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date: 01 February 2023

Prejudiced Communicationfree

Prejudiced Communicationfree

  • Janet B. RuscherJanet B. RuscherDepartment of Psychology, Tulane University


Prejudiced attitudes and stereotypic beliefs about outgroups can be reflected in language and everyday conversations. Explicit attitudes and beliefs may be expressed through use of group labels, dehumanizing metaphors, or prejudiced humor. More implicit attitudes and beliefs may be leaked through variations in sentence structure and subtle word choices. Empirical work shows that such prejudiced attitudes and stereotypic beliefs can spread within ingroup communities through one-on-one conversation as well as more broadly through vehicles such as news, the entertainment industry, and social media. Individuals also convey their prejudiced beliefs when communicating to outgroup members as message recipients. Outgroups who are members of historically disadvantaged groups, in particular, are targets of controlling or patronizing speech, biased feedback, and nonverbal behavior that leaks bias.


  • Communication and Culture
  • Language and Social Interaction
  • Intergroup Communication


People communicate their prejudiced attitudes and stereotypic beliefs in numerous ways. Variations in word choice or phrasing can betray simplistic, negative, or homogeneous views of outgroups. People may express their attitudes and beliefs through casual conversation, electronic media, or mass communication outlets—and evidence suggests that those messages impact receivers’ attitudes and beliefs. People also direct prejudiced communication to outgroups: They talk down to others, give vacuous feedback and advice, and nonverbally leak disdain or anxiety. Prejudiced communication affects both the people it targets as well as observers in the wider social environment.

Language Conveys Bias

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport wrote of “nouns that cut slices.” He argued that human beings categorize who and what they encounter and advance one feature to a primary status that outweighs and organizes other features. A label such as “hippie,” for example, organizes attributes such as drugs, peace, festival-goer, tie-dye, and open sexuality; “hippie” strongly and quickly cues each of those attributes more quickly than any particular attribute cues the label (e.g., “drugs” can cue many concepts other than hippie). Labels—the nouns that cut slices—thus serve the mental process of organizing concepts about groups. More broadly, prejudiced language can provide insight into how people think about other groups and members of other groups: They are different from us, they are all alike, they are less worthy than us, and they are outside the norm or even outside humanity.

Group Labels

Derogatory group labels exemplify lay people’s notions of prejudiced language. Group labels often focus on apparent physical attributes (e.g., skin tone, shape of specific facial features, clothing or head covering), cultural practices (e.g., ethnic foods, music preferences, religious practices), or names (e.g., abbreviations of common ethnic names; for a review, see Allen, 1990). Group labels also can reduce group members to social roles or their “uses” as objects or tools. For instance, labels for women are highly sexualized: Allen (1990) reports 220 English words for sexually promiscuous females compared to 20 for males, underscoring a perception that women are objects for sex. Occupations and roles attributed to members of particular ethnic groups (e.g., grape-stomper, mule) often become derogatory labels. The highly observable attributes of a derogatory group label de-emphasize the specific individual’s characteristics, and instead emphasize both that the person is a member of a specific group and, just as importantly, not a member of a group that the communicator values.

The one- or two-word label epitomizes economy of expression, and in some respects may be an outgrowth of normative communication processes. Work on communication maxims (e.g., Grice, 1975) and grounding (e.g., Clark & Brennan, 1991) indicate that communicators should attempt brevity when possible, and that communicating group members develop terms for shared understanding. “The woman whose hair is so well shellacked with hairspray that it withstands a hurricane,” becomes “lady shellac hair,” and finally just “shellac” (cf. Krauss & Fussell, 1991); group labels presumably develop in a similar fashion. If there are 15 women in a room, consider how efficient it is to simply reference the one woman as “shellac.” Indeed, this efficiency even shows up in literature. In one unusual investigation, Mullen and his colleagues show that label references to the character Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (e.g., infidel, the Jew) become more likely as the number of Christian characters on stage increase (Mullen, Rozell, & Johnson, 1996). Although the person’s one-word name is a unique designation, the one-word label has the added discriminatory value of highlighting intergroup differences.

The variation among labels applied to a group may be related to the group’s size, and can serve as one indicator of perceived group homogeneity. For example, groups whose representation in the United States has been relatively large (e.g., Italian) are described with more varied labels than groups whose representation is relatively small (e.g., Saudi Arabian; Mullen, 1991). For example, Italians in the United States historically have been referenced with various names (e.g., Guido, Pizzano) and varied cultural practices and roles (e.g., grape-stomper, spaghetti-eater, garlic-eater); this more complex and less homogeneous view of the group is associated with less social exclusion (e.g., intergroup friendship, neighborhood integration, marriage). By contrast, smaller groups whose few labels are negative (i.e., a noncomplex negative view of the group) may be especially prone to social exclusion (Leader, Mullen, & Rice, 2009). Finally, there are small groups who have few and unvaried labels, but whose labels are relatively neutral (e.g., Aussie for Australians in the United States). Such groups may be represented with a prototype (i.e., an exaggerated instance like the film character Crocodile Dundee).

