Making an Ass Out of You and Me
Around this time of year the trusty Weber is prone to getting a bit of a work out. It tends to see a bit more fish thrown on it these days, but that’s not to say it hasn’t had its fair share of other kinds of protein hitting its hotplate. Recently, a friend brought over some of the best lamb I’d ever eaten. I asked him, “Hey, where did you get this lamb?” and as quick as a flash he replied, “From Ballarat, actually.” An oldie but a goodie.
For anyone wondering where this is going, please allow me to explain. Back in the ‘90s there was an ad on TV for Australian lamb, which showed a family of Mum, Dad, their daughter and her friend sitting down to a meal that Dad’s just cooked up on the barbecue. Mum, assuming her daughter’s friend was born overseas due to her Asian appearance asks, “Which city were you born in, Tok?” to which the friend replies (in a broad Australian accent), “In Ballarat, actually.”
The advertisement (which can be easily found on YouTube) probably wouldn’t fly these days, but at the time it was an attempt to raise awareness of multiculturalism in the face of assumptions, generalisations and stereotyping.
So, what is stereotyping? Read any psychology textbook and you’ll find that to stereotype is “to place a person or group of persons into an inflexible, all-encompassing category”. If you were to go further and pull out the trusty Oxford Dictionary of Psychology you’d see that it goes even further; “An over simplified generalisation… usually focusing on negative, unfavourable characteristics.” Of course stereotyping doesn’t need to stop at people, and there are indeed positive stereotypes as well, but in the context of this ad you can see how the first definition might apply.
If you love your trivia, what you may not know is that the word ‘stereotype’ is an old printing press term where a metal plate was cast from type, set by a printer and then used to print the same page over and over. Thus when we stereotype people we are ‘printing’ the same judgements on anyone placed in a given category.
I guess the real question is, why do we stereotype? Perhaps even that question is an overgeneralisation, an assumption that we all tend to stereotype? It’s a difficult question to answer and there are many theories. One such theory when it comes to race is the ‘Intercultural Communication Theory’, which suggests that it’s our cultural experiences and backgrounds that influence how we see the world. At the other end of the spectrum – into which our lamb ad might fall – is the ‘Impression Formulation Theory’, where people form general impressions of others based on looks and behaviours.
The problem is when we stereotype, what we are actually doing is overgeneralising, or taking a small amount of information and treating it as if it was highly representative, leading people to make inaccurate assumptions and prejudicial conclusions. Even something as simple as someone’s name has potential. Not that it matters, but I’ve never drunk Guinness or seen a leprechaun, nor do I have seven children. In fact, according to an ancestry website, the Ireland clan meandered into Perth-Scotland dressed like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart sometime during the 13th century, allegedly.
Forming generalisations and stereotypes might initially help make sense of the wide range of ‘stuff’ we see and encounter every day, but it can be a slippery slope if we are using stereotypes to ‘blinker’ our view and not see people as individuals. History shows ample evidence of how stereotyping can lead to prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination. However, recent history has also shown that much progress has been made in this regard, yet in reality negative stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination still exist.
The somewhat sobering psychology behind stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination is the inconvenient truth that we still tend to divide our social world into groups.
But let’s get back to popular culture and the one-line classics. Perhaps my all-time favourite comes from Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mitch Henessey, in The Long Kiss Goodnight: “When you make an assumption, you make an ass out you and umption.”
Have you got a question? Please contact Jeremy at bondicounsellingservices.com.