Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

How Do We Talk About Cultural Differences Without Using Stereotypes?

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Fri, Sep 09, 2011 @ 09:19 AM

cultural differencesHow can we talk about cultural differences without putting people into boxes and stereotyping them? Today, cultural awareness is becoming more and more important in our globalized world. In places like New York and Boston and other major cities around the world, we are starting to realize that if we investigate how cultural differences affect our interactions with other people, we can benefit from the enormous potential for creativity and success that an intercultural workplace or community provides. So we know that cultural differences are important and we also know that stereotypes are dangerous.  How do we develop our cultural awareness and avoid relying on stereotypes to deepen our knowledge of other cultures? Keep reading for the answer to this question and more.



What is a stereotype?


When we form stereotypes about people based on their native culture, we put them in a box or a category and maintain certain expectations about how they will behave. When we stereotype, we tend to exaggerate the differences between cultural groups.



Why do we often rely on stereotypes?


A lot of researchers believe that we form stereotypes because we are so overwhelmed with new information coming in every day, that we have to categorize the information so that we can make things more simple and predictable and easier to handle. This need to categorize people and things can become even more intense when we are in a busy, fast paced, intercultural environment, like New York City. Stereotyping is our attempt to make sense out of an unpredictable world and everyone does it to some extent.




Why is it hard to move to a new country? Fear of being stereotyped


Have you ever entered a new workplace or a new group as the only member from your home country and felt afraid that people had already formed conclusions about you based on their own stereotypes before getting to know you? This is one of the reasons why it's hard to move to a new country and a common source of anxiety for many people who live and work outside of their home country.



A better way to think about cultural differences

To think about cultural differences in a more realistic way, consider the bell curve image above. In our Crossing Cultures with Competence seminar, we used the example of time. We asked the question- what time would you arrive for a 9am business meeting? In the United States, a certain portion of the group might arrive 10 minutes early and some people would arrive 10 minutes late. However, a larger group of people would probably arrive right on time- at 9am. Looking at culture in this way, we can avoid stereotyping and making claims that all people from a certain culture do things in a certain way. However, we can also state that there are certain trends or tendencies which tend to be shared by a large percentage of people in the same culture.



In Conclusion


  • Stereotyping is a natural human tendency
  • It is helpful to take a closer look at the reasons why we form stereotypes in our mind
  • When we look at differences between cultures, we can avoid stereotyping and generalizing by looking at the variation that always exists within each culture

Learn more about culture

Credits: hardeep.singh, Crossing Cultures with Competence seminar, Interchange Institute, Boston, MA

Topics: Daily Life in the US, Cultural Competence

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