August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

The Confession of a Serial Stereotyper: How to Stereotype Your Way to Success

As a lifelong student of human nature I have some very strong opinions on the subject. As a result, I often meet people who flourish, “That’s a stereotype!” like a trump card. In a single stroke I’ve been found guilty not only of faulty logic but faulty morals as well.

I confess that I stereotype people all the time, and rather than trying to fix this nonexistent problem I spend most of my time trying to get better at it. Most business success depends on people skills. Sales, marketing, and management professionals must be able to accurately predict what others will do. In sales for example, I developed a stereotype for how a decision maker looked and smelled that served me very well. Of course my stereotyping skills are not foolproof. I am often wrong. But we don’t have to be right all the time to be successful; just most of the time. And every time a stereotype lets me down I analyze why and try to make it better.

Stripped of its pejorative connotations, stereotyping is just a synonym for generalizing about people and their likely behavior. In business we speak glibly about demographics, target markets, market segmentation, and customer profiles. Television shows “skew” upscale or downscale, young or old, male or female. These are all stereotypes that we use to make better decisions: decisions that at best only increase the probability that our value proposition will reach only those most likely to perceive it as valuable. In business what is important is not whether we are using stereotypes, but whether our generalizations are valid or not.

For a generalization to be valid it doesn’t have to be accurate in every case: just valid enough to be useful. The old adage that “the exception proves the rule” captures this truth. Just because there are men addicted to soap operas doesn’t invalidate the generalization that the soaps skew female and target women. The generalization “sunrise” is so useful that we still use it even though, strictly speaking, the sun never “rises.”

Data is infinite and time a rapidly wasting asset. Every decision is a game of probabilities: an optimization between information and time. Acting impulsively on too little information leads to bad decisions, and taking too much time as we gather ever more data means missed opportunities. Great decisions lie in Aristotle’s Golden Mean, the sweet spot between these two extremes. The rate of change is changing at an ever accelerating rate, and this means time is more important than ever. Making fast, accurate decisions by “chunking data” from ever smaller data sets is mission critical and this applies to people as well.

In fact, since our most important decisions are people decisions it applies even more to people. We are all trying to successfully navigate a world consisting of an infinite data set of human interactions while saddled with a very limited life span. “Chunking” people accurately through valid stereotypes is critical to everything from pricing a product, creating a help wanted ad, or identifying potential customers.

Stereotypes are useful beyond business as well. Creating a stereotype of what a likely voter looks like and will likely do is essential to polling and politics. Millions of people troll internet dating sites looking for their “type.” Comedy depends on parody and parody depends on stereotypes even if the cops I know are not addicted to doughnuts. Where would drama be without its stereotypical stream of greedy corporate types, evil southern sheriffs, and arrogant prep school kids?

Science uses inductive reasoning to make sweeping generalizations about the universe from a few data points called experiments. Similarly, we are hard-wired to inductively reach broad conclusions about people from relatively few data points. If the next ten people with a red eye patch hit you over the head, you would be fully justified in avoiding red eye- patched people and a damn fool if you didn’t. Totally eliminating stereotypes would mean eliminating inductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning is just too valuable even if we could.

It is not stereotypes per se that we object to; just negative stereotypes. Saying that the French are great winemakers, lovers, or connoisseurs is not a stereotype, but saying that the French are feckless and effete is. We can’t have it both ways, and even if we could eliminate stereotypes I wouldn’t. When I ask a friend just back from France what the French are like, I am looking for a little more than the blandishment that people in all countries are the same because every human being is utterly unique (not to mention that arguing that all people are unique is itself a stereotype.) On the other hand, if my friend tells me that the French don’t speak English this is a valuable stereotype even though strictly speaking it is not true.

Communism and racism waste so much human capital and cause so much needless suffering not because they rely on stereotypes, but because their stereotypes about people are invalid. If we took half the energy we spend denouncing stereotypes and applied it to making sure that our stereotypes are valid we would be far more effective in managing our bosses, colleagues, prospects, customers, and even our personal lives. In business as in life “people make it happen” and there is a tremendous premium to being able to “size people up” quickly and accurately. We will never be completely accurate, but what makes great leaders great is making a lot more good decisions than the rest of us. Life is not a game of certainties. It is a game of increasing probabilities.

Ten years ago I sold my company, bought a farm, and moved to the country. Through the inductive reasoning of trial and error, I discovered that the stereotype that Mexican-Americans are honest, hard working, family oriented people who deliver great work is valid. Unfortunately (for me at least) the stereotype that Mexican-Americans do all this great work for substandard pay has not held up quite so well.

Looking for more un-stereotypical insights? This post and more are also featured on my blog.