Why do we make sweeping assumptions when it comes to dealing with other cultures? This is stereotyping, and it’s all too easy to do. All Japanese are inscrutable. All Germans are efficient. All Americans are confident extroverts. Here are some of the many reasons to look beyond accepted stereotypical views.
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Cultural stereotypes are the result of lazy thinking. Our brains do not want to process the individual differences of every person in the world, so we create simplistic groupings of people and assign them a signature behavior or trait. In many cases, these stereotypes are based on a kernel of truth: statistically, Russians drink a little more than Americans; the Germans are less emotive than Italians.
However, if we allow these cultural stereotypes to determine how we approach and build relationships with an individual, we risk giving serious offence. There is no simple way to describe the attitudes and values of 1.5 billion Indians or Chinese, for example. When we use a stereotype to inform our judgement we reduce an individual to the level of a caricature – a two-dimension figure that objectifies the person as indistinguishable from anyone else. We take the thing that is most important and valuable about a person – their sense of self-identity – and treat it as if it were generic.
What about Cultural profiling tools?
Most approaches to culture use some form of tool or profiler to portray cultural tendencies. These tools, like the WorldPrism™ cultural profiling tool, base their results on a statistical analysis of cultural profiles of individuals, giving us the ability to draw conclusions about overall trends and default preferences. They can inform our thinking and approach without becoming a dogmatic rule book. The WorldPrism and other tools give us a language to describe culture objectively without judgement or evaluation.
Stereotypes are often used to justify a judgement of a person or group – the Germans are just too efficient; the Spanish are just too emotional; Americans are too hardworking. The sentiment may not be negative superficially, but under the surface there can be a suggestion that the other is not quite normal. Cultural profiling tools remove that judgement and show that difference is neither good nor bad – it’s just different.
The first step to overcoming stereotypes is to acknowledge the shortcuts our brains take. Recognizing that our logical circuits are fallible helps us to challenge the outcomes. Secondly, we can use a profiling tool to identify our own cultural preferences and tendencies – often comparing your own profile to the profile relating to your nationality will highlight that you are not the archetypal representative of your nation so it would be unreasonable to expect anyone else to completely represent theirs!
The final step is to work on making sure that you recognize the impact of stereotypes on your judgements and interrupt that impact – make sure that you consciously evaluate the individuals you are working with. Be aware of the national profile and tendencies but be prepared to work with an individual who may not follow the stereotypical rules. There is a very fine line between using cultural preferences to describe difference and othering someone with a national stereotype – the difference lies in the intention to build effective relationships through a conscious recognition of individuality and valuing the diversity of working with people from other cultures.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.
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