Generalisations and Stereotypes: How culturally adept are you?

To touch upon a controversial matter emanating from our “International Communication” debate, I would like to put the following questions to you:

° How do you define cultural stereotypes and generalisations?

° As far as cultural inappropriateness is concerned, how do you generally comport with a situation in which you can’t approve of someone’s inept behaviour?

° When you go abroad, do you adopt “protective measures” to safeguard your dignity as well as to avert cultural misunderstandings?

° Can you think of a formula or recipe one could publish in the “Mars Visitors Guide To Adequate Intercultural Behaviour”?

Quite a few questions, I know. Anyhow I can try to rob my piggybank for pennies for your thoughts :o

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  • A cultural stereotype is a general set of assumptions about a culture and its people, which allows for no exceptions.

  • A cultural generalization is a general set of assumptions about a culture and its people, which allows for exceptions.

As a rule of thumb for this forum, if I criticize Europeans or Middle Easterners, although I allow for exceptions, that is considered by Europeans to be a cultural stereotype. If a European criticizes American, no matter how categorically, that is considered “truth”.

  • Inept behavior: I don’t like the term you used, but if someone, in all innocence, makes a cultural gaffe in my presence, I deal with it diplomatically, either by instructing him or ignoring the goof, if it’s not important. If the person has a sense of humor about his cultural bloopers, then we have a laugh over it. Sometimes, however, someone will make a cultural error because of a refusal to respect his host culture, and then I may berate the person. It has to be something very insulting, however. I often berated other Americans when I lived in Europe, and I sometimes berate Germans and Poles in the US, because in my environment they are the people most likely to refuse to adapt. (Note that I said “most likely”, Ralf, Stew and Alan.) Often I run into Arabs who won’t adapt, but sometimes I agree with their reasons for not adapting, and I don’t say anything. It’s not worth even mentioning a cultural maladaptation if it doesn’t cause any serious trouble or insult.

  • I don’t use any protective measures to avoid misunderstandings other than to read up on the culture of the place I’m going to. I don’t do anything to safeguard my dignity, because that’s not important, and if you enter another culture, you’re bound to lose your dignity from time to time. It’s part of the fun.

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Thank you for your reply. Your allusion to empathising with some Arabs you have met sounds quite interesting. Could you elaborate on that?

Why is that? This generalisation (or “rule of thumb”) seems to either hint to your very personal position on this forum, or imply that since you are an American subject, there is some kind of subliminal sensation that opinions of Americans generally do not tend to receive due respect.

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First, I’m an American citizen. We do not have a monarchy here, and no one is an American subject.

I can’t explain the reason for the phenomenon I’m talking about. I simply find that here and elsewhere, when an American makes a cultural generalization, he has to make a big show of acknowledging the possibility of exceptions, or else some European will accuse him of peddling stereotypes. It is not enough to include expressions like “in many cases”, “often” or “some” in his generalization. He has to make a big show of acknowledging exceptions or he will be attacked as a bigot. Meanwhile, anyone who is not American can make any sort of generalization he wants about almost anybody – even stereotypes, even very false and inflammatory ones – and he will not be accused of stereotyping. As I say, this happens not only here, but in other places as well.

A similar situation exists in American society between blacks and whites. In a classroom, for example, anyone can purvey any sort of generalization or stereotype about whites that he wants to – including downright bigoted ones – and he is usually not challenged. However, if a white professor makes some generalization about any sector of black society in the US, he has to do a big song and dance about how it doesn’t apply to everybody, that there are exceptions to this generalization, bla bla bla, or else he will be accused of being “prejudiced” and of “stereotyping”. He has to do this even though everyone KNOWS that there are exceptions to the generalization.

