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Cultural Stereotyping as A Tool

Cultural StereotypingIf we seek to understand a people, we have to try to put ourselves, as far as we can, in that particular historical and cultural background.
– Jawaharlal Nehru, Visit to America

When studying foreign cultures, it’s often hard to avoid discussing generalizations and stereotypes. While stereotyping has a dubious reputation, it is actually quite useful in describing foreign cultures. One caveat is that any discussion of stereotypes should be accompanied by an explanation of the so-called Ladder of Inference – a scale, or figurative ladder – that starts off with generalizations and stereotypes and escalates to undesirable states of prejudice, racism, violence, and hatred. For this reason, all discussion of cultural stereotypes is best moderated with even-handedness and a sense of humor. (Yes, ethnocentrism thrives in most cultures. We all perceive our native cultures to be superior to others, so hearing what others have to say about us may become uncomfortable unless we can laugh at ourselves and our fellow countrymen, and learn.)

Recently, I conducted an informal experiment in one of my all-French second-year master classes in London. First, I asked them to spontaneously tell me some broad generalizations about the British, with whom they were just getting acquainted, and I listed their vocabulary on the white board (notes from which serve as the basis for this blog entry). The British litany was: gentlemanly, friendly, open-minded, courteous, safety-minded, hard-working, and respectful of public order and cleanliness. Pushed to expand, the students eventually came up with some negative generalizations from personal observation: drinking like alcoholics, eating lousy food and being niggly about money and crusty with class consciousness.

Right. Well, we don’t need to tell the Queen.

As an American, I shored up my bravery to hear their comments about Americans; I was not disappointed. Generally speaking, my students asserted that Americans are: fat, rigid, religious, chauvinistic, moralistic, procedural, fearful, violent, and dumb. (Okay, forget I’m American!) On the positive side, they approved of Americans’ being patriotic, positive, fun, organized workaholics. Oh, yes, and they make great cakes.

Oh dear. I did ask for it.

Finally, I asked my French students about themselves. All swore they were purebred French as long back as anyone could remember, implying that their broad generalizations were as accurate as possible. With no hesitation, they rattled off traits that sounded like a national ball-and-chain: “the French are” moody, proud, elegant, arrogant, rude, romantic, gastronomic, passionate, fashion-minded complainers who are always willing to go on strike.

Hmm, that sounded pretty accurate, if incomplete, in my experience.

I then asked them what they could identify as being similar in all three spotlighted cultures. The answer was preoccupation with money. Capitalism and workaholism go hand in hand with American ethos, they thought, while the British preoccupation is money as linked to class status. On the other hand, France deals with money as an obsession by omission: just talking about it is taboo.

My French students insisted there is strong correlation between these generalizations and the reality of their countrymen’s culture.

I then asked them to identify what they would consider France’s core national values and discuss how those values relate to the stereotypes they had identified. Before even mentioning Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, my students agreed on superiority, aesthetics, and insistence on high quality of everything in their surroundings as key moral values. They reasoned that France’s long history of monarchy and then Empire, including a period of colonialism, undoubtedly shaped the feelings of superiority and drive for superlative quality and aesthetics. Onto those deeply rooted historical underpinnings had been grafted – testily and unequivocally (and perhaps contradictory) – the revolutionary values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

At the end of our exercise, my students spontaneously took a new look at British culture and American culture in the context of those countries’ respective historical evolutions. We all agreed that by exploring broad generalizations and even national stereotypes, we had gained considerable useful insights into our ever-present multicultural environments.

The take-away hope is that this refined self-knowledge makes it easier for all of us to go with the flow of the different cultures we interact with in our personal and professional lives.

Model by Chris Argyris

Model by Chris Argyris