“Western Culture” as a Stereotype: Defining “The West”

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about stereotypes: how they can be harmful and ways in which you can use them wisely to aid cross-cultural understanding.

In fact, we use stereotypes a lot in this blog.

One of these stereotypes is the broad term, “Western culture,” which is associated with core values, norms, and beliefs.

But what, exactly, is it?

What is “Western Culture”?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Western culture”?

You probably think of Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada – the latter three of which are highly influenced by Europe, due to their historical roots.

All of these countries mentioned (and others that fall under the umbrella of “Western culture”) hold a common set of values and norms.

However, as we’ve also highlighted in this blog, values and norms vary widely across the countries that fall under this umbrella.

In the U.K., queues are law; in Italy, it’s every man for himself.

German companies run like well-oiled machines; French companies are like royal courts.

Despite these cultural differences on a country-by-country basis, Western cultures share strong commonalities, due to their historical heritage under the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires, as well as the influence of Judeo-Christian religions.

Moreover, 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe brought forth a rationalist and secular-oriented ideology focused on social and scientific progress.

This drove such democratic values as the separation of church and state, human rights, capitalism, modern technology, and political pluralism.

Western Culture is a Stereotype 

Up until now, we never defined “Western culture” in this blog.

Yet, somehow, we all understood what it means.

This is due to the fact that “Western culture” is as much a stereotype as anything else. 

The behaviors of someone from “the West” are fixed in our mind, contrasted with how those from an Eastern culture might act or the ideology and values they might live by.

So, while we know there are differences between the values and behaviors of Australians, Europeans, Americans, etc. – and even further, between countries, regions, subcultures, and even individuals in each culture – we still recognize the broad commonalities that exist across all of “the West.” 

Use Your Discretion

If I board a plane and am seated between a Swiss person and an American, I would be more inclined to talk to the American.

This is not because I am opposed to the Swiss (I am Swiss); it’s because I want to be courteous.

Americans generally like small talk with strangers in public settings; Swiss generally don’t.

However, some Swiss might actually be prone to small talk, while some Americans will put their earbuds in immediately.

The point is, when it comes to stereotypes, applying them wisely means to use your discretion when approaching each individual.

Test the waters, apply your observational skills, and proceed accordingly.

Stereotypes blanket entire populaces, but they don’t take into account the individuality of people.

So, rather than presuming each person is attached to the stereotypical values, norms, and behaviors of their cultures, tuning in to the individual nature of a person’s preferences, priorities, and behaviors will allow you to avoid misusing stereotypes.

How Do Canadian Social Norms Reflect Their Cultural Values?

Say, you and your friend, Canadian Jim, go for a coffee.

You arrive at the Tim Horton’s door at the same time.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, as he jumps ahead to open the door for you.

“Sorry?” you think. “What is he apologizing for?”

Canadians are known to be polite and to apologize for the slightest infringement. This is their social norm.

In fact, a McCaster University geo-linguistic study regarding the differences between American and Canadian language on social media found that Canadians are much more upbeat and polite in their language even online.

For nine months in 2015, PhD Candidates Daniel Schmidtke and Bryor Snefjella compiled upwards of three million tweets. Aside from “hockey and “eh”, “disproportionately ‘Canadian words’ included ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘favourite’,” while most of the American favorites were unprintable and/or negative, like “‘hate’, ‘hell’, ‘tired’, ‘hurt’ and ‘annoying’.”

This begs the question…

Why Are Canadians Polite?

What is at the root of their behavior?

The values of kindness and courtesy are.

The director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, Nelson Wiseman, theorized why these values are so embedded in Canadian culture:

“John A. Macdonald called Canadians a subordinate people. That’s in part because we’ve had a strong tradition of centralized regimes, with the French, and then as a British nation.”

European settlers, particularly the conservative British Tories, imparted these values unto their ancestors.

“Although Canada is no longer a British nation,” Wiseman said, “these tendencies replicate and perpetuate themselves like a gene.”

The non-confrontational tradition carries on. Apologizing before things get out of hand – even for nothing approaching insulting, like failing to open the door for someone – is the visible part of their culture (a baobab branch), while common courtesy and conservatism are the invisible parts (the roots of the baobab).

The fact that Canada doesn’t have the same imperial history as America may also factor into why Canadians are considered friendlier when compared to those south of the border.

Understanding the Cultural Baobab

When you enter into a culture that is not your own, familiarizing yourself with their cultural baobab will always help you come to terms with differences. The norms that you see are often deeply rooted in values that lie below the surface.

And it’s only when you examine the components of this tree of life that you start to understand the rationale of a culture.

You may not agree with it.

You may not like it.

But in understanding it, you may accept the culture’s values as they are.