Generalisation in communication and prejudices

The dialogue attempts to draw attention to situations in which the children feel they are all being lumped together. Moreover, their experience is typical for multicultural discussions. The children have to face the fact that they are automatically identified with terrorists and criminals, that they are jeered at and told they smell, etc. The decisive factor in this case is some clear external sign on the basis of which the person in question is included in a certain group of people. This all-inclusive stereotyping is seldom undertaken with any knowledge of the person in question and is frequently accompanied by a verbal insult which encompasses the entire group.

A large number of the characters are involved in this particular conversation, which demonstrates the variety of forms by which this prejudice is manifest in society and in the reactions of people.

This experience relates to two more general topics – on the one hand it is about prejudices, and on the other about a generalising method of communication. We examine both of these topics in the following text.

  • What is...?

Prejudice: This involves an antipathy based on erroneous and inflexible generalisation. We can feel prejudices (i.e. have an opinion of other people regardless of their genuine qualities) or express them in public. Prejudices are most frequently aimed against a certain group as a whole, or against an individual for being part of this group.

Stigma: In ancient times, a stigma was understood as “a mark on the body intended to reveal something unusual and bad regarding the moral status of the person so designated.” These days, stigmas are perceived more as features which attract a certain kind of added attention to the person marked (a different skin colour, a specific type of handicap, etc.), and the fact that these people are different encourages them in turn to behave unnaturally. This behaviour is frequently caused by the various ideas within that society of those who bear a stigma.

Sign: A sign is a concrete, frequently visual characteristic on the basis of which we evaluate a person, either positively or negatively. When stereotypes are being formed and during the process of generalisation, people or events are classified into individual categories using these signs.

Stereotyping: Stereotypes are fixed images in one’s head by which we perceive the conduct and properties of the members of a social group as uniform, unchangeable and given. Stereotyping is the lumping together of people whom, on the basis of certain signs, we identify with a group.

Verbal insult/slur: A verbal insult is one of the means by which prejudices are manifest towards groups of people. It is a public display of conduct in which a specific person is made fun of in order to humiliate them.

Narrative communication: This is a non-evaluative, descriptive form of communication.

  • Topic

Insults, or verbal slurs, are the most common manifestations of prejudice in a society.
Although in many cases one could say that this involves innocent (sometimes friendly and jocular) comments which are not meant nastily, they can often be very unpleasant and insulting for the members of the group such comments are aimed at. The reason is that we are thereby insulting the person in question using a method against which they cannot defend themselves – we are not complaining about a concrete property or mode of conduct of the person, but a thing which genuinely bothers us; we are concealing ourselves by attacking some external sign by which we designate the person in question.

Verbal attacks are in many cases not provoked by the conduct of the person in question. Often, they are simply a manifestation of an unfounded hatred of people who belong to a group of some kind (ethnic, religious, national, etc.) or whom we assign to this group. The person who is insulted finds themselves in a situation in which they are publicly humiliated without having prompted the attack in any way. Verbal attacks can take many different forms, from direct insults aimed at a specific person to unconscious perceptions, clichés which are frequently repeated and which we no longer perceive as an insult, even though in reality, they are.

Verbal attacks belong to forms of prejudices which, depending on the situation in society, can develop into stronger and more aggressive expressions. The prejudices themselves are to a certain extent not publicly manifest at all. Most people, despite personally being able to feel a grudge towards some group, never resort to open insults and an expression of their hatred/antipathy. By a public manifestation of a negative approach to these people, we overstep a certain boundary of tolerance which we have in ourselves and which is in certain cases shifted further, all the way to discrimination, physical assaults on these people, etc. The impulse which facilitates similar manifestations is frequently the overall mood in society, i.e. if the opinion of a given ethnic group is very negative in society as a whole, a public insult will be accepted on the part of the majority, even sometimes supported, which can aid in the continued expansion or reinforcement of these manifestations.