Labels of course are not simply economical expressions that divide “us” and “them.” Labels frequently are derogatory, and they have the capacity to produce negative outcomes. Often, labels are the “fighting words” that characterize hate speech. In one study, White participants who overheard a racial slur about a Black student inferred that the student had lower skills than when participants heard a negative non-racial comment or heard no comment at all (Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1985). Similar effects have been observed with a derogatory label directed toward a gay man (Goodman, Schell, Alexander, & Eidelman, 2008). These tarnishing effects can generalize to people who are associated with the targeted individual, such as the White client of a derogated Black attorney (Greenberg, Kirkland, & Pyszczynski, 1988). Derogatory labels evoke the negative stereotypes for which they are summary terms, and once evoked, those negative stereotypes are likely to be applied by observers.

Intergroup Bias

Broadly speaking, people generally favor members of their ingroup over members of outgroups. Favoritism may include increased provision of desirable resources and more positive evaluation of behaviors and personal qualities, as well as protection from unpleasant outcomes. Casual observation of team sporting events illustrates the range of behaviors that reflect intergroup bias: Individuals don the colors of their teams and chant their team’s praises, take umbrage at a referee’s call of egregious penalties against the home team, or pick fights with rival fans. Although it is widely accepted that favoritism toward one’s ingroup (i.e., ingroup love) shows stronger and more reliable effects than bias against outgroups (i.e., outgroup hate), the differential preference is quite robust.

Pronouns and Differentiation

The use of first-person plurals (i.e., we, us, our) for the ingroup and third-person plurals (i.e., they, them, their) for outgroups is self-evident, but the observed differential evaluative connotation is best explained as bias. A fundamental principal of classical conditioning is that neutral objects that are paired with pleasant (or unpleasant) stimuli take on the evaluative connotation of those stimuli, and group-differentiating pronouns are no exception. When first-person plurals are randomly paired with nonsense syllables, those syllables later are rated favorably; nonsense syllables paired with third-person plurals tend to be rated less favorably (Perdue, Dovidio, Gurtman, & Tyler, 1990). Not surprisingly, then, first-person plurals are associated with group cohesiveness such as people in satisfied marriages (Sillars, Shellen, McIntosh, & Pomegranate, 1997) as well as people who hold a more collectivistic—as opposed to individualistic—cultural orientation (Na & Choi, 2009). Third-person pronouns, by contrast, are associated with distancing and negative feelings (e.g., Olekalns, Brett, & Donohue, 2010).

In one of the earliest social psychology studies on pronouns, Robert Cialdini and colleagues (1976) interviewed students following American college football games. Students tended to rely on first-person plurals when referencing wins, but third-person plurals when referencing losses. Such a linguistic strategy links positive outcomes with a valued social identity but creates distance from negative outcomes. The student is associated with the winning team (i.e., we won), but not associated with the same team when it loses (i.e., they lost). Thus, pronoun use not only reflects an acknowledged separation of valued ingroups from devalued outgroups, but apparently can reflect a strategic effort to generate feelings of solidarity or distance.

Linguistic Abstraction

Communicators may betray their stereotypically negative beliefs about outgroups by how abstractly (or concretely) they describe behaviors. Generally speaking, negative stereotypic congruent behaviors are characterized with abstract terms whereas positive stereotypic incongruent behaviors are characterized with concrete terms. For example, imagine an outgroup that is stereotyped as a group of unmotivated individuals who shamelessly rely on public assistance programs. A member of this group is observed sitting on his front porch on a weekday morning. This person could be referenced as “The man is sitting on his porch” or “The lazy guy on the porch.” The first characterization is concrete, in that it does not make inferences about the man’s disposition that extend beyond the time and place of the event. In the absence of nonverbal or paralinguistic (e.g., intonation) cues, the first characterization is quite concrete also because it places no evaluative judgment on the man or the behavior. The latter characterization, in contrast, implies that the man is lazy (beyond this instance) and judges the behavior negatively; in these respects, then, the latter characterization is relatively abstract and reflects the negative stereotype of the group.

The pattern of using abstract characterizations that maintain negative stereotypes of outgroups but support positive views of the ingroup has been termed the Linguistic Intergroup Bias (Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, & Semin, 1989). Outgroup negative behaviors are described abstractly (e.g., the man is “lazy,” as above), but positive behaviors are described in a more concrete fashion. Conversely, ingroup negative behaviors are described concretely (e.g., the man “is sitting on his porch,” as above) but positive behaviors are described in a more abstract fashion. Using Semin and Fiedler’s (1988) Linguistic Category Model, there are four forms of linguistic characterization that range in their abstractness. Descriptive action verbs (e.g., sitting) reference a specific instance of behavior, but provide no deeper interpretation such as evaluative connotation, the actor’s feelings or intention, or potential generalization across time or context. Slightly more abstract, interpretive action verbs (e.g., loafing) reference a specific instance of behavior but give some interpretation. More abstract still, state verbs (e.g., loathes hard work) reference a specific object such as work, but also infer something about the actor’s internal states. Finally, most abstract are adjectives (e.g., lazy) that do not reference a specific behavior or object, but infer the actor’s internal disposition.

