Stereotypes: A “Solid Impression” or a Funhouse Mirror?

Imagine you’re trying to navigate yourself to a restaurant in a big city.

You open up Google Earth, plug in the address, and find the coordinates.

At first, you’re in satellite view. So many details – lines, colors, buildings, trees. With such an intricate bird’s-eye perspective, it’s hard to focus and find the way.

Gps Maps Google Map Navigation Location Navigator
Gps Maps Google Map Navigation Location Navigator

However, when you switch over to map view, everything is suddenly simplified and much clearer.

Analogies are the map views of a culture. They simplify a culture’s complexity, clearing the way to understanding by providing less – but more pertinent – information.

Analogies strip away the details you don’t need, leaving only those that you do.

While this is most certainly helpful in a lot of ways, you must be careful with simplified views.

A simplified map can leave out roadblocks, traffic jams, or other valuable information that might have altered your chosen route or decision-making.

This can especially happen when we use stereotypes as our simplified cultural maps.

A “Solid Impression”

The word “stereotype” is rooted in the Greek words for firm/solid (“stereos”) and impression (“typos”).

Literally translated, stereotype means “solid impression.”

In the late 18th century, the term was used by Firmin Didot in printing to describe printing plates that duplicate typography.

Rather than using the original plate, the stereotype (duplicate printing plate) was used for printing.

The meaning of the word changed in the early 20th century when American journalist, Walter Lippmann, used it analogously in relation to the characteristics of a group of people.

As a stereotype is a solid impression in the printing process, so it is in people’s minds in relation to groups or cultures.

Lippmann saw this, defining the word as,

“a distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.”

Stereotypes are like a funhouse mirror: conditioning that distorts our image of “the other.”

Lippmann warned of the dangers of such bias. In Public Opinion (1922), he wrote,

“The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event.”

In this way, our feelings about an event (or a people) are not based in truth if we have no experience with said event/people.

They’re based on a stereotype.

Stereotypes condition us to deflect valid and true claims that do not align with our own, grounded in often negative attitudes and perceptions of “the other” – attitudes that are regularly driven by social and political motivations.

How Are Stereotypes Different Than Analogies

Although stereotypes and analogies work in a similar fashion in that they simplify the mechanics and behaviors that drive a culture’s people, the aim of creating analogies is to enable one to work effectively in a cross-cultural environment.

The aim of stereotypes, on the other hand, is often to contrast characteristics of other cultures that conflict with one’s own, essentially blanketing them over an entire group.

Stereotypes can often be intolerant, toxic, discriminatory, prejudicial, and downright dangerous.

Swiss are punctual; Indians are late.

Italians are jovial; Brits have a stiff upper lip.

Russians love vodka; the French love wine.

Americans are superficial; the Japanese are polite.

While stereotypical characteristics may not always be negative or evil, applying them to an entire people can result in prejudice of said people and individuals, which is of course ineffective to cross-cultural leadership and understanding.

Next week, we’ll talk about taking a wise approach to stereotypes.

The Rice Field Analogy: Negotiation Tactics Across Cultures

Cultures have codes.

The past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to tap into these codes by using analogies constructively.

So can they be used to tap into negotiating with other cultures.

Innate Analogous Terms in Negotiation

Negotiation is a game.

In each culture, this game has different rules.

Strategy in negotiation requires understanding the game you’re playing.

Language used in negotiation is, of itself, analogous.

Negotiation is sometimes likened to going to war. Rules are minimal. Often, sports jargon is used, such as “fair play,” which is:

“in sport, the fact of playing according to the rules and not having an unfair advantage.”

Negotiations are something to be “won.”

These analogous terms used in negotiations naturally extend to cultures.

Framing a foreign culture’s negotiation tactics in the form of an analogy will help drive the correct strategy to “win.”

Cultural Analogies in Negotiation

In negotiation, Russians are “playing poker”; Germans are “playing chess.”

These are pretty straight forward analogies, easily understood by Westerners.

But what about the Chinese?

Chinese negotiations can be an enigma to foreigners.

You might feel mutual confidence, trust, and cooperation one day and, the very next, feel tricked into accepting something you hadn’t discussed.

The “pattern” is not like poker; it’s not like chess.

