Cultural Stereotyping

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To talk or write about culture one has to generalise about the cultural characteristics of the nationalities discussed. It is not possible to do otherwise, as we are discussing the behaviour and values of groups of people, not individuals – passed on at a collective level from generation to generation. The study of cultures is a social science, and – as Aristotle points out three times in the introduction to his Ethics – in the social sciences, accuracy is not the same as in the physical sciences. One has to use phrases such as ‘in general….’, or ‘this tends to be the case…’

Of course, we have to be as accurate as possible, but prepared to modify our approach quickly if our counterpart does not correspond individually to the generalisation. Pushed too far, any generalisation becomes absurd, but it can be a good starting-point from which to go deeper. We also need to be careful to think descriptively, not evaluatively: for instance, we can say ‘Italians tend to talk a lot’, but not ‘Italians talk too much’.

The process we may do well to follow – as with other models and approaches to adapting behaviour – is to

  1. Make a hypothesis.
  2. Weigh it against any confirming and disconfirming evidence.
  3. Act accordingly.

Generalisations – or stereotypes – come from a mixture of facts, experience and history. They can seem too simple at first. The key is to get inside them and analyse them in their full complexity. German directness may be perceived as rudeness by the Japanese, for instance. But trying to understand why Germans are direct can help diffuse the emotion that directness may have on a more indirect culture, leading ultimately to a more clear-headed cross-cultural encounter, less influenced by false assumptions.

Again, we sometimes avoid generalising because we believe it may upset others. But that makes the assumption we know what people judge as positive or negative qualities – for example, modesty tends to be a virtue in the Nordic countries, but may give a rather negative impression in cultures where self-assertion is seen as a positive quality.

Few would deny they have mental pictures of national behaviour, even if they avoid expressing them. A test is to describe a culture in diametrically-opposed terms to the common view. For instance, if one described Germans as ‘tending to be unreliable, unpunctual, indirect, economical with the truth and untrustworthy’, it would be very hard to agree with this description, wouldn’t it? So, how would you describe them?

Finally, people sometimes object to generalisations because they question applying general characteristics to one individual. ‘I met a very reserved Italian’ they may say, or ‘a rude and confrontational Japanese’. Quite right. But it can be even more dangerous to apply your experience of one individual to the whole nation – i.e. ‘Because I met a rude and confrontational Japanese, my opinion is that the Japanese are rude and confrontational…’

I remember once asking someone what the chief characteristic of Indians was and they answered ‘pessimism’. Anyone with experience of India will have felt the huge wave of optimism that hits you from the moment you arrive. It turned out that the person in question had only known one Indian, who happened to be a pessimist.

We have to come with an open mind, but prepared to suspend disbelief in order to benefit from the usefulness of non-judgemental cultural generalisations. Encountering another culture and respecting rather than denying its differences from our own culture can be an enriching learning experience.

Finally remember – as Schopenhauer pointed out – that one of the greatest intellectual challenges is to understand that a thing can be both true and untrue at the same time.

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