The purpose of stereotyping

When you work for an international or supranational organisation, in a team with people from three or more different cultural backgrounds, you might from time to time feel like you are in a jungle. Not only do different cultures have different work ethics, a work environment by definition creates its own do’s and don’ts on top of those different work ethics. Whats this leads to, is that basically “normal” is always context related. Whatever we think is “normal” differs per group, place and time. In the article being at home in the world I mentioned that every group creates its own culture, or a “this is how it should be” mentality. I explained that this is important because people cannot live without groups. Groups are essential for social need. It confirms people’s self-image, their views, their values and their norms. How does this work in international teams? Where the “team rules” need to be established in a condition where every team member has different ideas of how the team should perform. In all fairness, not many surrender to a culture the way cosmopolitans would. Al least not at the start of a new project or a new job. In the beginning the individuals within a team will thrive on their competencies, just like what the organisation hired them for to begin with. This functions like a safety net that provides people freedom to explore within these self-set boundaries.

In the article on cosmopolitanism I addressed moderate political cosmopolitanism. A form of cosmopolitanism that explores belonging to a group in a variety of intermediate associations such as corporations and territorially based populations. Belonging to a group is seen as mediated through these different forms of association. In other words, all different forms of association are set in specific place and time continuums. This is how the specific norm for these places and times is set.

The aspect of intercultural teams deserves a story on its own, so for now I will stick to the question: “What is normal?”. People love to continuously order their lives, and to achieve order, they halve to decide on what is accepted and what is not. Ordering your live gives a feeling of being safe in your own bubble of like-minded people, and we love that. A technique we use for this is stereotyping, and although stereotyping has a bad name I’m not necessarily against it. See the reason why it has a bad name is because it’s often used in a negative way, especially by the media. Stereotyping is nothing more than biases and prejudices about different groups. What is does, is that it gives us a general overview of whole groups of people, so we know up to a certain level what to expect and how to act. In an existing group of people, for example a team at work, people from new and different cultural groups are often negatively stereotyped. This happens solely because of their differences compared to the “norm” of the main group. Stereotyping is often confused with discrimination. The difference is that when discriminating you treat someone who belongs to a different group less favourable. This is for example why minorities, in any place in the world, always seem to be pulling the short end of the stick. Which is wrong, this is an attitude created by the safety bubble we all create for ourselves. However, the only danger stereotyping might provoke is that it eliminates the challenges of understanding people who are different from us. A well-known example of how stereotyping can be used is this one:

Heaven is where the police are British,
the chefs are French,
the mechanics are German,
the lovers Italian,
and it’s all organised by the Swiss.

Hell is where the chefs are British,
the mechanics are French,
the lovers are Swiss,
the police are German,
and it’s all organised by the Italians.

Another excellent, and very common example of stereotyping can be found in the video below: What kind of Asian are you? By Ken Tanaka

Let me give an example of how different norms apply in different places, and how these places sometimes are not even that far apart. See in the Netherlands it’s perfectly accepted to wear a bikini on the beach, but people would look at you strangely when you would wear your bikini in your local supermarket. When I, as a teenager, worked at a local supermarket that was on walking distance from a beach, we actually put up signs in summer that said: “we know it’s hot outside, but inside the AC is on, so please wear a shirt and trousers when you shop here”. We constantly had tourists coming in the supermarket in their swimwear, which upset the local population of the town who came in for their daily groceries.

What happened here, and what in fact constantly happens anywhere, is that we continuously compare what we see people do to our own behaviour and then we label that as good or bad. As a group we create unwritten rules, and to be part of the group you want to be in you need to get to know these rules.

Others might expand knowledge simply by having different customs, like I described at the danger of stereotyping. Not listening to the ideas of others simply because they are not your ideas, is a form of discrimination that happens a lot. The thing is that we make these unwritten rules as a group, we establish the norm. And these rules, basically just are some wild ideas, some cultural agreements over what we find acceptable. They do serve a purpose though, without these cultural rules there would be constant discussions and a society would not function.

That being said, all of us have at least several times in our lives experienced the uncomfortable feeling of not fitting in a group. This can be as simple as wearing a completely wrong outfit to a social occasion, but it can also be more complex if you are used to communicate in a direct way and you are meeting with someone who’s cultural agreement is to communicate in an indirect way.

I remember once, when I was teaching a class on group dynamics at a University in South Korea, students kept saying “yes” to everything I said. Later I found out that the word “yes” simply meant that they acknowledged I said something, and that it by no means meant they agreed on what the content of my message was. Simply a difference between direct and indirect communication.

Examples like this can be found everywhere, they are the basis for any miscommunication within one culture, let alone when you transcend cultures. What is normal? Nothing is normal, and in the same time everything is normal somewhere. It all depends on where you are.