Last week, in my inaugural blog posting, I brought up the idea of "positive stereotypes" in social contexts (i.e., generalized favorable beliefs about the characteristics shared by social group members), and whether such stereotypes may have unintended negative consequences for the perceivers who use them and the targets who must live up to them.
Many of the adjectives we use in social descriptions are comparative. Consider the terms you might use to describe yourself if asked to repeatedly complete the statement, "I am _____". Words like wealthy, smart, tall, critical, athletic, spiritual, free-spirited (and thousands of others) convey your perceived relative standing on some physical, mental, or social dimension. In other words, they tell your approximate value (high, average, or low) on some characteristic.
For example, my "tallness" (187 cm, or just under 6'2") is a reflection of the typically lower height of my fellow Canadians; with a different comparison group, this descriptor may be less (or more) accurate. If I were to travel to The Netherlands for a vacation, I would probably blend right in (except, perhaps, for the maple leaf on my backpack); if I visited the Guatemalan Maya, on the other hand, nobody would have trouble finding me in a crowd.
More than 50 years ago, Leon Festinger (more popularly known for his theory of cognitive dissonance) suggested that most of our social understanding comes from comparison to others. More recently, Monica Biernat's shifting standards model provided a framework for understanding how changes in self- and other-perception can brought about by stereotypes: the stereotypes we hold create different standards of comparison for members of different groups. If we believe that "most Woolibullians are really great at tango dancing", then their average talent level ("really great") is deemed higher than that of other groups. The unspoken assumption is that we should expect a superior performance from most (if not all) of them -- even those poor Woolibullians who haven't yet finished their Arthur Murray courses. In essence, the stereotype becomes the expectation, and the objective quality of people (and their abilities) may shine or pale by virtue of comparison.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility, then, that positive stereotypes can create harm without intent. Early educators, for example, may steer children toward skill development based on inaccurate expectations of task competency and aptitude for further learning. Germany's three-tier school system was criticized for this failing earlier in the decade, wherein immigrant children were much more likely to put into "trade school" curricula than their native-born peers; similar complaints about classism have been historically launched at the English school system. In the United States, low-income whites often claim that they are viewed with particular derision (i.e., more than their neighbors of color) because they are assumed to have started out with 'all the advantages' -- and thus are more likely to be suspected of mental illness, disease, work unreliability, criminality. (Sociologist Monica McDermott provides some related anecdotal data in her book Working-Class White, based upon her observations working undercover as a cashier in Atlanta and Boston.) In experiments from the 1970s and 1980s, attractive women were found to shrug off positive feedback about their personalities and quality of work when they could be seen by their evaluators -- just one reason why attractive people don't have as much self-esteem as you might think!
In all, we should be careful about the assumptions you make about others, even the positive ones. When we fail to do so, at the very least we are losing the opportunity to get to know someone on a more personal -- more human -- basis. At the very worst, we can inadvertently set up a chain of expectations and misunderstandings that will undermine the relationship itself.