Our Game of Stereotypes

September 12, 2019
September 12, 2019 Peter Welch

In these early days of school, we find ourselves introducing ourselves a lot. Of course, the conversation starter is often, ‘And where are you from?’ Then we refer to our place of birth and our passport(s) to describe ourselves. For many of us, these labels feel inadequate. We become part of a game of stereotypes. We rarely have time – even if anyone is listening – to describe the intricacies of our culture and personal experience. It’s just easier for me to say, ‘I’m English’. We want to give others something easy to relate to, even if this can be at the expense of the truth. 

We have a complicated relationship with the concept of stereotypes. On the one hand, we know that the word itself is a pejorative. It is wrong to stereotype other people and put them into a two-dimensional box. Yet, our brains are excellent pattern recognition machines. In a world of bewildering complexity, we must constantly categorize and make connections between people and things to get it all into some kind of order.

However, if we use our national labels as a proud badge of self-identification, this can inhibit mutual understanding. We can be hampered by the stereotypes they conjure up. If I check-in to a hotel in America, my passport and middle-class English accent can fluster the receptionist, who often thinks I have just flown in from Downton Abbey. This assumption makes them nervous. It makes me act more stiffly and stereotypically English than usual. 

The researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson originated some very interesting work on the idea of ‘stereotype threat’. They have explored the effect that negative or positive stereotypes can have on human behavior when these trigger messages about who we are, inducing performance anxiety. So, for example, they demonstrated that black college students in the US performed below par on standardized tests compared to their white peers when their ethnic background was stressed beforehand. However, if the black students took the same kind of tests without their ethnicity being brought to mind, then they performed equally well. When Korean American women were asked to take a math test, they performed better when their ethnicity was highlighted beforehand and less well when their gender was emphasized. The pernicious and negative stereotypes are that Koreans are great at math and women generally are not. The research on stereotype threat is ongoing and has attracted some criticism, but the implications for cross-cultural relations are potentially significant. 

In cooperation with the Council of International Schools, I developed a new student survey tool that uses cultural theory to analyze individual preferences for communication and learning styles. So, for example, in the survey, a student indicates their preference for offering individual opinions or disagreeing with the teacher and details their motivations to learn. The results help teachers understand the unique characteristics of each student and how to get the best out of them. So far, several thousand international students from all over the world have taken this survey. 

We have a wealth of noisy data. It is too early to draw any cast-iron conclusions. However, what is becoming clearer is that the nationality with which students identify often does not match the stereotypical answers we might expect from them. For example, we are noticing that many Chinese students give more individualistic answers than Americans. Many South Korean students state that they are more comfortable with direct communication than German students. What I am beginning to suggest to fellow educators is that the very worst label we can apply when we accept a new student is their nationality. If a teacher’s stereotype of a Japanese person is that they are formal and polite, then they may make a new student more reserved and less active in the class by relating to them in that way. 

How can we balance our need to make sense of our world with sufficient open-mindedness not to box-in our relations with other cultures? There are sensible answers to this conundrum. The first is starting from a place of cultural sensitivity. It is likely that your meeting in Switzerland is going to start right on time, so be punctual. It is likely that a Catholic nun from Spain does not want to high-five you straight away. We can apply what we know about cultural norms in a new place judiciously, but we remain fluid in our understanding. We are ready to change these first assumptions as needed. 

The art of intercultural relations is being able to signal cultural sensitivity and awareness of complexity and individuality within that frame. We must be ready to stretch, break or throw away the cultural frames that stereotypes can impose upon our cultural encounters. It is also helpful to think about how you want to describe yourself when you meet someone from another culture. If you just say, ‘I’m English’, or ‘I’m Spanish’, for example, then you are initially trapped in that box.

What might be a better response for you?