Why can’t I just use stereotypes to predict people’s behaviour?

I wrote about generalisations in my previous article. Although they are controversial, if not applied to individuals, they can be helpful to illustrate what others (national, regional, professional culture) might perceive as a ‘norm.’ (link). In my experience as a cultural trainer, as soon as you mention the word ‘generalisation’, you almost always start a debate. I believe that part of the reason this happens is that many people confuse ‘generalisations’ with ‘stereotypes’. So, what exactly is the difference?


Stereotypes are not generalisations!

The term stereotype derives from the Greek words stereos (‘firm, solid’) and typos (impression), hence “solid impression on one or more idea /theory.” A stereotype is ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.’

Stereotypes do indeed have their origin in a neutral observation (the ‘kernel of truth’ theory). If you take an observation and add a judgement, a stereotype is born. There are stereotypes of any group – professions, classes, genders, in fact – any group. Let’s try a national stereotype. Imagine that you spend some time with people from a country (XYZ). You have observed that:

People from XYZ only aften have a shower in the morning, not in the evening.

If this is a shared experience and more people from your country have made this observance, you might bringing this up among yourself. If most of you usually have a shower in the evening, at some point you might end up with:

People from XYZ are dirty.

If ‘your people’ keep repeating it, it becomes so embedded in your culture that it stands a good chance of becoming ‘shared knowledge.’And this knowledge can be passed on from generation to generation… No need to even visit XYZ anymore to learn about the people there – you have stereotypes to rely on!

Stereotypes are judgemental, generalisations are descriptive.

Let’s use a real life example. I often hear in the UK that ‘Polish people are rude’ or ‘Polish people are hard working’ (stereotypes are, by the way, not always negative, quite the opposite!). At the first sight, this tell us something about Polish people, right? In this sense, anyone in the world should be able to project this view on Polish people in general. But is this so? I spend five years of my life in Germany and never heard those two sentences. So maybe, those stereotypes, popular in the UK, tell us something about the British people themselves?

In the first one, ‘Polish people are rude’, somebody made an observation, that the way Polish people communicate is direct. Yes, they style can be pretty direct, but only if you compare it the British English. At the same time, Polish is much less direct than German, and British English is far less vague than Japanese!

A generalisation puts a group on a global scale, a stereotype narrows it down to comparison between two cultures (Poland-UK) and therefore cannot be neutral. And this is why having a ‘global mindset’ excludes stereotypes, because by default, it’s about having a bigger picture. Cultural training is not about putting people in boxes – it is learning about how others might perceive us.

Coming back to the question – Why can’t we use stereotypes to predict people’s behaviour? The simple answer is: because they are relative, but we are usually not aware if it. Stereotypes actually tell us a lot more about our own culture, as opposed to the culture we are trying to describe. Let’s take a closer look at how it works.

That is not to say that bad training will use and reinforce stereotypes. But ideally, it should offer the participants a chance not only to understand the nature and origin of stereotypes, but also to be able to step back and look at themselves with the eyes of others. At the same time, stereotyping is something natural for humans, because is provide us with guidelines, a tool for orientation, a navigation system for social encounters. It cannot be avoided – but it’s a job a good cultural trainer to explain it to her group!


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