The generalization doesn’t even have to be negative for someone to be accused of prejudiced stereotyping. Once I mentioned in a class that the American publishing industry knows that the largest consumers of contemporary art fiction are among Jews and gays. This got angry glares from a lot of students. However, this is not some made-up judgment but a fact that has been discovered through statistical marketing research. They know this the same way that they know the average Cadillac buyer has less education than a typical Ford Taurus buyer. Secondly, what’s wrong with reading a lot of modern high-level fiction writing? I would think that’s a positive thing and shows culture and a high level of literacy. However, because I am a straight white man, and my statement included the words “Jews” and “gays”, it was taken a priori as a bigoted statement, even though it was true and not negative.

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America is weird… They seem to fight for the equality among all the races and all the American people and at the same time they single out each one those races and groups of people (I’m talking about gays, women, black). You have to decide which side you’re on. If the blacks have the same right as the whites, then if I beat up a black, dont call it a hate crime.

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Hi Jamie,

How do your students know you are a straight man?

All the best


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There’s a strange battle going on between Americans who want everyone treated equally, and Americans who want to promote a cult of victimhood for minorities, so that the minorities get special privileges. It largely breaks down on party lines, so that Republicans usually want color-blind equality, and Democrats usually want minorities singled out and given special privileges. The people who want to give special privileges to minorities claim it should be done to “achieve equality”, and they claim the idea of a “color-blind society” is “racist”. It’s very Orwellian.

Hate crimes laws are basically a device to put more white men in prison. It bothered somebody that street crimes are predominantly committed by blacks, and to a lesser degree by Hispanics, so they needed a way to make things “equal”. For years they tried doing this by going after white-collar criminals, but that wasn’t effective, so now they’ve instituted this whole concept of “hate crimes”, which is really a crime for thinking something and should be unconstitutional. Right now we’re trying to resolve a situation in which, based on court decisions, defacing a Bible or an American flag is legal free speech, but defacing a Koran is a “hate crime”.

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I wonder when people will realise that white men are being discriminated against in many Western societies. As women and minority groups gain special privileges that white men don’t we are clearly entering an era of a new group of people being seriously discriminated against. Perhaps we should work for true and undiluted equality instead?

All the best


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OK, I understand that American society as such – probably just like most societies – evokes many a controversy. Your entries definitely show that your very own society predetermines your position on encounters with cultural circumstances even more different from yours.

I’d like to get back to something Jamie said.

Why make a big show? I can see the cultural difference there, but the big show is not appreciated everywhere.

Yet it is true, probably most Europeans think that Americans are too preoccupied with themselves. It is probably fair to say that there is a common assumption in Europe that Americans do not get a proper inside into things other than what is broadcasted on FOX and CNN. And there are many Europeans who feed their opinion on visits to the United States. When I first went across the big pond in 1993 I was asked questions ranging from “Is Ireland the capital of California?” to “Have TVs yet been imported to Europe?”.

You have those kind of people in every western civilisation. However, would you not say that America’s geographically isolated situation makes for something that is more widely considered as “ignorance”? And, do you think it fair that other countries accuse America’s world-wide policies as wild-west conduct?

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The American has to make a big show of acknowledging the possibility of exceptions because it’s not enough merely to hedge his statements normally. He must loudly and explicitly proclaim the existence of exceptions, because if he doesn’t, the European will accuse him of stereotyping.

If he says, for example, “Many Europeans are ignorant of the United States,” some European will understand that as, “I’m a great big American, and I say that ALL Europeans are ignorant!” Because of this, the American has to write, instead, “In my personal opinion, based only on my limited experience, it appears to me that perhaps many – but certainly not all – Europeans might possibly be ignorant of the United States, but of course I don’t meant that every European is ignorant of that one country, and of course it may not be their fault.” Even then, he still runs the risk that a bunch of Europeans will attack him as saying that “Europeans are ignorant.” Europeans, on the other hand, are allowed to make quite ignorant, categorical, stereotypical judgments of Americans or anyone else, and other Europeans won’t attack them.

