Can we generalise about cultures?

Here we go again. Another session on working across cultures and another big debate. Attitudes play an important part in training and can definitely prevent attendees from getting the most out of their training. In this series of articles, I’m discussing the most commonly asked questions that come up in my training sessions and share strategies to tackling them.

One of the most frequently asked question is: ‘Can we generalise about cultures? Everyone is different anyway.’ In the following blog entry, I will try to explain why there’s such aversion out there towards generalisations, and why they can be helpful in cultural training.

What’s the problem with generalisations?

Many people seem to hate the word ‘generalisation’. I used to think that it was dangerous to generalise about cultures and still partly believe so today. No one likes to be told who or how they are based on where they are from. For example, not every Greek likes feta cheese, just like not every German is very direct. But it’s not what we talk about in intercultural training.

I vs we

To begin with, we are of course all different, with different personalities and needs (“I”). On the other hand, we are all the same – we are all humans, with human needs such as the need of food or sleep (“we”). On a group level, however, we share something with the other members of our particular group (be it nation, gender or profession). Generalisations are less about who we are than about our expectations within specific situations, such as one’s role as a lecturer or student (what is expected of both sides) or how to behave at work. In such cases, we can definitely talk about group-specific, cultural ‘norms’.

‘Three levels of uniqueness in human mental programming’(Geert Hofstede)

(Hofstede, G. 1981. Cultures and organizations. London: McGraw Hill)

In the lecturer-student example, it is true that, in general, all teachers share certain values, but we can talk about differences in style (teacher- or student-centred? Open for discussion vs authoritarian? Learning through practice vs learning through theory?) and the way they treat the students (formal /informal? Happy to be contacted by email /face-to-face?). The same applies to the world of work. What makes a ‘good’ manager in one culture does not necessarily make a ‘good’ manager in a different one. For example, where a friendly, first name basis approach might work in the British office setting, it might come across as disrespectful in a more hierarchical country such as China.

Generalisations vs. stereotypes

One thing to remember though is that, unlike stereotypes, generalisations are neutral. (I’ll talk more about stereotypes in my next article) For now, though, the main difference between generalisations and stereotypes is that a generalisation can become a stereotype when we add an emotion (good or bad) to it, e.g. imagine that you spent some time in Poland. A generalisation you may come back with could be that Polish people tend to be direct communicators. However, if you start judging this behaviour, the stereotype you might come up with would be Polish people are rude.

Generalisation are helpful, but be careful with them

In intercultural training, we learn that the definition of ‘rude’ is relative, because it is embedded in the ‘norms’ of our own culture (group), things we take for granted. Therefore, we can definitely work with generalisations, remembering that they reflect what most people regard as ‘normal’ in a specific group and that ‘care should be taken when applying those generalisations to individuals.’ (Gibson, R. 2014: Intercultural Business Communication. Oxford University Press)

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