The main reason for the establishment of similar prejudices and subsequent aggressive behaviour is that the characteristic signs of certain groups are clearly visible. A symbol is at work which sees us automatically incorporate the person in question into one of the categories which we have created in our head.

Upon first meeting someone, on the basis of first impressions we create a certain idea of the person which we expect the person to live up to. If we get to know the person more, this idea will be modified in light of the character and properties of the person, etc. However, if we do not become acquainted with this person, our idea will be based only on this first impression, which can, of course, be completely mistaken, since it is often based on erroneous or unimportant signs.

Outward signs, which can be the skin colour skin, a physical handicap, as well as various religious symbols or a distinct style of clothing, speed up inclusion into a category. In this respect, one speaks of a kind of “stigmata” which accompanies these people and which includes them in certain groups in advance. Individual signs are also linked with various rumours and superstitions which consolidate the negative connotation of a particular category, e.g. dark skin provokes associations of dirt in children, and so white children think that darker-skinned children don’t wash, etc. A group which bears these signs because of its stigmata finds itself under almost constant pressure. Due to its characteristics and the general approaches taken towards this group in society, it is almost always the centre of interest, monitored, watched, and its members must somehow manage to repeatedly controvert the opinions the majority of society has of them.

Such people are obliged to constantly follow the reactions of the external surroundings or to anticipate facts which might take place in their presence within a certain environment.

From the point of view of the individual characters, it is most frequently the colour of their skin which predetermines the often negative and prejudiced behaviour of other people towards them. In the case of verbal attacks, both our heroes and genuine members of various ethnic groups or nations can answer back only to a limited extent. The two most frequent reactions are either to ignore the comments being made, which, however, results in a feeling of being humiliated, or to defend oneself, perhaps by attacking in turn those who are making the comments.

In specific cases, the overall climate in society plays a role in the creation of stereotypes and their public manifestation. For instance, statistics show that 22% of Czechs questioned refuse to live next door to people with a different skin colour (Public Opinion Research Centre, 2005), and in the case of the Roma population the attitude of the majority is much more negative. If we focus directly on the frequency of similar conduct, specifically on insults, abuse and rude behaviour aimed toward Roma people, up to 34% of the Roma draw attention to this in one of the surveys conducted. A third of the Roma have experienced violence or the threat of violence from the majority, and a fifth have experienced repeated threats (Research, 2002: p. 62). It also ensues from the statistics that only 3% of Czechs are able to imagine a Roma as their friend, while, on the other hand, different research conducted amongst Roma people shows that up to 68% of Roma have most of their friends from the majority, and another 13% have at least one Czech friend. Society’s ideas therefore very often do not correspond to the genuine state of affairs.

Lumping people together and insulting them is not, of course, a feature of only the Czech majority, but can be manifest on the part of the minorities themselves. Almost every country in the world has some kind of insulting description for people of another nationality. In many cases, the method and concrete situation are decisive in respect of when and to whom these words are used. In some cases, it is more a case of tactlessness than a targeted attempt to insult a specific person. However, it is important to be aware of the feelings of another person and to consider carefully the use of certain words or terms.

Not only are pejorative descriptions of their group unpleasant for a person from another nationality, but the same goes for the erroneous identification of the group to which they belong. This involves the same type of stereotyping, i.e. lumping together ideas of a person based on outward signs, though wrongly identified in the case of Suong.

Communication is one of the tools by which we get closer to other people, and is therefore a tool by which we transfer and display our prejudices and stereotypes. Communication is also a tool which we can use to reflect upon and eliminate our prejudices.

Intercultural communication is an independent research discipline, and the aim of this section is not to provide a report on this discipline, but rather to hone in on concrete procedures which can be of assistance in intercultural communication.

Non-generalising mode of communication
This is one of the basic resources in the sphere of intercultural encounters. The moment we hear the sentence “All Dutch people are nationalist” or “Czechs are thieves” or something similar, a red light should start blinking. Such comments needlessly emphasise contact with “those others”, without contributing anything worthwhile.