It’s variable and inconsistent.

To understand this seemingly random give-and-take, a friend provided me a succinct analogy: Chinese negotiations are like working in a rice field.

Rice is, without a doubt, an important part of Chinese culture.

It provides the people sustenance every single day from childhood to old age.

Cultivating this crop necessitates much more cooperation within a village than do crops in Europe or the U.S.

The rice field terraces in the countryside are flooded with a common irrigation system. The water irrigates one field to the next, and this requires that the entire village collectively working together.

Focusing on your land, alone, won’t work.

Instead, you must both hold your own and cooperate with others in equal parts.

This is what negotiating in China requires.

blog rice2

View it as working together on these rice terraces: you must hold your own while using the same irrigation system as that which feeds your business partner’s field. And your business partner is doing the same.

In order to be successful, you must support and cooperate with your business partner while playing defensively and cleverly, seeking your own advantage and ensuring that your partner doesn’t exploit his.

When negotiating with Chinese partners, you aren’t playing poker, neither are you playing chess.

You’re working in a rice field together, both supporting and competing.

Insightful Cross-Cultural Analogies: How Hofstede’s Power Distance & Uncertainty Avoidance Aid Understanding

Power distance. Uncertainty avoidance.

We’ve discussed these two dimensions at length in previous posts.

Not only are they stand-alone aspects that aid cross-cultural understanding, but social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, has applied these two dimensions to create cultural analogies that help simplify foreign workplace environments.

Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance Review

These two dimensions relate to workplace behaviors.

Power distance is the degree to which cultures accept and expect the unequal distribution of power amongst members of organizations and institutions.

For instance, those employees in cultures of high power distance will not directly confront a superior; those employees and superiors in cultures of low power distance rely on communication and the consultation of each other, which de-emphasizes the hierarchical nature of status.

Uncertainty avoidance is the measure of acceptance and expectation for unpredictability and chaos in society.

Those cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance have a low tolerance for unpredictability and ambiguity, resulting in rule-oriented, law-abiding societies.

Those cultures with low levels of uncertainty avoidance have a high tolerance for the same, resulting in societies willing to take more risks, tolerate a wider variety of opinions, and not follow rules so strictly.

The Analogies

Arranging these two dimensions on the axes of a matrix, Hofstede produced a set of helpful analogies to better understand the work cultures of the United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France.

monkey_charts_CMYK-14

With its low uncertainty avoidance and low power distance, a typical English company is like a village market, in that it combines risk-taking with flat hierarchies, resulting in the classic entrepreneurial spirit.

Germany also shares the flat workplace hierarchies (low power distance) with the British; however, German culture has a high uncertainty avoidance, making typical German companies efficient and inflexible, more like a “well-oiled machine” or a clock. Rules are strictly followed, with decentralized decision-making and each equally important wheel working together.

The typical French company is described as a “royal court” or “pyramid of people.” The culture is one of high power distance, where everyone knows their place and decision-making is centralized. They also share high uncertainty avoidance with the Germans, meaning rules are strictly followed, resulting in a complex network of relationships across the levels of hierarchy. Power and authority are highly valued.

The best analogy for a Chinese company is that of a family with a head patriarch. Like France, China values high power distance and, like England, low uncertainty avoidance. This means that, despite having a typical hierarchical society that values company loyalty, risks and rule-bending are embraced, which has helped to position China as an economic superpower.

Although I can’t stress enough that analogies are never perfect and nothing is one-size-fits-all, they do allow managers to form mental models, aiding understanding in the workplace environments of foreign countries.

Analogies: Understanding Culture Through Powerful Mental Models

You are a manager in a foreign culture. You look at everything through your cultural lens.

Workplace behaviors are strange. Your colleagues’ habits seem irrational.

You feel like a visitor at the zoo, a spectator observing everyone.

In actuality, you are in their habitat; not the other way around. You are the odd one out, behaving according to your “strange” cultural norms and values in their culture.

You are the monkey in the zoo.

This is an example of an analogy: a powerful image that enables you to adapt your mental model to the reality of your environment or situation.

Last week, we talked about German manager, Marie, and her struggle working in a French office.

It was an analogy – the French office is like a royal court – that assisted her in adapting her frame of interpretation.

