Stereotyping is bad, we should all know that. But then… we also see that we do have a certain view of the world and of certain groups of people, based on our previous experiences, what we’ve read or what we’ve heard from others. So should we stop reading, learning and experiencing to have a blank page when approaching any interaction? Is that even possible?
Stereotype is a judgemental statement about the whole group, based on personal experiences rather than research, it’s a generalisation. Be it a positive or negative connotation with a given group of people, we do have those in our heads. It is a simple categorisation process which happens in our brains when it’s faced with a certain number of information. Without this classification process we wouldn’t be able to function. It’s important that we are able to identify things that are good and bad, right and wrong, professional and unprofessional to help us navigate the world.
It’s important though to understand at one point that there are certain things that although right in our context, may be wrong in another and vice versa.
“Spanish men are handsome” , “Polish people are hard-working”, “Most Polish people are alcoholics”. All of those statements are stereotypes, judgmental generalised statements (because does handsome mean the same thing for everyone? Or hard-working?). Many people take those for granted, applying them to any person coming from those respective countries, potentially also making hiring or promotional decisions based on those assumptions.
Very easily expressing such absolute statements about a certain cultural group can lead to prejudice when we start applying our own emotional judgemental value to them, eg. “Polish people drink a lot of alcohol [and it’s bad, as they’re unreliable]” or “Spanish people are loud [and it’s annoying and unprofessional]”. This is the moment when we can actually bring the statements to our awareness and change this trail of thought. More about that in a second.
Prejudice can then very quickly lead to discriminatory behaviours, eg. not hiring the Polish person because of our belief that all Polish people are unreliable (because of excessive drinking), or not trying to work with a Spanish person because in our mind they are unprofessional, or in fact hiring that Polish person because they are hard-working.
What can we do about it then?
So… is stereotyping, as a process itself, bad? Not really, it’s a natural categorisation process which is happening whether we want it or not. A great book about this is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman if you want to learn more about the workings of our brains. But – – is stereotyping helping us build inclusive environments and better cross-cultural relationships? No. That is why there is so much effort in many organisations to increase awareness about unconscious bias. As we know, stopping this process may be extremely difficult, if not impossible (it’s unconscious!). There is a way though in which we can make ourselves aware of the stereotypes and judgments that we hold, and reframe them into something that will serve us (and the people we work with!) better.
Archetype, or trend, is a general tendency of a group of people to behave in certain way. They are non-judgemental statements formed based on research. In those statements you will see words like tends to, often, more likely to, frequently. Knowing those tendencies and using the right language to describe them can be extremely helpful. If we know that “People in Spain tend to be more expressive than in Poland” then at least we are prepared. We may not meet or work with such person necessarily, but if it’s a general trend at least we won’t be surprised or that easily judgemental when we encounter a very expressive Spaniard. We can’t of course just change the wording of a stereotype, swap ‘all’ for ‘many’ and get away with it though! Archetypes are about increasing your knowledge and awareness, not about word play.
Thanks to this knowledge, we can change our inner dialogue from the prejudiced and unhelpful “those Spanish people are so unprofessional” to “Oh, I see, this is the expressiveness I was reading about. It seems that people talk louder and faster here than in Poland [observation]. My colleague with whom I was already working remotely for a while hugged me when we met for the first time. I saw her hugging others as well – I guess this is just how things work here [non-judgmental conclusion]. I wonder what values stand behind those behaviours, what’s important to her? [further enquiry to deepen understanding]”.
Using archetypes in speech and daily communications can be helpful in leading to a more accepting approach to differences and also encourage us to be more curious about them. There are plenty of other ways to increase your culture intelligence a little bit every day, during your day-to-day activities – check out these articles if you’d like more inspiration: