We talk about cultural differences a lot on this blog: “Indian parents tend to worry about X, Y, and Z when their children are getting married.” “My husband grew up in a culture where it wasn’t okay to do A, B, or C.” “Lego people of South Pacific descent enjoy conga lines and grass miniskirts.”
This is a pretty sensitive topic. In talking about cultural differences, I’m careful to not make too strict generalizations – I’ll hedge what I say by emphasizing I’m talking about my own, personal experiences, or suggest that a group seems to act in a certain way, or that some (but not all!) people from a particular culture do a particular thing. But it’s impossible to avoid making any generalizations at all about cultures or to keep from categorizing people – and silly to even try.
Human beings thrive on making categories and developing generalizations. Evolution equipped us with these abilities for our own good. Any caveman hunter who couldn’t figure out that the grazing animals & the sharp-toothed animals belonged in different categories, one labeled hunt and the other avoid wouldn’t last very long. And the gatherer who used his experience with the different categories of plants to generalize about what was tasty and what was poisonous tended to survive a bit longer. This is a good thing! We’re talking about the beginning of science!
So we can’t avoid making generalizations, and, anyways, they seem pretty darn helpful. However, when we move onto categorizing and generalizing people & cultures, we run into a bit more of a problem. People are just so… complicated. And there’s so many of ‘em! Do you really think that any of us can easily make a generalization that will, for example, apply to all one billion Indians in the world? Really? Even Indians have major trouble with it – most anthologies about the subcontinent have at least one or two essays devoted to just trying to describe what, besides birthplace, connects this vast, diverse group of people. (My money’s on cricket, but I’m just guessing from my personal experience.)
The rest of this post is on how we can use our little analytical minds for the forces of good generalizations, rather than for the evils of stereotypes. How can we create useful categories for the different people we meet? And then how can we accurately and fairly generalize about these groups, given that we’re going to generalize some anyways? And finally, how can we avoid from moving from a generalization to an unfair stereotype?
Creating categories – blonds & brunettes should suffice, right?
When my Indian husband, Aditya, first came to the US, he had difficulty identifying differences in white faces, particularly with girls. To solve this problem, he ended up lumping all the young women on his dorm room floor first semester into one of two categories: “blond” or “brunette”, and leaving it at that. I’m not sure if there weren’t any redheads on his floor, or if there were so few that he could manage to tell them apart without the need for another category. Either way, he was definitely missing out on, oh, about 95% of the “subtle” differences that any American who’d lived through high school could see in his floormates – that one dresses preppy, this one is the classic girl-next-door, here’s a girl jock. Forget about noticing the “tells” of each type – Aditya didn’t know half these social categories existed!
Of course, he can pick out a North Indian from a South Indian with ease. And he’s very good about guessing which caste an Indian belongs to, just off of a person’s name, language, clothing, and the like. See, these are the categories that often matter in India, so these are the ones he learned about. We all make categories based off of our needs in the society we live in. Or, to put it another way, the sociologist Joel Charon*** says
… we isolate a chunk out of our environment, distinguish that chunk from all other parts of the environment, give it a name, and associate certain ideas with it. Our chunks — or categories — arise in interaction; they are socially created… Much of our learning is simply aimed at understanding what various categories mean, and this involves understanding the qualities that make up those categories and the ideas associated with them.
So what does this mean for those of us who discuss cultural differences?
- We should be aware of the limitations – and strengths – of our personal categories. When I first started dating Aditya I didn’t realize just how diverse Indian culture is – Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis were all pretty much the same group of people in my mind. And it’s not just me: consider the use of the pejorative Paki used in Great Britain for all South Asians.
- Categories are not absolute things; instead they develop as our social needs change. Since meeting Aditya, I don’t group all South Asians together. Instead, I have many different categories for Indians – Calcuttans, Bengalis, Mumbaiers, urban folk, village folk, the different castes, and so forth. I’m not saying that I know all about these groups, or that I can even distinguish between one and another, but I do know enough to recognize that they’re different enough to need separate mental categories.
