Stereotypes, judgement and communication

13. Stereotypes, judgement and communication

Communicating without judgement occurs when the individual avoids making a judgement about a person based on personal values and beliefs. Value-laden judgements often occur because of appearance or some observable behaviour or characteristic that creates stereotypical expectations (Purtilo & Haddad 2002). The values and beliefs of an individual, although not always observable (Ellis et al 2004), provide the foundation for biases that create stereotypical judgements. These often-irrational biases develop over time from significant others or parental models (Milliken & Honeycutt 2004). They can create prejudice towards particular types of people or groups (Brill & Levine 2005). Stereotypical judgements may be positive or negative. For example, a judgement stating that all surfers are able-bodied and fit is positive, if being able-bodied and fit are considered positive attributes. However, this statement may not always be true. Similarly, a judgement stating that all Muslims condone violence and terrorism is negative, if violence and terrorism are considered negative attributes, but this statement is definitely not always true. A stereotype is a fixed impression about a person or group (Devito 2007) that may have some connection with reality because there may appear to be some similarities within the people or group. A stereotype in itself may initially be beneficial because it provides a framework from which to commence communication. However, if the stereotype produces judgements that dominate all communication with an individual it can be detrimental, because it limits the possibility of relating to more than the stereotype (Holliday et al 2006).

Reasons to avoid stereotypical judgement when communicating

Biases, prejudice and resultant judgements can greatly affect communication – they may result in conflict (see Ch 14), misunderstandings (see Ch 17) and communication breakdown (Mohan et al 2004). These are good reasons why health professionals should avoid stereotypical judgements based on prejudice (Egan 2007). However, there are additional reasons to avoid stereotypical judgement. Stereotypical attitudes often develop from limited information (ignorance) or misinformed assumptions (Brill & Levine 2005, Holliday et al 2006) and thus the resultant judgement may be incorrect. This potentially means that if a health professional is relating to someone through a stereotype, they have reduced the person to something that is less than who they are and therefore the health professional is not allowing the person to have thoughts and opinions that do not conform to the stereotype. It is also possible that the stereotype is based on an unconscious belief about an ‘in’ group and a subordinate ‘out’ group (Bowe & Martin 2007). This suggests the beliefs or culture of the person making the stereotypical judgement are the standard for evaluating the ‘other’ person or culture (Tyler et al 2005). Stereotypical judgement usually occurs unconsciously and thus has serious implications for the health professional (Lyons & Kashima 2003). If unconscious, prejudice and possible resultant stereotypical judgements will unknowingly influence the communication of the health professional, with potentially unpleasant results.



Explore your prejudice

• What are your honest answers to the following questions?

– Are you willing to have a close friend from any other culture or religious group?

– Are you willing to have a long-term romantic relationship with someone from another culture, political party or religious group?

– Are you willing to choose to talk to someone who ‘lives on the street’ (is homeless) when you are out shopping?

– Are you willing to allow people who are obviously different to you to have value and credibility?

• Are you able to answer with a definite yes? If not, are you able to determine the source of your biases?

• What can a health professional do to overcome any unconscious tendency to stereotypical judgements?

Although a stereotypical judgement may benefit the person holding the stereotype because it justifies their own characteristics or value, it produces lenses that negatively affect communication. Devito (2007) states that a stereotypical judgement creates two major barriers when communicating. The first barrier occurs if there exists a set idea about the person or their group. This idea will limit the ability to hear or experience anything that is different to the constructs of the stereotype. The second barrier limits the possibility of relating to particular qualities or abilities within the person if those qualities contradict the stereotype. In such cases, the stereotypical judgement may not allow the person to be unique or different to the stereotype. For example, a young health professional can be as competent as an older one, but a stereotypical judgement may not allow them to be competent. Alternatively, an elderly person may lead a very active life despite the stereotypical judgement that states elderly people are frail and dependent. If such stereotypical judgements occur, all communicators experience limited mutual understanding, and negotiation of meaning – if it does occur – is likely to fail. More importantly, while these barriers limit the possibility of effective communication, they also limit the potential to achieve family/person-centred practice.

Stereotypical judgement that relates to roles


• What behaviour represents an ‘ideal’ person seeking assistance? Answer this question alone, making a list of behaviours. Use your expectations not those of other health professionals.

• Discuss the individual lists within a group and together agree upon a list.

• How would these expectations affect the reactions to, and communication with, someone who does not behave according to these expectations?

• How can a health professional ensure they allow the ‘other’ to be unique and thus fulfil their unique needs regardless of the particular role of the health professional?

Expectations of a health professional

Many individuals have stereotypical attitudes that affect their expectations of people and situations. While parental influences contribute to the creation of these attitudes, experience will also influence them. A person who has a negative experience with one health service or health professional may generalise this experience to expect similar experiences from all health professionals (Holliday et al 2006). It may take only one negative experience with a particular health professional to create the expectation that all individuals from that health profession will be the same (Harms 2007). It is the responsibility of the health professional to communicate without stereotypical judgement or expectations, because it is important to avoid reinforcing any existing negative stereotypes.


A young mother brings her 3-year-old child who has Down Syndrome to a speech pathologist for assistance with oral communication. At home, the child verbalises and communicates. However, in the clinic the child is nervous and overwhelmed by the situation so does not communicate or respond in any way. The health professional assumes the child cannot verbalise and, not listening to the mother, provides strategies to manage a non-verbal child.


• How would you respond?

The mother, upset and infuriated, never returned to that speech pathologist and took some time to seek the assistance of another.

This health professional demonstrated stereotypical judgements that negatively affected the vulnerable mother for some time. This response was not conducive to fulfilment of family-centred practice and certainly limited communication.

An ‘ideal’ health professional demonstrates differing behaviours and communicative qualities according to the needs of the individual and the requirements of the particular situation (Green et al 2006). The following list highlights the characteristics and behaviours of an ideal health professional that will affect the quality of their communication.

An ideal health professional should be

• Knowledgeable about and skilled in their health profession (Stein-Parbury 2006)

• Respectful and caring (Brill & Levine 2005)

• Warm and genuine (Ellis et al 2004, Harms 2007)

• Open and humble (Devito 2007)

• Willing to be human and supportive, often emotionally and sometimes through touch (Dossey et al 2003, Egan 2007, Harms 2007)

Mar 13, 2017 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Stereotypes, judgement and communication
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