Cultural Stereotypes vs Generalizations

Hello, lovely English language learners. It’s Morksensei. Welcome back to my channel. Every now and again (or sometimes) I like to make topical content on my channel that is easy for learners of English to understand. This is one of those videos, and today’s topic is helpful for intercultural and interpersonal relations. So, let me start with a question for you: What’s the difference between these two sets of sentences?

  • Mexicans only do business among themselves. They’re closed to outsiders.
  • To do business in Mexico, you must first build relationships. Trust is important to Mexicans.

You can probably guess the difference based on the title of this video. Yes, the first one is a stereotype, and the second one is a cultural generalization. These two concepts (or ideas) are often confused with each other because they both involve making broad statements about a group of people. There are many differences between them, though. The most important difference is that stereotypes are often hurtful, whereas generalizations are often helpful. Why is this? How exactly can you tell one from the other? Let’s find out.

What are generalizations & stereotypes, exactly?

First, we need to define our terms (or explain our words). What’s a generalization? And what is a stereotype? When we make a generalization, we’re trying to observe (or look at) the behaviour of many people and notice similarities. Generalizations are not always correct, but we make them anyway in order to make sense of our world. When we say phrases like “In general,…” or “Generally, …” or “Generally speaking, …” we’re not talking about everything or everyone. Rather, we’re making statements about most of the people or things together. Generalizations are neutral, descriptive, and non-judgmental. If we get new information or new examples which disprove our broad view, it’s easy to modify (or change) our generalization. So, generalizations can easily be updated by the people that make them.

Stereotypes are also broad statements, but in contrast with generalizations, they involve making interpretations and/or judgments rather than descriptions. Unlike generalizations, stereotypes tend to keep people into categories with the idea of limiting that group. After we make a stereotype, we’re often reluctant (or hesitant) to modify them (or change them. Our ideas about the thing or person becomes fixed (or unchanging).

In the examples I shared above, statement one uses judgmental words like “closed” and “only.” On the other hand, statement number two gives examples to describe, and not judge, the behaviour.

The second statement is useful to help us do business with Mexicans. In contrast, the first statement just gives us a negative view (or bad impression) of Mexican culture that is not helpful and doesn’t allow any growth or flexibility. This negative way of seeing Mexicans will be retained (or kept) in our subconscious. It might negatively influence our future interactions (or conversations) with Mexicans. On the other hand, the generalization – statement number two – gives us knowledge that we can act on if we encounter (or meet) people from Mexico. The generalization gives us ideas to think about when we start relationships with them.

Examples using “Laputia”

Let me give you some example statements about a fictional country (a country that does not exist) called Laputia. Do you think each statement is a stereotype or a generalization? (The answers are at the end))

1) Laputians are selfish.

2) In Laputia, gifts are often given after a business meeting.

3) It may take 2 or 3 days to make an appointment with a Laputian.

4) Laputians never let you know what they are thinking about. They are very confusing.

5) In Laputia, many businesspeople invite their colleagues to their home for dinner to talk about work.

6) Arriving on time in Laputia usually means arriving ten minutes after the agreed time.

7) In Laputia nothing runs on time.

8) It’s common in Laputia to discuss all details of an agreement before signing a contract.

9) In Laputia, all the power in a company tends to be at the top. A middle manager rarely makes independent decisions.

10) Laputians spend too much time eating.

11) Laputians are very loud and are inconsiderate of their neighbours who might be trying to sleep.

12) In Laputia, having a large family is thought to bring wealth and happiness.

13) Laputians have too many children, and don’t look after them properly.

14) Laputians should place more value on education.

15) Laputians generally show appreciation to guests by preparing banquets (big meals) for them.

How to avoid making stereotypes

OK, so maybe now you can distinguish (or tell the difference) between a stereotype and a generalization. But how can you avoid making stereotypes yourself? It’s not that easy. Most of us have made many stereotypes in our lives. To help you not to make statements that are stereotypes, the best thing to do is to ask yourself if you are describing, or if you are interpreting or evaluating. Simply describing something without judgement is used in generalizations, but you’re probably stereotyping if you evaluate (or judge) or even interpret. For example, have a look at this picture for a few seconds.

OK, let me give you some example statements about this picture.

  1. “The man had an accident and some people passing by placed cones around his body to protect him while waiting for the ambulance.”
    • This is an interpretation – it’s what you think; the meaning that you give to the fact; what you think the action or thing means (but not necessarily true!)
    • This is a false statement. It’s incorrect! The man did not have an accident, and people passing in the street did not put the cones there.
  2. “Japanese men drink too much and have no respect for their community.”
    • This is a judgement – It’s something you feel about the photo; the way you judge what you see.
    • This is a stereotype. It is true that the man is drunk, but the phrases “drink too much” and “have no respect” are negative judgements.
  3. “In traditional Japanese business culture, there is pressure to attend drinking parties. Drunk salarymen are tolerated. In this case, local police have even placed cones to protect the man from being stepped on.”
    • This is a description. – It’s something you see in the photo; objective facts that you can observe and prove.
    • This statement is a generalization. There is a lot neutral (or judgement-free) vocabulary used to describe the image. And, it’s true!

Summary

OK, let me summarize what the main ideas I wanted to share with you this video. Generalizations are helpful because they’re used consciously and analytically. They’re descriptive and flexible. They try to be accurate (or correct). They look for similarities and principles, and they’re often modified by new input. Stereotypes are harmful because they’re used unconsciously and reactively. They’re judgmental and/or interpretive (not based on facts). They’re inflexible. They oversimplify and try to limit and pigeonhole, and finally, they’re not open to change.

Answers to statements about Laputia

1) Laputians are selfish. This is a stereotype. “Selfish” is a negative word.

2) In Laputia, gifts are often given after a business meeting. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

3) It may take 2 or 3 days to make an appointment with a Laputian. This is a generalization.  It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

4) Laputians never let you know what they are thinking about. They are very confusing. This is a stereotype. “Never” and “confusing” are not neutral words

5) In Laputia, many businesspeople invite their colleagues to their home for dinner to talk about work. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

6) Arriving on time in Laputia usually means arriving ten minutes after the agreed time. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

7) In Laputia nothing runs on time. This is a stereotype. “Nothing” is not true (It’s an exaggeration).

8) It’s common in Laputia to discuss all details of an agreement before signing a contract. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

9) In Laputia, all the power in a company tends to be at the top. A middle manager rarely makes independent decisions. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

10) Laputians spend too much time eating. This is a stereotype. “Too much” is negative and judgemental.

11) Laputians are very loud and are inconsiderate of their neighbours who might be trying to sleep. This is a stereotype. “Loud” and “inconsiderate” are negative and judgemental.

12) In Laputia, having a large family is thought to bring wealth and happiness. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

13) Laputians have too many children, and don’t look after them properly. This is a stereotype. “Too many” and “properly” are negative, judgemental words.

14) Laputians should place more value on education. This is a stereotype. The use of “should” pushes different values that may be different from those in Laputia and judges Laputian education negatively.

15) Laputians generally show appreciation to guests by preparing banquets (big meals) for them. This is a generalization. It’s cultural knowledge based on neutral observation.

Picture by Kenji Kawamoto: https://soranews24.com/2015/03/31/high-art-or-crime-scene-more-photos-of-passed-out-salarymen
Bennett, M. (1998). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Selected readings.
Lewis, R. D. (1999). Cross Cultural Communication: A visual approach.

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