Do you categorize and stereotype? Probably yes, because it is simply how our brain works. But don’t let it be the only lens you use on yourself and others.
Common first associations with words: labeling, categorizing, stereotyping are negative. I usually like to challenge that. Creating categories, labels, buckets, structures is first of all a natural process of our brains to limit the information overload, and second of all a great way to simplify complex ideas. I consider them a good start to thinking about a problem or concept.
However, it becomes very ineffective if that’s the only way we think about the world.
Stereotypes should not be your final step
Stereotypes, categories, labels – whatever you’d like to call them – are in short the first associations with a given group of people, objects, brands. They help you make sense of the world, organise your knowledge and speed up the thought processes and how quickly you adapt the behaviour when you encounter a representative of a given group of people. You might have heard that Italians are very expressive in communication, Irish are very friendly, programmers are shy and quiet or that uni students party hard. Your friends might have told you that, you could have read it in the internet or done some research. And then you started approaching given groups of people with this particular preconception (and probably reconfirmed it as that’s how the confirmation bias works). Fair enough. It’s usually better to be prepared and cautious than totally surprised and overwhelmed. What you already know is important to do is to try to get rid of these preconceptions and approach people with an open mind to create your own experience.
Why don’t we do the same for ourselves?
Don’t get too comfortable with your group affiliations
Each of us identifies themselves through various friendship and professional groups, life roles we play. You can be a student, a banker, a coach, a mother etc. It helps and creates a sense of belonging and a certain support network. It is great as long as it helps us move forward and develop. The moment it hinders our growth we should take time to notice our beliefs and reframe.
So often I hear from people (and I’m still guilty of doing it too!) that they won’t do something because they are eg. programmers (so they won’t like a networking event anyway), just students (so they won’t engage in a conversation with a more experienced professional) etc. We need to stop sabotaging our own success and using the group affiliation and related stereotypes as an excuse not to do something. Of course we will be faced with situations where we need to go outside of our comfort zone. Of course that sometimes we will not be as successful as we’d like to be. But we can learn from each experience. If you’re a student or young professional and feel uncomfortable talking to a more senior colleague – use every opportunity to have these conversations! The more you do it, the less unknown and scary this situation becomes.
Use your nationality in a positive context, not as an excuse
In the context of studying and working internationally, you can take the same approach. Try not to define your behaviours by your nationality or origin – present it simply as yours. I must say it’s not easy. I do like to make jokes about it sometimes too, for example during parties when people comment and tease me about drinking habits I like to laugh that ‘I can’t hold my drink as I’m Polish’. I think that these kinds of jokes are not too harmful. However, if I would for example use this as an excuse to decline a presentation invite only due to the fact that I’m not a native speaker of English it would probably not be beneficial for me. Especially living in such an multinational city as London.
When you’re applying for jobs or assignments abroad, don’t simply assume that they won’t consider you because you’re not a local. Or that you shouldn’t even try to apply for an assignment in let’s say Colombia if you’re an American cause you’re directive and they ‘do everything slow’ in Latin America, so you won’t fit in. If you want to try this – do it and show your skills both on the application and during the interviews. Pick examples that represent your best self and show that you are willing to learn and experience the other culture.
The most important thing with categorising is to prevent the labels and categories (that usually also become the first associations with a given group of people) from being the only lens you use to look at and makes sense of the world. Use them as a starting point to ease you into the new environment, but keep an open mind and join with the learner’s mindset.