02/08/2011 09:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bucking Stereotypes at the Bergen Mall

My sister and I often trade stories chronicling adventures and misadventures on our respective sides of the Hudson. On more than a few occasions, we've shared a similar sentiment spawned by our experiences: "Do I look Jewish?!" For my sister, it is the Syrian taxi driver who addresses her in Hebrew with the precise words for "good price." For me, it is the Israeli seller at Bergen Mall who proffers kosher vitamins and a "Jewish price" on Dead Sea salts. Although my sister is the proverbial city mouse to my country bumpkin, we agree on one thing: neither of us fits a profile other than "white female." Neither one of us looks particularly Jewish, if there is a particular "Jewish look." But for some reason, perfect strangers are hitting the nail on the head, or clipping a yarmulke to it.

My friend, a Jewish doctor, was seeing a patient who spotted his prominent proboscis: "The patient, assuming I wouldn't understand, laughingly asked my medical assistant in another language if I was Italian because of my sizeable nose," he says, "I quickly turned to her and asked, smiling, in a polite tone and in English, if she was a &^%#@ moron because she can't keep her stereotypes straight." Luckily, the patient didn't understand, but if you follow a nose, you may come up 2 fruit loops short of a pelican. (Incidentally, my nose is nothing to sneeze at nor is my sister's, Natalie Portman's, Winona Ryder's -- all Jewish -- but that's just a snotty aside.)

As I walk around the mall, I can't help but note the Snooki "poofs." I wonder if "Bump It" sales have skyrocketed since Jersey Shore committed its greatest "robbery" on TV and "T-shirt time." (For those who don't capeesh, it's Jersey Shore lingo I speak.)

So I too am guilty of stereotyping, but is it really a bad thing?

Psychologist Daniel Crosby says the word "stereotype" is value neutral. There are both positive and negative stereotypes. He says there is no doubt that we all do it. When people make decisions about other groups and other people, we run into a concept called "bounded rationality."

"'Bounded rationality' means that given the limitations (intellect, time, availability of data) we all deal with, we rely on 'heuristics' or cognitive shortcuts when making decisions," Crosby explains, "These shortcuts can be adaptive in that they allow us to get through the day without being paralyzed by indecision at not knowing all of the intricacies of a given decision. You make thousands of decisions each day, most of them fairly inconsequential and shortcuts help you get through the day. However, what becomes problematic is when we take shortcuts that lead us to over-generalize about people or cultures in negative ways."

Crosby and I (and many others) have noticed that the word "stereotype" is often confused with "prejudice." They are not the same. The former refers to a popular belief about specific groups or types of individuals, whereas the latter, according to Merriam-Webster, implies "an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics."

What can be done to avoid stereotypes? Little. What can be done to avoid prejudice? A lot. The mind will initially categorize, but the problem occurs when we don't take a step back and get to know an individual for what makes him or her unique.

In recent news about stereotypes, presenters of the BBC motoring show Top Gear are under fire for making anti-Mexican statements. In other-worldly news, coroners may stereotype when filling out death certificates, determining a victim's race through their cause of death.

Italian American comedian Frank Mooney tells me he gets annoyed at how "it is still okay in all forms of media and in the real world to automatically connect Italians with the mafia and depict them as criminals or low lifes from New Jersey." My love for Vinny, Ron, Pauly, Sammi, JWow and, of course, Snooki, is something he cannot comprehend. "I can't think of another ethnic stereotype that's remained OK to use in popular culture," he says, contending that Jersey Shore is a harbinger of shame to his heritage.

While he was working at a national news network a while back, "a nice Jewish guy and I were meeting for the first time and he asked me the origin of my real last name -- Carrese (Mooney is my stage name). I told him it was Italian and the first thing out of his mouth was 'Hey I just saw the Godfather for the first time this weekend.' And I said 'That's great. I just saw Fiddler on the Roof.'"

He says that another incident involved him "committing the crime of ethnic stereotyping" himself. He was having a disagreement with his executive producer and there was yelling involved. "He says "you're letting your Sicilian temper get the best of you' which pissed me off because he assumed all Italians were Sicilian because they were in the mafia which started in Sicily. So I said 'If I were Sicilian you'd be dead by now.' I figured I might as well play into his prejudice and scare him a little. But I didn't feel particularly good about that one. I realized later it sprung from an intra-Italian prejudice I had learned from my grandmother."

One of numerous sociological theories about stereotyping is that categorization is innate. We have a desire to simplify all that comes at us in our environment and compartmentalize. Processing new and unexpected information requires time and the expense of mental energy -- those among us who make the time and use the energy are often called "open-minded." Perhaps our minds can accommodate more compartments than those of our compadres.

This Jewish girl does not know of an individual who has not been stereotyped. Being part of a religious Jewish community, I see it daily and there is a lot of intra-stereotyping that takes place (e.g. "She wears pants, so she is 'less religious,'" "He wears a velvet yarmulke -- as opposed to a knit one -- so he's yeshiva-ish.")

With stereotyping in general, it is the classic case of "it takes one to know one." If the person in front of you falls into a category, then you will too. Sometimes we stereotype to create a common bond. Sometimes we do it to distinguish ourselves from others. Humans have not evolved enough to get past this and we never will. As long as we don't emulate Mel Gibson or make statements like some of Rush Limbaugh's, many of us who stereotype won't really stand out for it.

It was the American journalist Walter Lippman who coined the term "stereotype," as we know it today, in 1922. "Whether right or wrong, imagination is shaped by the pictures seen," he wrote.

We need to remind ourselves to step back and examine the pictures.

Around the same time that he wrote those words, famed photographer Ansell Adams said, "A photograph is usually looked at -- seldom looked into."

Back at the mall, the seller at an Israeli-manned kiosk tells me he has an offer that, as "a nice Jewish girl," I cannot refuse. He is one of my people, he explains, so how can I not help him? Spotting my double stroller, he tells me that as a nice Jewish girl and a mother, I must treat myself. So what if I spend 80 dollars on a cream that I don't really need? It will be worthwhile and how often do I treat myself to something?

I realize it will be difficult to turn him down, but for the state of my finances, I must. He reminds me of Israeli sellers I encountered while living in Jerusalem years ago, flattering and charming me every which way until I finally make a purchase.

Then, I catch myself. The act of stereotyping may not be right, but it is often reciprocal.