Which happen to be the only American news sources that most Europeans know about, and most of them don’t even know about FOX. What they’re actually saying, then, is, “I know of only one American news source, and I only understand part of what people say on it, but because I don’t like it, and I’m already predisposed to anti-Americanism, I’ve decided that Americans are too preoccupied with themselves.” This is idiotic, because daily we all have HUNDREDS of available news sources, which would not exist if Americans didn’t read them.

A couple years ago, the deputy secretary of the UN attacked “typical Americans” for being illiterate news consumers. What was upsetting him was that most Americans wanted the UN held accountable for is monumental corruption, which they do not allow outsiders to investigate. He was an idiot. Other Europeans make similar ignorant public statements about us, usually to the effect that we’re illiterate imbeciles.

Much like my students in Europe who wrote things like, “Munich is on the northern coast of Germany, across the Danube from Hamburg,” who thought Miami was in Brazil but didn’t know where Brazil was, and the European bank employee who thought that South America was part of “America”, and that he could therefore move there and have the same standard of living as in the US and Canada. When told that many stores in the US stay open 24 hours a day, one German remarked to me, “But who wants to work 24 hours a day!” It hadn’t occurred to him that the employees worked in shifts.


No, it isn’t fair. Europeans respond to every problem by organizing a gab fest. Hitler has taken Poland? Let’s talk about it. He’s shipping people to the gas chambers? Well, maybe we can make him understand our point of view. Serbs are trying to exterminate all Muslims in Bosnia? Let’s sit down at the table and spend several months discussing what we might want to do. It doesn’t matter how many people are exterminated in the meantime – maybe all of them will be dead – but the important thing is the “peace process”.

By doing this, the Europeans let every problem get so out of hand that they can’t handle it themselves. Then they wind up expecting the Americans and Canadians to get tens of thousands of their men killed in order to rescue them from trouble that they could have stopped very early with minimal loss of life, if they’d had the will. This has happened at least three times in the past 100 years. On the American side, we therefore view the Europeans as preferring to chatter about dangers rather than confront them. You’ll frequently hear, “The Europeans are only interested in talking, and if we don’t do something soon, it’ll mean getting millions of our men killed to save them.” Meanwhile, the Europeans, in their self-absorbed arrogance, call the Americans “cowboys” when we don’t let dangerous problems get out of control. In fact, they’re so ignorant that they don’t even realize that the word “cowboy” is a compliment to us, denoting something quite different from the image they have.

And that constant reference to “wild-west behavior” results from an ignorant cultural stereotype.

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Jamie and EU hit on a hot issue these days: the double-standards of the race “crisis”

Is it right (possible, really…) to legislate racism in order to stop racism?


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Greetings Jamie(K), Ralf, Stew, Alan, Torsten & everybody in this cultural discussion round.

I have obviously noticed that there is a heated discussion going on between Jamie(K), Ralf, Stew and a few others which involves some insults or sarcasms.

I have not been here long enough to read everything to determine the attitudes and origins behind it all, so I won?t add any criticisms or platitudes and certainly don?t wish to get the last word in.
I will, however compliment you all on what I?ve read so far.
I have been quite impressed with your written articulations and expressions.

Now, I would like to support Jamie(K)?s view as an American living in America and his experiences in working with immigrants of many countries who have come to the land of milk & honey and have difficulties or simply won?t adapt to their new culture.

First, we have to acknowledge that Jamie(K)`s experiences are real and cannot simply be dealt at the turn of a hand or with a few condescending statements.
I?m a very positive person and until now have only taught English to Germans. I don?t know what it?s like to teach a class of mixed nationality. Maybe my positive attitude will get beaten up. I doubt it, but it could happen so who am I to judge.

Secondly, Jamie(K)?s negative reaction to the Germans or Arabs or whoever, I would say comes from a man who is doing his best to help these people and is sincere.
When he has to confront people who are resentful and don?t wish to change and be flexible to their host country and are also insulting into the bargain, it is no wonder that Jamie(K) feels mishandled and reacts as he does.
But like most experiences, it?s all sent to test us and if it doesn?t kill us, we will grow and it will make us strong and probably immune.

