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.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.

Sociolinguistics

Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.