Ignorance is no excuse for persistent stereotyping

By Jonathan Rivett


A number of times, a client has referred to me as my colleague who is of the same ethnic background – though we are from different countries.

Initially, when we were both introduced to this person, they remarked that they may get this wrong, and we all laughed. But it has now happened several times over a long time and I no longer find it amusing.

My colleague and I look different and have different roles in the project. I want the client to be able to refer to us by our correct names – it’s just good manners. How do I put this to them the next time this happens?

Illustration by John Shakespeare
Illustration by John ShakespeareCredit:


From what you’ve told me in your longer email, some of which we haven’t used, this sounds like a person who can’t be bothered offering you the most basic courtesy. I’ll get to how you should respond to such rudeness in a moment, but before I do, I thought it would be worth mentioning that not everyone who makes a mistake such as this is doing so deliberately, or out of disrespect or willful ignorance. Not initially, anyway.

Dr Raymond Trau is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management at Macquarie University, who researches workplace diversity and inclusion. He told me that when we encounter someone for the first time, we generally don’t have very much information about them. And we tend to plug these information gaps without much careful thought.

“This kind of categorisation often happens when people first meet a new colleague or client belonging to a distinctive group. People tend to rely on stereotypes associated with that group to fill in missing pieces of information about the person,” he explains.

“This form of categorical thinking is an unconscious and energy-saving process and not uncommon in work settings.”


But in many cases, as a relationship between the two people develops, a “process of de-categorisation” takes place, Trau says. The information holes previously papered over with tatty, sometimes insulting, clichés plucked from a crude formula are now closed with more solid and accurate information that reflects a person’s uniqueness.

It sounds as if in your case, however, this de-categorisation has never taken place; the stereotyping remains. The person in question has dismissed (in the words of Trau) your “individuality” as unworthy of their consideration.

“The problem with relying on stereotypes is that it leads to prejudice and discrimination and therefore negative consequences for certain minority groups. Research has shown that stereotyping has a negative spillover to certain attitudes and behaviours. For example, Asian women tend to be stereotyped as lacking social skills and assertiveness, and therefore their views are ignored, and their talents are not recognised.”

What can you do when this client treats you with contempt next time? Trau says don’t stay silent.

“If the client has the tendency to be very rude, my advice to the reader is to speak up and share their views on the inappropriate behaviour of the client.

“The challenge for members of minority groups in acting against stereotypes associated with their group is that it may generate dislike and hostility from others. However, it is important for the reader to continue adjusting their communication style according to the situation and be willing to engage in constructive confrontations when appropriate.”

If the behaviour doesn’t stop, Trau suggests speaking with a leader about dropping out of the project. I agree. If your employer values your contribution and understands how offensive this behaviour is, they won’t ask you to tolerate it. In fact, I would say they should seriously consider whether their custom is worth the trouble.

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