Within the field of social psychology, the linguistic intergroup bias arguably is the most extensively studied topic in prejudiced communication. The pattern replicates in China, Europe, and the United States, and with a wide variety of stereotyped groups including racial groups, political affiliations, age cohorts, rival teams, and disabilities; individual differences such as prejudiced attitudes and need for closure also predict the strength of the bias (for discussion and specific references, see Ruscher, 2001). There also is considerable evidence that the linguistic intergroup bias is a special case of “the linguistic expectancy bias” whereby stereotype-congruent behaviors—irrespective of evaluative connotation—are characterized more abstractly than stereotype-incongruent behaviors. That caveat notwithstanding, in the context of prejudice, evaluative connotation and stereotypicality frequently are confounded (i.e., the stereotypic qualities of groups against whom one is prejudiced are usually negative qualities).

Linguistic Masking Devices

In addition to the linguistic intergroup bias, communicators rely on myriad linguistic strategies that betray and maintain intergroup biases. Among these strategies are linguistic masking devices that camouflage the negative behaviors of groups who hold higher status or power in society. Ng and Bradac (1993) describe four such devices: truncation, generalization, nominalization, and permutation: These devices are not mutually exclusive, so some statements may blend strategies. Truncation omits the agent from description. For example, a statement such as “Bill criticized Jim” allocates some responsibility to an identified critic, whereas a statement such as “Jim was criticized” fails to do so. Truncation may be used to describe sexual violence (e.g., “The woman was raped”), drawing attention to the victim instead of the assailant (Henley, Miller, & Beazley, 1995). Nominalization transforms verbs into nouns, again obfuscating who is responsible for the action (e.g., “A rape occurred,” or “There will be penalties”). Generalization reflects a preference for abstract rather than concrete descriptions. Although this preference includes the abstract characterizations of behaviors observed in the linguistic intergroup bias, it also includes generalizations other than verb transformations. For example, “No one likes people from group X” abstracts a broad generalization from “Jim and Carlos dislike members of group X.” Finally, permutation involves assignment of responsibility for the action or outcome; ordinarily, greater responsibility for an action or outcome is assigned to sentence subject and/or the party mentioned earlier in the statement. “The Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys” credits Green Bay for a win, whereas “The Cowboys were beaten by the Packers” blames Dallas for the loss.

Although early information carries greater weight in a simple sentence, later information may be weighted more heavily in compound sentences. Following communication maxims (Grice, 1975), receivers expect communicators to tell them only as much information as is relevant. Subsequently presented information—particularly when explicitly or implicitly following a disjunction—is presumed to be included because it is especially relevant. For example, consider the statements explaining a student’s test failure: “She didn’t study, but the test was pretty hard” versus “The test was pretty hard, but she didn’t study.” All things being equal, test difficulty is weighted more heavily in the former case than in the latter case: The student receives the benefit of the doubt. But, of course, all things are not equal when intergroup biases may be operating. Some evidence suggests that people fail to apply such conversational conventions to outgroups: The addition of mitigating explanations for negative outcomes does not help outgroup members (Ruscher, 2001). Thus, prejudiced communication can include the betrayal of attributional biases that credit members of the ingroup, but blame members of the outgroup.

Exclusion and Inclusiveness

Arguably the most extreme form of prejudiced communication is the use of labels and metaphors that exclude other groups from humanity. Dehumanization relegates members of other groups to the status of objects or animals and, by extension, describes the emotions that they should prompt and prescribes how they should be treated. “They” are wild animals, robots, and vermin who should be feared, guarded against, or exterminated. In their ABC model, Tipler and Ruscher (2014) propose that eight basic linguistic metaphors for groups are formed from the combinations of whether the dehumanized group possesses (or does not possess) higher-order affective states, behavioral capacity, and cognitive abilities. For example, certain ethnic outgroups have been characterized as wild beasts—violent apes or hungry lions—filled with primitive lusts and reactive anger that prompt them toward threatening behaviors. In contrast, illegal immigrants or military invaders historically have been characterized as vermin or parasites who are devoid or higher-level thoughts or affect, but whose behaviors are construed as dangerous (e.g., they swarm into cities, infect urban areas). Although the dehumanizing metaphor may include a label (as discussed in the earlier section), the metaphor goes beyond a mere label: Labeling a group as parasites also implies that they perpetuate moral or physical disease, evince swarming behavior by living in unpredictable bands of individuals, and are not true contributing members of society (i.e., parasites live off a “host” society). Another interesting feature of metaphors that distinguish them from mere labels is that metaphors are not confined to verbal communication. For example, the metaphors can be transmitted quite effectively through visual arts such as propaganda posters and film. Dramatic examples of propaganda posters are on display in the United States National World War II Museum (e.g., one that uses the parasite metaphor depicts a beautiful Japanese woman combing lice-like allied soldiers out of her hair). The parasite metaphor also is prevalent in Nazi film propaganda and in Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Musolff, 2007). The widespread use of certain metaphors for disparaged outgroups suggests the possibility of universality across time and culture. Indeed, animal metaphors such as ape, rat, and dog consistently are associated with low socioeconomic groups across world cultures (Loughnan, Haslam, Sutton, & Spencer, 2014).

