Have you ever encountered someone who “made your skin crawl,” even though he was of the same race or ethnic group as you? Or someone with whom you were afraid to start a conversation, even though you had never seen or attempted to talk to the person before? Have you ever met someone whom you assumed to be same-sex attracted, even though you knew nothing about the person? Or someone whom you assumed was a member of an organized crime gang? I have. And in some cases, that’s true in ways I’m not necessarily proud of. This is what communication scholars call perception. It’s how we perceive people. Consider these examples of common perceptions (in bold):
· Republicans are the party of the rich, while most Democrats are poor or working class. Not so. IRS data shows 65% of taxpayers with a household income of $500,000 or more live in Democratic districts while 74% of taxpayers with a household income of $100,000 or less live in Republican districts. (Korte, 2021)
· Blacks have rhythm. Not true in all cases. Oprah is a good example.
· Democrats have been defenders of African-Americans. Not true. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the two Presidents after whom the Democratic Party traditionally names its major fund-raising event, were slave owners. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, emancipated the slaves. The Ku Klux Klan originated down South after the Civil War. When Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, succeeded William Howard Taft, a Republican, as President of the United States, 10% of the federal Civil Service in Washington, D.C., was Black and worked side-by-side with whites. When Wilson took office, segregation was immediately established in D.C. (History, 2020). While Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches for civil rights, Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in his 1963 inaugural address declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
· Old folks can’t do much. Not true. President Joe Biden is 80. Michael Bloomberg, who owns (and still runs) the Bloomberg financial news service, is 80. The author of this textbook is 80 and teaches four classes a semester at Prince George’s Community College. Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, a computer programming pioneer, retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was active as a Supreme Court justice until her death at 87.
· Blacks are lazy. Not true. Following the abolition of slavery, an institution called the Freedmen’s Bank was established by Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., In the 11 years of its existence, 70,000 persons, almost all Black, deposited a total of $57 million in its 37 branches. Unfortunately, there was rampant corruption within the bank and it failed, and many lost their savings resulting in distrust of the American banking system. The bank’s records are contained in the National Archives and can be searched to find not only the names of depositors but also their parents, spouses, children, brothers and sisters, and in some cases, former slave owners. Another example: Following the destruction of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., it was rebuilt, better than ever, within 20 years, almost entirely with Black money. Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. She happened to be Black. Watch her story here.
What Is Perception?
As we have seen, our perception can be wrong. But what is perception? It’s the process of making meaning from things we experience in people and our relationships. It’s not just what we personally experience, of course, but in many cases what we are told. The process involves three components:
· Selection – Attending to a stimulus, the things we are told or observe about someone.
· Organization – Helps you make sense of what you notice. Our minds classify each and every stimulus we receive.
· Interpretation – This is where we assign meaning to the information we have received.
Perceptions can have serious consequences. Black and Hispanic workers are often stuck on the lowest rungs of corporate jobs. A study by McKinsey suggests corporate diversity efforts have missed the mark. Many of the employees in front-line occupations who earn less than $30,000 a year have the potential to progress into jobs earning twice that amount, such as a radiation therapist or call-center representative who transitions to supervisor and then sales manager.
Why is this? One reason is that employees of color lack the “soft skills” needed to interact with colleagues and customers and to lead others. This perception can lead to a boss being not as willing to take a chance on promoting an employee of color as on promoting a white worker (Smith, 2022).
Stereotyping is generalizations about groups that are applied to individuals within a group. If you have been told that all Republicans are rich, and someone introduces himself as a Republican, you probably assume he is rich. Let’s look at stereotyping in the sense of religion.
I’ve played a game with classes over the years in which I’ve asked students to “fill in the blank” to the following statements: “Christians are _______,” “Muslims are ________” and “Jews are _______.”
Usually, there’s an element of truth to people’s perceptions. It may be just an element, but there’s at least a tad of truth. For example:
Often, students say Christians are hypocritical. When I ask why they say that, students respond that, well, Christians talk in church about loving their neighbor but outside of church they are envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude. Worst, they often engage in deceptive business practices or discriminatory conduct.
Often students say Muslims are devout because Muslims are to pray five times a day. Many do. But, “the reality is that faith is practiced at the discretion of the follower. Some Muslims are stricter than others, while some cannot pray at certain times (i.e. menstruating women)” according to this paper by the co-presidents of the Muslim Student Association at Benedictine University.
Usually, students in the Washington, D.C., area don’t know what to say about Jews because they have had little experience with Jews. But in years past, in the New York area you might have heard that Jews are rich and really control things. In years past, Jews controlled some of New York media (The New York Times is still owned by the Sulzberger family, and when the Times owned WQXR it broadcast Friday night services from a Jewish synagogue), and Jewish-Americans were some of the founders of key Hollywood studios (Carl Laemmle, Universal Pictures; Adolph Zukor, Paramount Pictures, and Samuel Goldwyn, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM), But other founders weren’t Jewish (e.g., Thomas Ince, who created the first studio facility; Mack Sennett, and Walt Disney).
Stereotypes are not inherently bad. They are classification systems, and they can be useful when encountering new input. The problem is, we have to be careful that we don’t overgeneralize. For instance, thanks to Prohibition, the “mob” became very large in major American cities. Also known as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra, it is a hierarchically structured society of criminals primarily of Italian or Sicilian birth or extraction. Al Capone personified the mob during Prohibition. Following World War II, it gained newfound notoriety through such movies as “On The Waterfront.” Also, a series of dramatic crime syndicate investigations in the 1950s added to the notoriety of the Mafia.