I have similar experiences here in Germany and I have personally met or even worked with very nice Stasi and Nazi types and of course the bad guys. Sometimes I get real pissed off with the hard cases but they are in the minority and the rest of the Germans I meet are just decent human beings. I also live in their country so I have to adapt and be more understanding - which I am - but I still maintain my dignity and values.
If I am confronted with a person who is rude or bad mannered I tell them in no uncertain terms what I think of their behaviour ; that has more to do with their upbringing and personality and not their culture.

Thirdly or finally, that many immigrants who come to America don?t appreciate all the western customs and values - which is OK - but I think some bring with them or develop a certain resentment and animosity to Americans because of some trauma they?ve experienced directly or indirectly via the USA?s politics.
Especially the religious hardliners who then think that the country that hosts them doesn?t deserve their respect and even need converting to their doctrine. Worse, that Americans are lower than them in morals and values.
What many of these people don?t realise is that maybe 50% of Americans don?t agree with the present politics and have to suffer just as much as they do when they are abroad.
They need to understand that Americans are also decent caring people and have to work hard to survive as any normal working person.
When I see beggars on the street in L.A. or New York then that is just as excruciating as a beggar in India, Brazil, Africa, Indonesia etc. that?s no bloody life.

I think these are the three main points relevent to what Jamie(K) is trying to defend or get across.

There are many German people who resent the so called “foreigners” in their country and their judgements can be felt with just as must penetration as that of any religious fanatic who thinks they know better how to think for you and run your life. Germany has been a “melting pot” for many nations since the last war but some Germans don?t want to recognise that and that is also quite OK. It is after all their home and culture.

The first time I experienced anything near a culture shock at home on the GB island was when I lived in a small town in England on the coast where an Indian family took over the local red Post Office and started selling clothes like on a market stall beside the good old British postage stamp. I like Indian people and their culture, but still it was bit uncomfortable at first.
That was 24 years ago. Today, you will see Indians with businesses all over the British Islands and not just in Post Offices and I think that?s quite OK.

Another wierd cultural experience was when I was in the car export business and dealt with an importer of German cars in Glasgow, Scotland. On the phone he spoke with a strong Glaswegian accent but his name was ~ Singh and came from Pakistan.

A Frenchman, German, Spaniard, Norwegian etc. would also feel a bit uncomfortable in such a situation until they got used to it. The same goes for an Asian or African who will feel the same with a European visitor.

Let?s face it - one day on this planet there will be a race of tan.

Everybody will have the same skin colour and we will all be earthlings discussing the influx of migrant or guest workers from Mars, Jupiter, Pluto, Antares etc.

Take a look at the “Star Trek” TV series or the “Star Wars” films.
Gene Rodenberry and George Lucas have given us a clue to the future.

I?m sure we?ll all be part of it in our next life.

Best wishes, Bruce.

Hi Everybody,

lost_soul & Jamie(K) wrote about … Equality in the US and the ensuing discussion making it?s political rounds.

Think about it !

Equality is a judgement.

Ask yourself whose judging?

Equality is unfair! (Is that a joke … or not?)

Who the f… wants to be equal?

People want to have the freedom to be themselves, they don?t want to be equal.
Did somebody bring Lenin back to life.
This is just one more dichotomous psychological trick to keep everybody busy, steamed-up and all bent out of shape that they can?t see the wood for the trees.
That?s what people in power do.
They continually create idiotic concepts.
We are looking at and arguing about a bullshit problem (created by them) that doesn?t really exist so we don?t look at those who are controlling us and trying to steal our life (and money) from us.
That?s the real trick.