Communicators also may use less extreme methods of implying who is—and who is not—included as a full member of a group. This topic has been studied most extensively with respect to gender-biased language. Gender roles describe—and sometimes prescribe—social roles and occupations, and language sometimes betrays communicators’ subscription to those norms. For example, an invitation to “faculty and their wives” appears to imply that faculty members are male, married, and heterosexual. Although the person issuing the invite may not consciously have intended to exclude female, unmarried, or sexual minority faculty members, the word choice implies that such individuals did not merit forethought. More broadly, use of masculine terms (e.g., mankind) and pronouns (e.g., he) as a generic reference to all people fails to bring female actors to mind (for a discussion see Ruscher, 2001). Thus, at least in English, use of the masculine signals to women that they do not belong (Stout & Dasgupta, 2016).

Listeners may presume that particular occupations or activities are performed by members of particular groups, unless communicators provide some cue to the contrary. Stereotypically feminine occupations (e.g., kindergarten teacher) or activities (e.g., sewing) bring to mind a female actor, just as stereotypically masculine occupations (e.g., engineer) or activities (e.g., mountain-climbing) bring to mind a male actor. Marked nouns such as “lady engineer” or “Black dentist” signal that the pairing is non-normative: It implies, for example, that Black people usually are not dentists and that most dentists have an ethnicity other than Black (Pratto, Korchmaros, & Hegarty, 2007). In many settings, the non-normative signal could be seen as an effort to reinforce the norm and imply that the tagged individual does not truly belong. In some settings, however, a communicator may be asserting that members of the tagged group successfully have permeated a group that previously did not include them. Further research needs to examine the conditions under which receivers might make this alternative interpretation.

Social Transmission of Biased Beliefs

Derogatory labels, linguistic markers of intergroup bias, linguistic and visual metaphors, and non-inclusive language constitute an imposing toolbox for communicating prejudice beliefs. They comprise the linguistic nuts-and-bolts by which prejudiced beliefs may be communicated, but only hint at why such beliefs are communicated, in what social contexts those communications are prevalent, and what their eventual impact might be.

Motivation—Why Communicate Prejudiced Beliefs?

Certainly prejudiced beliefs sometimes are communicated because people are motivated—explicitly or implicitly—by intergroup bias. As discussed earlier, desire to advantage one’s ingroup and, at times, to disparage and harm an outgroup underlie a good deal of prejudiced communication. But other motivations that insidiously favor the transmission of biased beliefs come into play. Most notably, communicators may feel pressured to transmit a coherent message. An attorney describing a defendant to a jury, an admissions committee arguing against an applicant, and marketing teams trying to sell products with 30-second television advertisements all need to communicate clear, internally consistent, and concise messages. Communication maxims (Grice, 1975) enjoin speakers to provide only as much information as is necessary, to be clear and organized, to be relevant, and to be truthful. As one easily imagines, these maxims can come into conflict: A communicator who is trying to be clear and organized may decide to omit confusing details (although doing so may compromise telling the whole truth). When the conversation topic focuses on an outgroup, the features that are clear and easily organized typically are represented by stereotype-congruent characteristics and behaviors. Stereotype-incongruent characteristics and behaviors, to contrast, muddy the picture and therefore often are left out of communications. There is a strong pressure to preferentially transmit stereotype-congruent information rather than stereotype-incongruent information in order to maximize coherence. This pattern is evident in conversations, initial descriptions from one communicator to another, and serial reproduction across individuals in a communication chain (for reviews, see Kashima, Klein, & Clark, 2007; Ruscher, 2001).

Stereotype-congruent features also are preferred because their transmission maintains ingroup harmony in existing groups (Clark & Kashima, 2007). Such information is implicitly shared, noncontroversial, and easily understood, so conversation is not “shaken up” by its presentation. Indeed, individuals from collectivist cultures—who especially value ingroup harmony—default to transmitting stereotype-congruent information unless an explicit communication goal indicates doing so is inappropriate (Yeung & Kashima, 2012). Similarly, transmitting stereotype-congruent information helps develop closeness among newly acquainted individuals (Ruscher, Cralley, & O’Farrell, 2005). Thus, even when communicators are not explicitly motivated to harm outgroups (or to extol their ingroup’s superior qualities), they still may be prone to transmit the stereotype-congruent information that potentially bolsters the stereotypic views of others in the social network: They simply may be trying to be coherent, easily understood, and noncontroversial.

Another motivation that may influence descriptions of outgroups falls under the general category of impression management goals. As the term implies, impression management goals involve efforts to create a particular favorable impression with an audience and, as such, different impression goals may favor the transmission of particular types of information. People who are especially motivated to present themselves as non-prejudiced, for example, might avoid communicating stereotype-congruent information and instead might favor stereotype-incongruent information. Or, more generally, they might present the information that they believe will curry favor with an audience (which may be congruent or incongruent, depending on the audience’s perceived attitudes toward that group). Thus, although communication of stereotype-congruent information may have priority in most circumstances, that tendency can be undercut or reversed under the right conditions.