Because most members of the Mafia were Italian, some people assumed that all Italians were crooked. The leaders of the mob were sensitive to this, and when Francis Ford Coppola was getting set to film “The Godfather,” the producer was summoned to the Italian American Civil Right League’s headquarters. After several meetings with “league representatives, including Anthony Columbo, whose father, Joseph Columbo Sr., is a reputed leader of organized crime in Brooklyn,” who asked that all references to the Mafia and Cosa Nostra be eliminated from the screenplay. “They wanted to sit down with us and see if the movie was going to be an anti‐Italian film,” the producer said. (Lichtenstein, 1971).
The problem with stereotypes is that they can tar everyone with the same brush. Some Italian Americans are members of the mob. Many aren’t. Here are a few notable Italian Americans:
· Enrico Fermi, awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on radioactivity and discovery of new elements. After defecting from Italy to the U.S., he oversaw the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in Chicago in December 1942 and two years later was associate director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
· Lee Iacocca, introduced the Ford Mustang, became president of Ford and then, after being fired by Ford, took over foundring Chrysler Corp.
· Dr. Anthony Fauci, who developed effective treatments for HIV/AIDS and later oversaw the response to Covid-19.
· Antonin Scalia, first Italian American on the U.S. Supreme Court.
· Twenty-nine members of the U.S. Congress are Italian-Americans.
· Twenty-eight Italian Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
As humans, we are very quick to judge someone. We typically decide a person in less than 30 seconds. What do we base that decision on? Certainly not a real knowledge of the person. Rather, we judge the person based on his or her personal appearance, voice, clothing, etc. Or where we see him.
Joshua Bell is a world-famous violinist and conductor. In 2007, he decided to see what would happen if he performed as a street musician at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop in Washington, D.C. Watch what happened. Read the Washington Post story. Only one person watched his performance for any length of time. Why? Because of perceptions. A world-class musician wouldn’t perform in a subway station, would he? Seven years later, Bell returned to the Metro for a free concert at Union Station. Watch the video here. The do-over even became an interview on the PBS News Hour. You can watch that here. The difference? The performance had been publicized. This time, people knew the musician was a world-class performer.
As illustrated by Joshua Bell’s experience, we perceive only what we want or expect to perceive. This is called a perceptual set. Another example is when we see a baby wrapped in pink, we find it hard to believe the child could be a boy.
Have you ever seen someone to whom you took an immediate liking? That was the case when I first saw my wife at Catch 22, a club in Bridgewater, N.J. And she has said she knew immediately that I was the one. This is an example of a positivity bias. What was it that was the mutual attraction? Certainly, physical appearance was one factor. My wife is a twin, but I thought then (and still do) that she has a far prettier smile than her sister. As we talked that evening, we discovered with were both interested in politics and involved in local government. All of those were a plus for both of us. We were of the same religion, too, which was another plus.
Some people have that “love at first sight” experience. For others, one the attraction grows over time. And for others, one person knows but it takes several months (or even years!) to woo the other.
Positivity bias is a factor in many situations. In employment, in non-work, non-romantic friendships, etc. You may have heard it expressed as “bird of a feather flock together,” and that’s true. But when an entire workplace, or sports team, is composed of only one species of bird, the results are likely to be less effective than when a workplace is more diverse.
What is diversity? At one level, it refers to affirmative action policies which focus on race and gender. But at another, diversity includes all sorts of individual differences – age, religion, disability status, location, personality, sexual preference, etc. There’s evidence that groups displaying a variety of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. “Diversity yields superior outcomes over homogeneity because progress and innovation depend less on lone thinkers with high intelligence than on diverse groups working together and capitalizing on their individuality.” (Herring, 2009)
Certainly, from an ability to understand various markets, it makes sense that having a diverse staff is a plus. So, for example, when Detroit evolved from a predominantly white, blue-collar city to a predominantly Black, blue-collar city it would have made sense for the city’s newspapers’ staffs to have likewise evolved. On the other hand, Madam C.J. Walker did not need a diverse staff to develop her hair treatments for Black women, nor did she need a diverse staff to sell to them.
- Based upon your experience, is it easier to work in groups that are diverse or not? Have you ever been an “outsider” in a group? How did you manage this? In a face-to-face class, be prepared to discuss. In an online class, write an essay of not more than 500 words.
- Based on this video, why do white people think all Black people look alike? And why do blacks think all white people look alike?
Egocentrism means simply that the world revolves around me. As a result, we find it very difficult to consider another’s perspective. This impacts our ability to empathize with others.
- What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?
Herring, C. (2009). Does diversity pay? Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American Sociological Review. 74(2) p 208-224.
History (2020, July 14). How Woodrow Wilson tried to reverse Black American progress. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/woodrow...w-ku-klux-klan
Lichtenstein, G. (1971). Godfather film won’t mention Mafia. The New York Times. 120 (41,328). March 20, 1971, p.1. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/tim...l?pageNumber=1
Korte, G. (2021, April 19). Democrats’ tax-hike bet relies on their new $500,000-plus voters.
Smith, R.A. (2022, Aug. 1). Why Black and Hispanic workers get stuck on the lowest rung. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/black-hispanic-employees-stuck-lowest-rung-workplace-11659131490
Weingarten, G. (2007). Pearls before breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out. The Washington Post. April 28, 2007. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifes...e5f_story.html