And naturally, this bullshit problem is going to cost a whole heap of tax payers money. Read my lips …

Has anybody read George Orwell?s book Animal Farm lately. Or maybe 1984. Or Auldous Huxley?s - Brave New World. That?s where we are all headed if we carry on listening to these political idiots and don?t stop playing their stupid life wasting games.

Let?s stop judging and start living.
What do you think will happen to these made up problems if we stop giving them energy and sooooo much attention?

Best wishes, Bruce.

During my first year in Germany, I found out that I had a better concept than quite a few Germans did about where exactly in Germany Munich is located. I remember being quite dumbfounded about that. I also heard regular criticism that ‘Americans don’t know this’ and ‘Americans don’t know that’, but those same critical people were ignorant of tons of things that are quite well known on the other side of the pond (geography as well as other things). Speaking of geographical ignorance/misconceptions, I remember once being tickled pink by some German tourists who were talking about things they wanted to see and do while they were here in the US. They told me they wanted to visit Niagara Falls and Washington, DC. Now, that’s fine, but their initial idea was that they could drive to and visit both places in one day (with NYC as the starting point)! :shock:

This is a very true and critical observation. For the first time in the country’s history, a rise of xenophobia can be observed in Ireland today. Never before in its history was Ireland considered a country of immigration. People emigrated to all kinds of foreign countries, and as far as I know generally well received. Even people from the so called arch rival England do not regard the Irish as foreign matter in their country. At least not today. Now that there is an influx of immigrants, many people openly resent the Polish, Russians, Lithuanian, Rumanian, etc. As long as you leave speedily you’re all right, but please don’t stay.

I don’t subscribe to that. I have experienced enough prejudice from a very early age on myself. Being called a Nazi, Jew hater and war loser in primary school just because it was known that my father was a German is something I have learnt to resent.

I utterly despise nationalism in all its ugly shades. If someone feels cornered just because a comment made on his country and then triggers measures of self-defence, it simply reveals the person’s weakness. And if self-denfense is hence used as an excuse for a counter attack, vulnerability can turn into danger.

I have never been to Greece, but I show enough respect, at least, to pronounce gyro “year-oh”, which I think is roughly how it would be pronounced in Greece.

You stand in line here and hear, quite frequently, the following American screw-ups:

  • Gai-ro (hard G)
  • Jai-ro (soft)

In my illuistration, “ai” is meant to convey the vowel-sound in “hi”.

Same with Spanish – many in Nashville pronounce Buena Vista (it’s a road here) as “BYOO-na VIHSta” instead of “BWAYnah VEEStah”


Des Moines (IA) is pronounced “d’moin” by the locals – which I think is more or less how it would be pronounced in French.

Meanwhile, Des Plaines (IL) is pronounced “Des Planes”

I try to pronounce things they way they’re pronounced in their native language, and sometimes get irritated when others do not. (minor pet peeve)

It is interesting to read that you see the correct pronunciation of a word as a sign of respect for a culture. I think so too. In Germany people are terribly fond of English words, and it is at times confusing to hear 3 different phonological versions of a word from different speakers. Maybe you could take it as a sign of respect, more rather as a sign of a mysterious affinity with the English language. In Britain and Ireland people are less careful with foreign words. Just ask yourself how you would pronounce words originating from French in a very Anglophile way, and you have the answer.

So maybe this circumstance could be called the American tightrope. If I understand you correctly, an American can’t help but voicing their opinion in a loud and explicit way in order to get heard. And if he does so by making a big show, he is likely to be accused of Hollywood behaviour and self-righteousness.

Hi Ralf

I think you have misunderstood Jamie. But, I’ll wait for Jamie to confirm that rather than try to speak for him.

Well, I think he was implying that the “big show” meant as much as having to state generalisations in an elaborate and politically correct way, whereas Europeans do not need to take such measures in order to clarify their cultural adeptness.

Since this whole discussion has somewhat inevitably drifted off to debating American specifics, I must admit I was deliberately pushing it into the Hollywood corner to tackle yet another American stereotype/generalisation.