Example Contexts

Although prejudiced and stereotypic beliefs may be communicated in many contexts, an elaboration of a few of these contexts illustrates the far reach of prejudiced communication. Considered here are attempts at humor, traditional news media, and entertaining films.


Humor attempts take various forms, including jokes, narratives, quips, tweets, visual puns, Internet memes, and cartoons. A number of theories propose explanations for why people perceive something as amusing, and many have been applied to group-based humor. Superiority or disparagement theories essentially posit that receivers may be amused by the relative inferiority of the outgroup; conceivably, such theories are especially relevant when communicators hope to manage impressions of their own superiority or to boost ingroup members’ egos. In fact, preference for disparaging humor is especially strong among individuals who adhere to hierarchy-endorsing myths that dismiss such humor as harmless (Hodson, Rush, & MacInnis, 2010). Incongruity resolution theories propose that amusement arises from the juxtaposition of two otherwise incongruous elements (which, in the case of group-based humor, often involves stereotypes). Possessing a good sense of humor is a highly valued social quality, and people feel validated when their attempts at humor evoke laughter or social media validations (e.g., likes, retweets; cf. Guadagno, Muscanell, Rice, & Roberts, 2013). Consequently, it is not surprising that communicators attempt humor, particularly at the expense of outgroup members.

Group-disparaging humor often relies heavily on cultural knowledge of stereotypes. The intended humor may focus on a group’s purported forgetfulness, lack of intelligence, sexual promiscuity, self-serving actions, or even inordinate politeness. Stereotypic and prejudiced beliefs sometimes can be obfuscated by humor that appears to target subgroups of a larger outgroup. For example, humor that targets “dumb blondes” insults stereotypically feminine characteristics such as vanity about physical beauty, lack of basic intelligence, and kittenish sexuality; although such humor perpetuates negative stereotypes about women, its focus on a subgroup masks that broader (not necessarily intentional) message. Similarly, humor that focuses on minorities from low-income groups essentially targets the stereotypes applied to the wider groups (i.e., middle- or higher-income minorities as well as low-income individuals from majority groups), although on the surface that humor is targeted only to a subgroup. Curiously, in order to “get the joke,” a stereotype needs to be activated in receivers, even if that activation is only temporary. If receivers have limited cognitive resources to “correct” for the activated stereotype (e.g., they are cognitively busy with concurrent tasks), the stereotype may influence their judgments during that time period (cf. Gilbert, 1991). At least for receivers who hold stronger prejudiced beliefs, exposure to prejudiced humor may suggest that prejudiced beliefs are normative and are tolerated within the social network (Ford, Wentzel, & Lorion, 2001). Thus, group-disparaging humor takes advantage of people’s knowledge of stereotypes, may perpetuate stereotypes by using subgroups or lowering of receivers’ guard to “get” the joke, and may suggest that stereotypic beliefs are normative within the ingroup.

Visual Information in the News

In the digital age, people obtain their news from myriad sources. Television, radio, or Internet news may be local, national, or international, and may be biased by the sociopolitical leanings of the owner, advertisers, or reporters. People also may obtain their news from social media mechanisms such as Facebook and Twitter, or from pundits and comedians. An examination of traditional morning and evening news programs or daily newspapers gives some insight into how prejudiced or stereotypic beliefs might be transmitted across large numbers of individuals. For example, the photographs or stock video images that accompany news stories can help reinforce stereotypes. For example, female members of British Parliament may be photographed in stereotypically feminine contexts (e.g., sitting on a comfortable sofa sipping tea; Ross & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1997). Similarly, video clips of arrests are more likely to show police using physical restraint when the alleged perpetrator is Black rather than White. Although one might argue that such visual depictions sometimes reflect reality (i.e., that there is a “grain of truth” to stereotypes), there is evidence that at least some media outlets differentially select images that support social stereotypes. One prominent example is called “face-ism,” which is the preference for close-up photos of faces of people from groups viewed as intelligent, powerful, and rational; conversely, low face-ism reflects preference for photographing more of the body, and is prevalent for groups who are viewed as more emotional or less powerful. Presumably, a photographer or artist has at least some control over how much of the body appears in an image. Interestingly, periodicals and postage stamp portraits show greater focus on the face for men and Whites (i.e., rational, powerful) than for women and Blacks (i.e., emotional, less powerful). That noted, face-ism—and presumably other uses of stereotypic images—is influenced by the degree of bias in the source. Periodicals that identify with women as agentic (e.g., Working Woman) show less face-ism in their photos, and university students also show less differential face-ism in their photographs of men and women than is seen in published professional photographs (for references about stereotypic images in the news, see Ruscher, 2001). Thus, the images that accompany news stories may be stereotypic, unless individuals responsible for final transmission guard against such bias.

