According to the dictionary (Dictionary.com) stereotyping is “a generalization, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that is used to describe or distinguish a group.”
I won’t argue with that but there are nuances that need to be explored.
Exaggerations and offensive words are useful in helping to gain an understanding. On the other hand, today’s “politically correct” language commonly paints everything in monotones to the point that the truth is covered up entirely.
Exploring the dictionary definition observe that the first word in the definition is generalization. While generalizing gets about as bad press as stereotyping does now-a-days, it is really an essential part of living -- the reason being that generalizing is simply a matter of expectations and that, in turn is based on experience. Therefore, if one were not to generalize at all, then he would be treating all situations without regard to experience. No one can function in this way.
The problem comes, simply put, when the generalizing individual refuses to accept that new experiences will often deviate from prior ones. So for example, to expect that all Germans are rigid and all Frenchmen are carefree would be a mistake. On the other hand to expect that rigidity is higher in Germans than in Frenchmen may not be too far off the mark. On the other hand, this may be a generalization whose time has come and gone.
Another view on stereotyping would be the following observation on doctors’ wives. These are attractive women who marry for money and status. They don’t see enough of their workaholic husbands, have little to do, and few friends due to their isolated economic status. Over the years they get less and less happy.
Is this a stereotype? Certainly. Is it true? Of course it is not absolutely true. But let’s suppose that somehow a scientific study was done and it was found to be true 30% of the time. So would that make it a poor generalization being 70 percent wrong? Maybe not. If that description was only true for other housewives only one percent of the time, then it would be extremely significant.
My conclusion? Stereotyping is essential but has its limits.