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 Employer-Employee Relationship Across Cultures: Concept of Self, In-groups & the Workplace

How do you view your relationship with your employer?

Do you see the employer-employee relationship as something of a family link?

Or is the relationship strictly professional and contractual?

The way you view this relationship is conditioned by your society’s concept of the in-group. As with many things, this concept is formed according to where your culture lies upon Hofstede’s cultural dimension spectrum of collectivist vs. individualist.

We are Family

Collectivist cultures view the employer-employee relationship as a moral one, a familial one.

Whether or not the company is the in-group, the company is expected to behave according to the in-group’s rules and values.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, the in-group usurps all.

Strictly Professional

On the other hand, individualist cultures see the professional relationship as a contractual one.

The structure and hierarchy of a company/organization are not expected to follow the rules and values of any in-group the individual employees are a party too. Rather, the employees submit to the structure of their company and their company culture.

Why?

It’s pretty simple: because the company is built for the owners/employers and customers, and it’s in the employees’ personal interest to align themselves with this structure. Otherwise, they’re out of work and their self-realization of upward mobility ceases.

Abstract Relationship vs. Social Fabric

Individualist cultures view employee/employer relationships abstractly.

The relationship is built on a contract. Salary in exchange for work…and, hopefully, some employee satisfaction.

Collectivist cultures view companies/organizations as part of the community’s social fabric.

Members are the vehicles of the company’s purpose and meaning.

The companies, themselves, are often run by a family/clan, which can often lead to family hiring and nepotism. As we mentioned last week, this is acceptable – and even expected – in collectivist cultures.

Benefits to senior managers and individual shareholders are not the end-all, be-all of the organization’s development and success in a collectivist society. Instead, the organization serves the society/clan.

Motivational Theories

This is why Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” Herzberg’s two-factor theory, and other models for human motivation, created by Western researchers, don’t withstand cross-cultural tests.

They do not account for the fact that human needs and human motivation (particularly, in the workplace) differ greatly across cultures, which means the incentives to motivate teams will too.

Concept of Self

These differences are related to the concept of self.

The individualist vs. collectivist perspective of self is, understandably, a topic well researched.

Markus and Kitayama (1991) wrote:

“People in different cultures have strikingly different construals of the self, of others, and of the interdependence of the two. These construals can determine the very nature of individual experience, including cognition, emotion and motivation.”

concept of self

This chart shows an overview of various nations’ concept of self.

The US falls on the individualist end of the scale, while Asian countries fall on the collectivist end. European countries lean toward individualism, while others – like India, Spain, and Russia – are more central, balancing individualist values and ideals with collectivist ones. The Middle East, African countries, Mexico, and Japan are more collectivist-leaning.

While this chart isn’t too surprising, the way self-concept manifests in cultures in the areas of cognition, emotion, and motivation varies.

We’ll talk more of self-concept next week.

No Absolutes

The bottom line is there are absolutely no absolutes when managing and motivating across cultures. Motivational tactics that work in an individualist culture may not work in a collectivist one.

As a Western manager, don’t become the monkey in your workplace. Know that there are no absolutes. Know that, just as individualism is not the only driver of economic success, individualist motivators are not the only possible drivers for your employees.

You must adapt. In collectivist cultures, manage groups instead of individuals.

Cross-Cultural Management: Understanding Motivating Factors for Different In-groups

As we discussed in a previous post, individualist motivational management is obviously very much centered around the individual.

Praise for outstanding work, recognition, both material and immaterial. “Employee of the Month” springs to mind.

For individualist cultures, being recognized for individual achievement means you are succeeding in your career – and at life.

But these same tactics do not always work in other cultures.

So, what does work?

Translating Cultural Dimensions into Workplace Management

In order to discover what works in managerially motivating across cultures, you must identify the in-group.

Last week, we talked about how economic success does not depend wholly on whether a culture is individualistic or collectivistic.

Rather, the in-group is what matters.

Whether company or country, in-groups are the primary drivers of workplace motivation.

Loyalty to groups is key to economic growth, and identifying the culture’s in-group can help you adapt your management style to the culture’s values.

In many collectivist cultures, the in-group is the family or the clan. The fact that it isn’t the company or oneself creates motivational differences from individualist cultures.

Learn Some Cultural Motivations

Diplomas – Diplomas are a way to climb the status ladder in collectivist cultures. Rather than seeing diplomas as paving the way toward the career ladder of better opportunities, diplomas are a door opening to a higher status group.

Because of this cultural perspective, diplomas are not sought to increase self-confidence in one’s abilities, but rather primarily to gain status.

Mobility – There are various types of mobility – occupational, geographical, hierarchical, etc. – and they are viewed differently across cultures.

In collectivist cultures, where the in-group is incredibly important, mobility across all types is lower, because it results in a change in one’s in-group.

Why?

If you have geographical mobility, you might leave your family. If you have hierarchical mobility, your in-group must approve of any upward change in position within your company, or this new position must be consistent with the role they’ve bestowed upon you.

An example: becoming the company boss of a clan elder is likely out of the question. The in-group’s hierarchy (which, in this case, is the clan) will always supersede that of a company’s organizational formalities.

Nepotism – Hiring or promoting family members/friends is seen as morally wrong in Western cultures, particularly if that family member has no qualifications for the role.

This is because individualist cultures view employees as “economic persons” who are motivated to pursue the employer’s interests if it aligns with their own self-interest.

Not so much in collectivist cultures.

One’s self-interest – and/or that of one’s employer – is always usurped by that of the in-group.

Therefore, nepotism in a collectivist culture would not only be acceptable, it would be expected.

One example of this in a collectivist culture: Burkina Faso’s former President Blaise Compoare not only hired family members to fill positions in government, but he also built a zoo and an airport in his village and supplied it with electricity (the only village with light for years, at the time).

While this action may have caused an uproar in a Western country, the culture saw Compoare’s actions as morally just. He was caring for his in-group, his people, which is seen as a positive thing in Burkina Faso.

Next week, we’ll talk more about the employer-employee relationship across cultures.