“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.

Conformity in Culture: The Colored Pens Study

Say, you’re given a bin of pens.

Most of them are black and a few are blue. Your favorite color to write with is blue.

Which pen would you choose?

This study was conducted by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi and his research team with participants from Japan and the US.

The study involved a default scenario, an initial scenario, a final scenario, and a purchase scenario.

  • Default scenario – participants simply told to choose a pen
  • Initial scenario – participants told they were the first person to choose a pen
  • Final scenario – participants told they were the last person to choose a pen
  • Purchase scenario – participants told they were buying a pen

Considering previous research on the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, one might think the Japanese would always choose the majority color, due to their preference for conformity, while the American would always choose the minority color, due to their preference to stand out.

The results, however, were a bit more complex.

Preference for Uniqueness

Although the Japanese did choose the majority color and the Americans the minority color in the default scenario, the results between the two cultures were similar in the other three scenarios: the Americans and the Japanese were just as likely to choose either the majority or minority color.

These last three results indicate that both cultures prefer uniqueness in equal measure.

The results also show that each culture, in being the first to choose, is cognizant of other peoples’ desire for uniqueness and, therefore, may be reluctant to offend those who have yet to choose their colored pen.

But when the social situation becomes ambiguous, as in the default scenario, why do the Japanese assume the majority pen, when the results show that they prefer the unique pen just as much as their American counterparts?

This is where the preference for harmony comes in.

Do Not Offend

The default scenario reveals that the Japanese don’t necessarily prefer to conform; after all, they were just as likely to choose unique over conformity in the other three scenarios.

Rather, the Japanese prefer harmony over disharmony.

Yamagishi and his team concluded that the disparity was in the ambiguity: the desire not to offend is stronger in the Japanese than in the Americans, particularly in ambiguous social situations.

And why not offend?

One theory posed by Yamagishi is centered around interpersonal relationships.

Japan is a “closed society” regarding groups and relationships. By this, we mean that it’s considerably more closed to outsiders; if you’re not part of the in-group, you’re not welcome. In this way, it’s harder to replace lost relationships when you’ve offended someone.

The US, on the other hand, is an “open society.” It’s much easier to replace a lost relationship if one has caused offense.

This is why the Japanese avoid offending in ambiguous situations, which may come at the cost of their preferences on occasion. Group loyalty over self-loyalty, as we talked about last week.

The ambiguity of whether your choice of a unique pen may or may not offend someone is balanced against the cost of social rejection.

The result is this strategic and nuanced adaptation under differing scenarios.

How does this apply to the type of management style a culture prefers?

We’ll talk more about that next week.