Narrative communication
This is one of the other methods which can be negotiated within the school environment. In 2000, Carola Conle and her team of colleagues published a study on how they had tried, together with their students, to deal with the topic of intercultural communication. She was supposed to teach a group of students who themselves came from the most varied cultural environments. And because the group was based in America, there was no shortage of the most exotic students in the class. The teacher had a single aim: to teach the group to communicate in such a way that what they said did not have an evaluative dimension, i.e. a dimension which could wound or provoke a feeling of rejection. The students’ task was to report firstly on the cultural group from which they came, and then to report on other cultural groups in their surroundings which differed considerably from their own. A single objective was monitored while these reports were being created: that the students learned to use narrative communication. This meant describing what they genuinely see in concrete examples, avoiding answers in which a single example stands for the entire group, speaking about themselves, and not interpreting the answers given by others.

The course was given a very positive evaluation from the students, and it genuinely took the entire semester to learn these basic skills. A team gradually grew out of the group of students which published a study on narrative communication.

And now in conclusion, a small example of how differently we can report on a single event ...

Last year, I wanted to visit the Alps during the holidays, but I didn’t manage it. In the morning I got on the tram with my packed rucksack and travelled to Prague’s Main Station. Somewhere around Palacký Square, the tram suddenly got really full and I felt the pressure of people around me. I wondered whether I should take my rucksack off, but it was really heavy, so I kept it on. Finally I got off at the metro and in the glass of the doors I noticed that the buckle of a side pocket of the bag was undone. When I looked, it was clear I wouldn’t be going anywhere. My money, passport and mobile telephone weren’t there. I tried to remember when it could have happened, and the tram was the only logical place. Only in retrospect did I realise that there had been a group of large guys pressing against me – they’d obviously surrounded me and that was that.

Last year I wanted to visit the Alps during the holidays, but I didn’t manage it. In the morning I got on the tram with my packed rucksack and travelled to Prague’s Main Station. Somewhere around Palacký Square the tram suddenly got really full and I felt the pressure of people around me. There was a group of gypsies around me – it was obviously them. I wondered whether I should take off my bag, but it was really heavy so I kept it on. Finally I got off at the metro and the glass of the doors I noticed that the buckle of a side pocket of the bag was undone When I looked, it was clear I wouldn’t be going anywhere. My money, passport and mobile telephone weren’t there. I was furious. It must have been those gypsies on the tram. They’re bloody everywhere and everyone knows that they steal.

  • Stories and examples

In order to illustrate a specific example and the consequences of stereotyping, which is based on the outward appearance of a person, we can use the story of one of the characters from Czechkid – Andrea.

She herself lives amongst the majority, which knows both her and her family, and they have no problems in their immediate surroundings. However, as soon as Andrea leaves her customary environment, the majority regard her as a Roma on account of her appearance, and therefore as the representative of a problematic group. At a disco or concert, she can encounter negative reactions and insults, simply because she corresponds visually to a certain group which is lumped together and rejected. Many Roma encounter similar situations, e.g. when completely well-behaved university students are not allowed into discos, etc.

  • Sources


Allport, G., W. (2004). O povaze předsudků. Praha: Prostor.

Conle, C., e.a. (2000). The Asset of Cultural Pluralism: an account of cross – cultural learning in pre-service teacher education. Teaching and teacher Education, 16, 365 – 387.

Goffman, E. (2003). Stigma – poznámky o způsobech zvládání narušené identity. Praha: Sociologické nakladatelství SLON.

Výzkum interetnických vztahů – Zpráva. 2002. FSS MU.


„Jak jsme na tom s tolerancí?“.2005. CVVM Sociologický ústav AV ČR. [cit.2006-01-06] Dostupné z <> (Tolerance, 2005)

„Občané o soužití s Romy a o jejich možnostech ve společnosti“.2003. CVVM Sociologický ústav AV ČR. [cit.2006-01-06] Dostupné z <> (Občané o soužití, 2003)

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