- A category is a tool for understanding & organizing knowledge, and nothing more. You shouldn’t judge a person based on which category he does or does not fit into. Duh! Categorizing is only a good thing if you use it to understand why people have different qualities. Knowing that Aditya was an Army brat who moved around a lot, for instance, helps me understand both his need for travel, and his desire to put down roots somewhere.
- Categories are unlikely to all-important for understanding any individual. This is basic statistics – even if you develop good categories, and accurate generalizations about that category, that information will likely be of only some help in understanding any particular individual. Sure, most people who grow up moving from place to place (like Army brats) tend to enjoy travel – but I’m sure there’s a decent number who hate it. And, when dealing with any one specific individual, how are you to know which type you’ve got on your hands? Everyone belongs to multiple categories, and even the sum of all those categories doesn’t tell you everything about a person. (I suspect there’s a whole post just in this point.)
Generalizing about generalizations – the good, the bad, and the ugly
We’re all individuals, right? So isn’t generalizing about people always a bad thing, since it denies people’s individuality?
Well, yes and no.
Bad generalizations - aka stereotypes – are worse than plain ignorance. Accurate, nonjudgmental generalizations can be a useful tool in understanding others.
The problem with generalizations based on categories is that it is very, very difficult to do them right. As I pointed out above, humans are so complicated, and humanity is so diverse that it will never be possible to make an absolute claim about any group of people. And it’s difficult for individuals to even make a fairly accurate generalizations, given their limited personal experiences with any particular group. I think Dr. Charon goes to the heart of the matter when he defines what, exactly, a generalization is:
A generalization describes the category. It is a statement that characterizes objects within the category and defines similarities and differences with other categories. “This is what an educated person is!” (in contrast to an uneducated person)… When it comes to people, generalization is very difficult to do well. The principle reason for this is that we are judgmental, and too often it is much easier for us to generalize for the purpose of evaluating (condemning or praising) others than for the purpose of understanding them.
So how should you deal with cultural generalizations?
- Never, never, never use them to judge, only to understand. The moment you start to view a cultural generalization as a good or bad thing is the moment you fall into stereotyping. This doesn’t mean you can’t judge actions that other cultures sometimes take: I have no problem taking a firm stance against female infanticide (a fairly major problem in some Indian states), and I’ll condemn any Indian that does such a horrible act. However, it’s a big jump from saying “Indians who commit infanticide are horrible” to saying “Since Indian culture in some circles encourages female infanticide, Indian culture is horrible and all Indians are horrible.” Doing so would be ignoring the numerous Indians who speaks out against this social problem.
- Try not to base your generalizations on personal experience alone. There are a million and one reasons why you shouldn’t try to make cultural generalizations from personal experiences, but they mostly boil down to the fact that people are biased. You’re biased, I’m biased, all the children of the world are biased. As I point out in my About Page, I’ve had significant contact with exactly one extended Indian family of one ethnicity from one region (and I have a few good Indian friends, but still…). I’m lucky if I can predict what Aditya will be doing tomorrow – I’ve got a snowball’s chance in heck of making any accurate sweeping pronouncements about Indian culture in general. I do have some mental generalizations, of course – as I pointed out above, it’s impossible not to. But, whenever possible, I try to base my generalizations on things other than just personal experience…
- Look to the social sciences for accurate generalizations. There’s a whole army of sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and the like who make it their lives’ work to scientifically study different nations and cultures. While they don’t always get it right, as an insider I can tell you that most of ‘em try awfully hard to develop theories based off of accurate, unbiased data. I don’t expect you to read academic journals to understand everything the world, but if you’re really interested in a subject, try, say, reading blogs by the experts in those fields to make sure your generalizations have at least a passing familiarity with the real world.
