For example: the stereotype is that the Italians are very disorganized, which then results in the effect that when someone has a meeting appointment with an Italian person, they start with the prejudice that he as a person is not punctual, and will probably be late, or disorganized.
What To Make Of Them?
As mentioned above, stereotypes actually do have a pretty important role in our understanding of the world, by creating a more transparent system. And the case of stereotypes is the same one as that of clichés: they didn’t appear out of nothing, they have their roots. If „used” correctly, we can even gather knowledge and information from them, but it is really important that we recognize the point from which they become limiting and damaging to our communication, work or everyday life. As with prejudices, the situation is a bit different, since prejudices are almost always limiting.
If I had to say one word that is the opposite of prejudce, I would say curiosity. Stereotypes+curiosity can actually be a good combination. First by acknowledging the stereotype, you gather some information, and afterwards with the use of curiosity and some basic analytical skills, you can get a more accurate idea for yourself.