Aren't Generalisations And Stereotypes The Same?

Generalisations and stereotypes may seem very similar—but are they? It is important to define them, especially when meeting someone from a different culture.

Aren't Generalisations And Stereotypes The Same?
Photo by Gritt Zheng / Unsplash

Your manager requested that you be the buddy for a new colleague who would join your team. Excited, you prepared a welcome pack and mentally planned for lunch.

As you waited, a small elderly lady in frumpy clothing approached the reception. She inquired about your company's location.

Impatiently, you replied, "Yes, what is your business here?"

She mentioned your name and said it was her first day at work.

What were your first thoughts?

When meeting someone from a different culture, people tend to form generalisations. Generalisation is the act of taking all the existing data, identifying patterns and reconstructing the patterns. Its purpose is to describe and learn about the person or situation.

The generalisations of cultures are broad statements or characteristics of a cultural group. These broad statements are based on experiences, examples, or facts. These generalisations are used as a guide when interacting with and engaging people from different cultures.

For example, the generalisation that Muslim women dress conservatively is valuable when visiting a Muslim country for the first time. Similarly, the generalisation that India has abundant vegetarian food is useful for helping you adapt or plan your meals.

Similarly, stereotypes are also statements and interpretations about a group of people. According to Dovidio and colleagues,

Stereotypes are associations and beliefs about the characteristics and attributes of a group and its members that shape how people think about and respond to the group.

Stereotypes can be positive and negative, and labels can be used to categorise people. For example, gay men are well-dressed, or women make bad leaders. According to sociologist Joel Charon, stereotypes consist of six main characteristics.

  1. Stereotype is about passing judgment.
  2. There is little or no room for exceptions.
  3. Stereotypes encourage the creation of categories and their characteristics. These categories overshadow and dominate a person's other attributes.
  4. Stereotypes rarely change, even when presented with opposing evidence.
  5. Anecdotes, not empirical evidence, are used to form stereotypes.
  6. Stereotypes do not help in understanding individuals or cultural differences.

What's the difference?

Once we understand the definition, the differences between the two become apparent.

  • Generalisation is not for judgment — stereotype judges.
  • Generalisations can be changed when new evidence comes to light. Stereotypes remain the same, even with new evidence.
  • Generalisations are broad statements that consider individual differences and contextual nuances. Stereotypes do not allow for individual differences or consider context.
  • Generalisations are a starting point for understanding cultural differences further. A stereotype is the ending point, where there is nothing more to learn.
  • Generalisations recognise the individual in a cultural group. Stereotypes only recognise the group characteristics and ignore the individual.

Why do we generalise or stereotype?

According to Nobel-prize winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman,

The brain is "a machine for jumping to conclusions."

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains that our brains consist of two systems of thinking, simply named System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast in its brain processing. It is effortless, automatic, and automatic. System 1's fundamental purpose is to assess and act. We use System 1 to take mental shortcuts, which helps to preserve our energy. For example, you order the same meal at your college cafeteria or take the same route home from work.

System 2 is slow in its process. Slow because it requires conscious effort, deliberations and rational thinking. System 2 involves awareness and control. We use System 2 to seek new information or to make decisions. For example, choosing a new home requires considering many factors such as budget, location, home design, etc. Or the task of deciding which university to go to based on your grades, your interest, your parent's budget, etc.

Between the two systems, we rely on System 1 almost all the time. This means we do not take the time to reflect, deliberate, investigate or seek new information to make well-informed decisions.

When it comes to generalisation and stereotypes, we almost always use System 1. Yet, the difference between the two is when we encounter new information. Do we switch to System 2 and consider what it means? Or do we hold firmly to System 1 and dismiss the latest information?

Dangers of Stereotype

When we rely too much on stereotypes, there are many downsides to ourselves and others. Some examples are biased decision-making, covering, and stereotype threat.

Biased Decisions

We make decisions all the time, day and night. Some decisions can have minimal consequences, such as eating the last apple in the fridge or letting your kids have them. Other decisions can change a person's life entirely, such as hiring someone of a different race and gender or someone of the same race and gender.

When we have stereotypes, our decisions become biased and may have lasting consequences for ourselves and others. For example, researchers found that healthcare professionals tended to provide a lower quality of care when stereotypes were involved. When faced with racial minorities, stereotypes lead police to claim to see a weapon, where none were found.


Kenji Yoshino is a gay Asian American legal scholar who wrote the book Covering. Accordingly, covering is the act of downplaying aspects of one's identity to fit in and get ahead in one's career or life. These aspects can include race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and many others.

Stereotype encourages people to cover. They fear exclusion and punishment when their stereotyped identities are revealed. In doing so, people cannot show their authentic selves.

People belonging to a cultural group carry the burden of its stereotypes. In an unsafe environment, people opt to cover up the negative characteristics of a stereotype to avoid attracting negative perceptions of themselves, even when the negative stereotype is untrue.

For example, people avoid discussions on homosexuality to gain the confidence of heterosexual colleagues. Or some change one's accent to be perceived as originating from a more privileged group. Others may pretend to be younger in a workplace that looks down on older workers.

Stereotype Threat

When identity characteristics cannot be hidden, people are at risk of Stereotype Threat. Most people acknowledge that a negative stereotype exists for their group. Then, Stereotype Threat is the risk of confirming negative stereotypes of one's social group.

People fear that the negative stereotype will become true when engaged in work or academic activity. There is additional situational or evaluative pressure with negative stereotypes. Researchers have found that this pressure can disrupt our thinking and work performance.

When elderly people were reminded of their negative stereotype of "poor memory", they performed worse in memorisation activities. Another group of older participants who were not given any "stereotyped" cues performed better in the same memorisation.

Are you making generalisations? Or are you stereotyping?

One effective way to reduce stereotypes is to question your assumptions and the assumptions of others. When you receive the new hire, the frumpy elderly lady, what were your impressions? Then, ask yourself.

What made you assume that?

Whether we impose stereotypes on others or are the recipients of stereotypes, we limit the capabilities of others and ourselves. Use generalisations to facilitate daily conversations. Together, we need to strive to reduce stereotypes.

This post is updated from the originally published post on Culture Spark Global on 5 October 2021 and written by the same author, Ling Ling Tai.