Entertaining Film

Like the humor shared by peers, coworkers, and professional comedians, a major purpose of television and movies is to entertain. Reliance on shared stereotypic—and even archetypical—images essentially meets the communication goals discussed earlier: A story must be coherent, relevant, and transmitted in a finite amount of time. The nerd, jock, evil scientist, dumb blonde, racist sheriff, and selfish businessman need little introduction as they briefly appear in various stories. One of the most pervasive stereotypes is that physically attractive individuals are socially skilled, intelligent, and moral (Dion & Dion, 1987). This stereotype is perpetuated by animated films for children as well as in top-grossing films targeted to adults (Smith, McIntosh, & Bazzini, 1999). Exposure to films that especially perpetuate the stereotype can influence judgments made about university applicants (Smith et al., 1999) and also can predict gender-stereotyped behavior in children (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Birkbeck, 2016). Thus, exposure to stereotypic images does affect receivers, irrespective of whether the mass communicators consciously intended to perpetuate a stereotype. Fortunately, counterstereotypic characters in entertaining television (e.g., Dora the Explorer) might undercut the persistence of some stereotypes (Ryan, 2010), so the impact of images can cut both ways.

The contexts discussed—humor, news, entertaining film—comprise some notable examples of how prejudiced communication is infused into daily life. All three examples illustrate how stereotypic information may be used to ease comprehension: Stereotypic information helps people get the joke or understand the message in a limited amount of time. All three examples also illustrate that communicators select what is presented: what is newsworthy, what stories are worth telling, what images are used. Finally, these examples illustrate that individuals on the receiving end are influenced by the prejudiced and stereotype messages to which they are exposed. Add to these examples the stereotypic images presented in advertising and the uneven television coverage of news relevant to specific ethnic or gender groups . . . and the result is rather excessive amounts of exposure to stereotypic images for people in modern society.

In considering how prejudiced beliefs and stereotypes are transmitted, it is evident that those beliefs may communicated in a variety of ways. Small conversing groups of ordinary citizens who engage in ingroup talk may transmit stereotypes among themselves, and stereotypes also may be transmitted via mass communication vehicles such as major news outlets and the professional film industry. With the advent of the Internet, social media mechanisms such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook allow ordinary citizens to communicate on the mass scale (e.g., Hsueh, Yogeeswaran, & Malinen, 2015). Social science research has not yet kept pace with how ordinary citizens with mass communication access are transforming the transmission of prejudiced beliefs and stereotypes. Are stereotype-supporting images more likely than non-stereotypic images to become memes (cf. Duchscherer & Dovidio, 2016) or to “go viral?” Do linguistically-biased tweets from celebrities and public figures receive more “retweets” than less biased tweets? Are blog posts that use derogatory language more likely to use avatars that occlude personal identity but instead advertise social identity or imply power and status? Is social media more (or less) stereotype perpetuating than more traditional mass communication venues; and, if so, is that impact unique in quality or simply in quantity? Surely, a wide array of research opportunities awaits the newest generation of social scientists who are interested in prejudiced communication.

Communication Directed to Outgroup Members

People’s stereotypic and prejudiced beliefs do not only influence how they communicate about outgroup members, but also how they communicate to outgroup members. What people say, what they do not say, and their communication style can betray stereotypic beliefs and bias. Social scientists have studied these patterns most extensively in the arenas of speech accommodation, performance feedback, and nonverbal communication.

Speech Accommodation

Broadly speaking, communicators may adjust their messages to the presumed characteristics of receivers (i.e., accommodate; Giles, 2016). For example, faced with an inquiry for directions from someone with an unfamiliar accent, a communicator might provide greater detail than if the inquirer’s accent seems native to the locale. The communicator makes assumptions about the receiver’s knowledge, competence, and motivation; those assumptions guide the message construction, and may be revised as needed. In intergroup settings, such assumptions often are based on the stereotypes associated with the listener’s apparent group membership. If they presume the listener is incompetent, communicators might overaccommodate by providing more detail than the listener needs and also might use stylistic variations that imply the listener must be coddled or praised to accept the message. Alternatively, communicators might underaccommodate if they overestimate the listener’s competence or if communicators infer that the listener is too incompetent or unmotivated to accept the message.

Overaccommodation can take the form of secondary baby talk, which includes the use of simplified or cute words as substitutes for the normal lexicon (e.g., tummy instead of stomach; Caporael, 1981). It also may include certain paralinguistic features used with infants, such as higher pitch, shorter sentences, and exaggerated prosody. Communicators may use secondary baby talk when speaking to aged persons, and may fail to adjust appropriately for variability in cognitive functioning; higher functioning elderly persons may find baby talk patronizing and offensive. Communicators also use secondary baby talk when speaking to individuals with developmental cognitive disabilities, but also may use this speech register when the receiver has a physical disability unrelated to cognitive functioning (e.g., an individual with cerebral palsy). Given that secondary baby talk also is addressed to pets, romantic partners, and houseplants, it presumes both the need for care as well as worthiness of receiving care. Speech addressed to non-native speakers also can be overaccommodating, to the extent that it includes features that communicators might believe facilitate comprehension. These features include shorter sentences, slower speech rate, and more commonly used words than might be used with native speakers. However, communicators also adapt their speech to foreigners in ways that may or may not be helpful for comprehension. For example, communicators may speak louder, exaggerate stress points, and vary their pitch more with foreigners than with native adults. It bears mention that sighted communicators sometimes speak loudly to visually impaired receivers (which serves no obvious communicative function). Conceivably, communicators enter such interactions with a general schema of how to talk to receivers who they believe have communication challenges, and overgeneralize their strategies without adjusting for specific needs.