- Recognize that any generalization is tentative and subject to reevaluation as new evidence comes in. There’s an economist at Harvard, Emily Oster, who made her career a few years back by showing that some of the “missing girls” in Asian countries – suspected of being the victims of female infanticide – were actually “missing” because of the effect of Hepatitis B on the reproduction system. It was suggested that the virus changed the expected gender balance of fetuses, although the exact biological connection was unknown. Well, the big story in economic circles this week is Dr. Oster’s newest paper, where she shows that Hep B actually can’t be a major factor in the “missing girls” problem. I say major kudos to Emily Oster for admitting her error, and changing her stance in light of the new evidence. Try to emulate her, and accept that all generalizations are subject to change with new data.
Stereotypes – how to recognize them
I think that you all are smart enough (and I’ve harped on it long enough) that I don’t need to tell you why stereotyping is a bad thing. But because I’m really the type to harp on these things – and I want everyone to be absolutely clear on this matter, I’ll give it one more go, by once again using the clear prose of Joel Charon:
Stereotypes are highly oversimplified, exaggerated views of reality. They are especially attractive to people who are judgmental of others and who are quick to condemn people who are different from them. They have been used to justify ethnic discrimination, war, and systematic murder of whole categories of people. Far from arising out of careful and systematic analysis, stereotypes arise out of hearsay and culture, and instead of aiding our understanding of the human being, they always stand in the way of accurate understanding.
Okay, that’s the last time I talk about why stereotypes are bad (in this post, at least!). But now that we all know exactly why they’re so horrible, let’s discuss exactly what is a stereotype. As Charon points out, a stereotype is a specific kind of generalization, one that is likely to lead to bad & inaccurate beliefs about the category being generalized. The things that separate out the s-word from regular generalizations include the following:
- A stereotype is judgmental. The person who holds a stereotype about a category believes that people belonging to that category are somehow better or worse than others because of certain characteristics they hold. If I said “Asians are generally shorter than other ethnicities” I’m not indulging in a stereotype unless I’m somehow attaching a badness or goodness to this fact.
- A stereotype tends to be an absolute category. By this what I (and Charon) mean is that people who hold stereotypes rarely recognize that there are exceptions – perhaps many exceptions – to the rule. Rather than using a generalization as a tool to understanding, they use a stereotype as an ultimate statement.
- The stereotype tends to be a category that overshadows all others in the mind of the observer. That is, the sterotyper fails to recognize that we all belong to many categories, some of which are more important to our personal identity than others.
- A stereotype doesn’t change with new evidence. This goes back to bullet point number 2 – even when you point out many counterexamples to the stereotype, the person holding it will still believe that the stereotype is generally true & useful. It’s like arguing with a wall.
- The stereotype wasn’t created carefully in the first place. Most people who hold stereotypes base them off of limited personal experience, or what they’ve learned from others who aren’t informed by data either.
- The stereotype doesn’t encourage a search for understanding why human beings are different from each other. Stereotypes focus on increasing the chasms between people, rather than making bridging the differences through understanding. Obviously, this sort of attitude does not bode well for intercultural communication and relationships.
The bottom line
You can’t help generalizing about cultural differences, as it’s the main way humans organize knowledge. What you can do is recognize how and when you’re generalizing, and take steps to make them as accurate and useful as possible.
Think about the way you categorize different groups of people. Are there big swaths of populations that you group under one heading? Why? You can’t break every population down into tiny categories, but recognize where you have good, distinct categories, and where they’re a bit fuzzier. Be open to developing more categories as you learn that what you thought was one large group is actually a number of small, interrelated groups. And be aware that others have different categories from you – so they’re understanding the world in a fundamentally different way from you.
Think about the way you form generalizations. Always question them. If you don’t know much about a group, consider doing a little scientific research, rather than relying on what you heard a few years ago from some dude at a party. Emulate Emily Oster, and be open to reevaluation as new data & experiences come in. Remember that your generalizations are only one small tool when dealing with individuals.
And, finally, always challenge stereotypes. That’s the only way progress happens in intercultural understanding.
*** A great deal of the theory behind this post should be credited to Dr. Charon, and his excellent essay Should We Generalize about People? from his introductory sociology textbook Ten Questions (1995).