Background Research

People often feel uncomfortable talking about stereotyping and prejudice, in part because they believe they might make a social blunder, be rejected or ridiculed, or appear prejudiced (Stephan & Stephan, 2001). But, people do, of course, regularly use stereotypes; indeed, stereotypes facilitate the ability to quickly process information about others and that makes the world a predictable, orderly place (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000). On one hand, then, people readily use stereotypes to navigate their social world; on the other hand, they realize that doing so has social costs, making it difficult for them to talk about their stereotypic beliefs.

Stereotypes about social groups are conveyed through parents, peers, and the media (Kite & Whitley, 2016). Stereotypes also are transmitted and maintained through the words and phrases people use, often without their thinking about them. For example, people attach qualifiers when referring to those in nontraditional roles, such as female athletes (e.g., Lady Boilermakers) and minority group members who are professionals (e.g., the ‘‘Black’’ doctor; Ng, 2007).

Linguists have identified many common English language expressions that convey such stereotypes (Bolinger, 1980) and these expressions are the focus of this activity. Instructors can also discuss how language serves to maintain stereotypic beliefs. For example, Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, and Semin (1989) found that people use abstract language that cannot easily be discounted when making negative statements about outgroups but use concrete language that can be easily disconfirmed when describing their own group’s negative characteristics. More generally, in everyday conversation about ethnic group members, people are more likely to mention traits that are stereotypically associated with those ethnic groups than traits not stereotypically associated with those groups (Schaller, Conway, & Tanchuk, 2002).


Bolinger, D. (1980). Language, the loaded weapon: The use and abuse of language today. New York: Longman.

Kite, M.E., & Whitley, B.E.,Jr.  (2016). The psychology of prejudice and discrimination. New York: Routledge.

Maass, A., Salvi, D., Arcuri, L., & Semin, G. R. (1989). Language use in intergroup contexts: the linguistic intergroup bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 981-993.

Macrae, C. N., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2000). Social cognition: Thinking categorically about others. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 93-120.

Ng, S. H. (2007). Language-based discrimination blatant and subtle forms. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 26, 106-122.

Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (2001). Improving intergroup relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.