Presumption of low competence also can prompt underaccommodation, but this pattern may occur especially when the communicator does not feel that the recipient is deserving of care or warmth. Elderly persons who are seen as a burden or nuisance, for example, may find themselves on the receiving end of curt messages, controlling language, or explicit verbal abuse (Hummert & Ryan, 1996). Unwelcome foreigners and immigrants also may be dismissed with quick impatience. Similar patterns of controlling talk and unresponsiveness to receiver needs may be seen in medical settings, such as biased physicians’ differential communication patterns with Black versus White patients (Cooper et al., 2012). Brief, cold, and nonresponsive interactions often are experienced negatively, even in the absence of explicitly prejudiced language such as derogatory labels or articulation of stereotypic beliefs. Like the work on exclusion discussed earlier, such interactions imply that outgroup members are not worthy of attention nor should they be accorded the privileges of valued group members.

Performance Feedback

Some contexts for cross-group communication are explicitly asymmetrical with respect to status and power: teacher-student, mentor-mentee, supervisor-employee, doctor-patient, interviewer-interviewee. One person in the dyad has greater expertise, higher ascribed status, and/or a greater capacity to provide rewards versus punishments. In many such cases, the higher status person has the responsibility of evaluating the performance of the lower status person. As one might imagine, the disparity in ingroup-outgroup evaluations is more obvious on private ratings than on public ones: Raters often wish to avoid the appearance of bias, both because bias may be socially unacceptable and in some cases may be illegal. While private evaluations of outgroup members may be negative, communicated feedback may be more positively toned.

The research on cross-race feedback by Kent Harber and his colleagues (e.g., Harber et al., 2012) provides some insight into how and why this feedback pattern might occur. Presumably, Whites are concerned about being prejudiced in cross-race feedback settings. Consequently, when the writer allegedly is a Black student, Whites tend to praise a poorly written essay on subjective dimensions (e.g., how interesting or inspiring an essay was) and confine their criticisms to easily defensible objective dimensions (e.g., spelling). However, when Whites feel social support from fellow feedback-givers, the positivity bias may be mitigated. Support from others who are responsible for giving constructive feedback may buffer communicators against concerns that critical feedback might mark them as potentially prejudiced.

Ruscher and colleagues (Ruscher, Wallace, Walker, & Bell, 2010) proposed that cross-group feedback can be viewed in a two-dimension space created by how much feedback-givers are concerned about appearing prejudiced and how much accountability feedback-givers feel for providing feedback that is potentially helpful. When White feedback-givers are only concerned about appearing prejudiced in the face of a Black individual’s poor performance, the positivity bias emerges: Feedback is positive in tone but vacuous and unlikely to improve future performance. When feedback-givers are concerned about accountability without fear of appearing prejudiced, they provide collaboratively worded suggestions that focus on features that significantly could improve performance. When neither concern is operating, feedback-givers are curt, unhelpful, and negatively toned: Communicators provide the kind of cold and underaccommodating feedback that laypersons might expect in cross-race interactions. Similar patterns appear with provision of advice, alerting to risk, and informal mentoring: Feedback often is not given when it is truly needed and, if it simply comprises vacuous praise, it is difficult for recipients to gauge whether the feedback should be trusted.

Failures to provide the critical differentiated feedback, warnings, or advice are, in a sense, sins of omission. Because observers are less likely to notice the absence of something (e.g., short meetings, nominal advice) than the presence of something (e.g., unkind words or derogatory labels), these sins of omissions can be overlooked as prejudiced communication. There is some evidence that, at least in group settings, higher status others withhold appropriate praise from lower status outgroup members. Thus, certain outgroups may be snubbed or passed by when their successful contributions should be recognized, and may not receive helpful guidance when their unsuccessful attempts need improvement.

Most research on intergroup feedback considers majority group members (or members of historically powerful groups) in the higher status role. It is unclear how well the patterns discussed above apply when women or ethnic minorities give feedback to men or ethnic majority group members, though one intuits that fear of appearing prejudiced is not a primary concern. On the recipient end, members of historically powerful groups may bristle at feedback from individuals whose groups historically had lower status. For example, students whose work is criticized by female teachers evaluate those teachers more negatively than they evaluate male teachers (Sinclair & Kunda, 2000). Similarly, Whites rate White supervisors more positively than they rate Black supervisors (Knight, Hebl, Foster, & Mannix, 2003). Although little empirical research has examined the communication addressed to historically disadvantaged outgroups who hold high status roles, these negative evaluations hint that some bias might leak along verbal and/or nonverbal channels.

Nonverbal Communication

There is a vast literature on nonverbal communication in intergroup settings, ranging from evaluation of outgroup members (e.g., accents and dialects, nonverbal and paralinguistic patterns) to misunderstanding of cultural differences (e.g., displays of status, touching, or use of space). The present consideration is restricted to the production of nonverbal behaviors that conceivably might accompany the verbal channels discussed throughout this chapter: facial expressions and immediacy behaviors.