Why do analogies work?

Because they familiarize unfamiliar situations, helping us form new mental models to confront the unknown.

Analogies Reshape Mental Models

Schemes, representations, and images form the mental models used to perceive and understand the world around us.

These are largely based on past experience, education, and training.

The mental models we’ve developed provide shortcuts in decision-making, allowing us to make decisions quickly and efficiently without necessarily having all the details at our fingertips.

Because we don’t have all the details, mental models abstract reality; they are biased. They make the real world more simplistic than it actually is.

Despite significant experience or education to back our mental models, at some point, they are usually wrong in one way or another.

What’s worse is mental models are deeply rooted and slow – if not impossible – to change.

Analogies, however, make that change easier.

By “tricking” our brains into seeing something that previously seemed concrete (office behaviors, for instance) in a new light (viewing French companies like royal courts), we are able to draw different connections and conclusions than our previous mental model allowed, thus arriving at new decisions that more adequately address the reality of the environment.

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Unknown social constructs are reshaped by analogies into a picture you can comprehend.

The fresh perspective from this corrected mental model will allow you to make more rational decisions relative to the social constructs of the culture.

There are, however, limits to analogies. Like anything, they aren’t perfect.

But a good analogy that accurately represents a cultural dynamic that doesn’t align with your own is always an improvement on the mental model you’ve brought with you from abroad.

Trying to fit another’s culture into your own is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

So, how do you create good analogies?

Next week, we’ll talk about how Geert Hofstede’s dimensions can help.

A New Frame of Interpretation: How Analogies Can Help Direct Cross-Cultural Behaviors

Meet Marie.

Marie is a German business consultant tasked with reorganizing a French company.

Excited with the prospect, Marie initially enjoyed her frequent trips to Paris and the directive with which she was tasked. But soon, she faced regular roadblocks that would make the fun project a chore.

The French company she was to reorganize was hierarchical and centralized. Despite this, Marie had difficulty identifying the appropriate decision-makers, as a number of people claimed to be in charge though they didn’t actually hold any power in moving the project forward.

Their interference threw rocks into the cogs of this project, slowing it to a standstill, and the delay resulted in even less support from the French team.

At this point, she wasn’t even able to secure a meeting with management or access the information required to complete her mission.

Marie had two choices: a) abandon the project, or b) find someone who could assist in her cross-cultural understanding of the way a stereotypical French company functions.

The Working Parts of a French Company

Marie was lucky enough to find her Zookeeper at the wedding party of a friend.

Using an analogy, this Zookeeper – a French manager who’d worked for over a decade in Germany – managed to crystalize Marie’s understanding of the hierarchy in the French office and the politics with which it functioned.

The Zookeeper told her, first of all, to abandon her German ideas of how an office should function. Unlike in Germany, companies in France don’t function like well-oiled machines.

Instead, he said, they are more like royal courts, in which the CEO reigns supreme. He is the king, and surrounding him, are his noblemen, knights, servants, etc. – all of whom vie for his attention.

They do this by constructing their own fiefdoms.

As Marie was someone sent in from the outside to manage a project, she should navigate this world like an earl.

As quoted from I am the Monkey, the Zookeeper advised:

“Be humble in the right moment. Be bold in the right moment. Be courteous when required. Be rude when needed. Build your political relationship and network, until you have the ear and favor of the king or one of his important ministers.”

By abandoning her expectations that a French office should function like a German one, Marie would be able to get the job done effectively in this foreign culture.

A Culture’s Office Hierarchy is Often a Microcosm of the Country’s Structural Macrocosm

France, itself, has a thousand-year-old history of strong monarchies. Further, its current politics is centered around a strong presidential state; so much so that President François Mitterand was deemed the “last French King.”

French thinking and the stereotypical hierarchies of French companies have been influenced by this historical structure and the way in which it functions.

In understanding this, Marie was able to adapt her behavior to a new frame of interpretation.

The idea that “French companies are like royal courts” created a firmer, almost visceral blueprint for not only what was expected from her, but for the methods by which she could achieve her goal in this setting that differed greatly from her own back in Germany.

This is one example of how analogies can aid a manager’s understanding of a new cross-cultural environment. We’ll be talking more about creating analogies in the coming weeks.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.