Stereos? Stereotypes! Americans are loud, British are cold, Chinese are inscrutable.
That kind of thing. When we meet a problem or setback in international meetings and negotiations we all tend to retreat into our views of national stereotypes. But what if those stereotypes were true?
There’s a saying in English. ‘There’s no smoke without a fire!’ Stereotypes had to come from somewhere. Otherwise, why do we have them? We tend to avoid discussing stereotypes.
It’s not politically correct! It’s our ignorant great grandparents’ opinions that we like to sweep under the carpet. Yes, I know YOUR great grandparents are still going strong at 105 and have minds as sharp as a whistle but we are talking about stereotypes here.
Stereotypes are dangerous. They indicate fixed positions and they don’t allow room for movement and flexibility. Movement and flexibity are vitally important in international meetings and negotiations.
When I hear the word ‘stereotype’, I reach for my gun!
Whenever, I hear the word ‘stereotypes’ or ‘stereotyping’ mentioned in a seminar, a red light goes on. If people believe you are re-inforcing stereotypes, it immediately destroys the your credibility. If I hear the word ‘Stereotype’, I act fast. immediately replace it with the word ‘generalisation.’
That may sound like just a change of word but it isn’t. Actually, it’s a change of concept.
When you make a generalisation, you don’t say EVERYONE does it. You just say SOME people or even a MAJORITY of people may behave like that.
This is really important. National traits and characteristics do exist. And we all display them at times. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t individuals. Or that we don’t have choices about how we behave. Making a generalisation about a cultural trait allows you say it exists but not everyone displays it. But you need to establish that it does exist because it helps explain certain cultural behaviours.
Stereotypes always bad! Is that true?
We have a stereotype about stereotypes. They’re all bad. They all express a negative opinion. But some stereotypes are positive. Friendliness, hospitality, sincerity, honesty.
If someone had those stereotypes about my country I’d be quite pleased!
Get into stereotypes.
In ‘When Teams Collide,’ Richard Lewis reminds us that stereotypes don’t come from ‘thin air’. They often disguise a deeper reality. So the term English ‘humour’ covers valid English characteristics of self-deprecation, irony and the use of coded speech. Japanese politeness disguises the search for ‘face protection’ and harmony. German direct criticism and occasional focus on negative aspects of performance disguises a real wish to maintain and improve standards. ‘When Teams Collide’ (NB Books), is an excellent book. It is the first port of call for anyone running or part of a multi-cultural team.
We may have mentioned this before but it’s worth a rerun. This activitiy is a great way to turn negative stereotypes into positive generalisations and to find out the reality behind the stereotype.
1 COMPILE A LIST
Compile a list of stereotypes of the country/countries of most interest to you. Don’t forget, ‘What do they say about us?’
Present a stereotype to the group. Ask them, ‘How does this appear in everyday behaviour?’
How do we use it?
3 WHAT DOES IT REPRESENT?
Then ask, ‘What cultural belief or value does this represent?’ ‘Why do we think it is a negative or a positive statement?
4 NEGATIVE TO POSITIVE
When you have a conclusion, ask the group, ‘Turn the negative stereotype into a positive one.’ An example for the British.
NEGATIVE ‘Many people say the British are cold and shy and difficult with strangers.’
POSITIVE ‘Most British people respect other people’s privacy. They are reluctant to impose, or be imposed on.’
What did we learn from the activity? One thing we will THANK,SAY and DO differently in future.
That way, stereotypes can be a teaching tool and a tool for raising cultural awareness.