Facial Expressions

It is generally held that some facial expressions, such as smiles and frowns, are universal across cultures. As such, the observation that people smile more at ingroups and frown more at outgroups is not a terribly insightful truism. But not all smiles and frowns are created equally. The smile that reflects true enjoyment, the Duchenne smile, includes wrinkling at the corners of the eyes. Obligatory smiles do not show this marker. Individuals in low-status positions are expected to smile (and evince other signs of deference and politeness), and smiling among low-status individuals is not indicative of how they actually feel. Obligatory non-genuine smiles might be produced when people interact with outgroup members toward whom outward hostility is prohibited or toward whom they wish to appear nonbiased; like verbal expressions of vacuous praise, non-Duchenne smiles are intentional but may be distrusted or detected by vigilant receivers. Negativity toward outgroup members also might be apparent in facial micro-expressions signals related to frowning: when people are experiencing negative feelings, the brow region furrows . . . sometimes just enough to be consciously perceived (e.g., Vanman, Paul, Ito, & Miller, 1997). These slight signals of frowning can distinguish among people high versus low in prejudice toward a group at which they are looking, so even slight frowns do communicate prejudiced feelings (for a discussion, see Ruscher, 2001). Again, depending on the situation, communicators may quickly mask their initial brow furrow with an obligatory smile.

Immediacy Behaviors

Immediacy behaviors are a class of behaviors that potentially foster closeness. They include displaying smiles (and not displaying frowns), as well as low interpersonal distance, leaning forward toward the other person, gaze, open postures, and nodding. Classic intergroup communication work by Word, Zanna, and Cooper (1974) showed that White interviewers displayed fewer immediacy behaviors toward Black interviewees than toward White interviewees, and that recipients of low immediacy evince poorer performance than recipients of high immediacy behaviors. More recent work on cross-race interactions (e.g., Trawalter & Richeson, 2008) makes similar observations about immediacy-type behaviors. As with the verbal feedback literature, Whites apparently are concerned about seeming prejudiced. Although they perhaps can control the content of their verbal behavior (e.g., praise), Whites who are concerned about appearing prejudiced nonverbally leak their anxieties into the interaction. Differences in nonverbal immediacy also is portrayed on television programs; exposure to biased immediacy patterns can influence subsequent judgments of White and Black television characters (Weisbuch, Pauker, & Ambady, 2009). Thus, differential immediacy can leak communicator bias, affect targets of that bias, and also can impact observers in the wider social environment.

Discussion and Future Directions

Prejudiced communication takes myriad forms and emerges in numerous contexts. It can be intentional, hateful, and explicit: derogatory labels, dehumanizing metaphors, group-disparaging humor, dismissive and curt feedback. Prejudiced and stereotypic beliefs can be leaked through linguistic choices that favor ingroup members over outgroup members, low immediacy behaviors, and use of stereotypic images in news, television, and film. And concern about appearing prejudiced can lead communicators to overcompensate with effusive praise or disingenuous smiles.

Although leakage may not be immediately obvious to many observers, there is evidence that some people pick up on communicators’ attitudes and beliefs. For example, receivers are relatively accurate at detecting communicators’ group identity when faced with differential linguistic abstraction (Porter, Rheinschmidt-Same, & Richeson, 2016). Similarly, Blacks are more accurate than Whites in detecting racial bias from Whites’ nonverbal behavior (Richeson & Shelton, 2005). Thus, just because a message may use subtle linguistic features or is not fully intentional, bias still may impact observers just as more explicitly biased communications do.

Historically, the lion’s share of research on prejudiced communication has focused on how members of historically powerful groups—in higher or at least equal status positions—communicate about or to members of historically less powerful groups (e.g., citizens talking about recent immigrants; a White supervisor chastising Black employees). As research begins to consider interactions in which historically lower status group members hold higher situational status (cf. Knight et al., 2003), it will be important to consider how communication patterns might be different than what previously has been observed. In peer interactions, for example, Richeson and Shelton have argued that Black and White participants may have different goals (e.g., to be respected versus to appear non-prejudiced); these different goals can prompt unique communication patterns from minority and majority group members. Future research needs to be attentive to how historically advantaged group members communicate from a position of low power, as well as to unique features in how historically disadvantaged group members communicate from a position of high power.

Another important future direction lies with new media. As noted earlier, the work on prejudiced communication has barely scratched the surface of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets. Ordinary citizens now have a historically unprecedented level of access to vehicles of mass communication. At the same time, 24/7 news channels and asynchronous communication such as tweets and news feeds bombard people with messages throughout the day. Sometimes different messages are being received simultaneously on multiple devices through various digital sources. As previously noted, stereotypic information is preferentially transmitted, in part, because it is coherent and implicitly shared; it also is easily understood and accepted, particularly under conditions of cognitive busyness and high unpleasant uncertainty. What is transmitted is very likely to be stereotypic, brief, and incomplete . . . and in a busy communication environment sometimes may not be accorded appropriate scrutiny. Many extant findings on prejudiced communication should generalize to communication in the digital age, but future research also will need to examine how the unique features of social media shape the new face of prejudiced communication.

Further Reading

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