This interview was conducted to see the nature of stereotypes. It was conducted on-line with a colleague from Sweden named Pelle Hybbinette. He was 26 years old and studied part-time whilst he freelanced as a photographer and writer and recently started to make film documentaries. He was quick to point out that these things merely defined what he does rather than reflect who he is, which gained my appreciation. He suggested himself a vagabond and indicated that it was very hard for him to settle down somewhere after many years of travelling. During these years he has lived for 6 months in London, for 5 months in Madrid and for 6 months in Barcelona. He has also travelled the globe for a period of one year and spent 4 months in Sydney. I found this very exciting and fascinating and was keen to hear him giving an account of what he had experienced living for several months in different countries and in different cultures. As he had spent quite some time abroad so I naturally expected that he would have gained plenty of experiences which could be related to both topic areas; stereotypes and miscommunication in intercultural encounters.
This was originally to be a piece of research concerned with miscommunication. This was due to enthusiasm for the concepts and findings we had covered in the module so far and I was subsequently curious to find out more. As well as this I had also experienced miscommunication myself in international encounters. Being an Erasmus-student in Nottingham surrounded by students from all over the world this was a common occurrence for me. However, as the research topic of stereotypes seemed to interest both Pelle and I, we had difficulties deciding upon our’ final topic. It took quite some time to establish regular contact and we finally decided to start off exchanging our ideas about stereotypes. We felt that this would be a good foundation from which we could discuss communication.
Stereotypes and Generalisations
Pelle began with his overview on stereotypes and why he believed that they existed. He suggested that they were an essential part of our world view that helped us categorise. He suggested that,
”I think stereotyping comes from our way of interpreting the world, and since it’s very complex and complicated we use stereotypes to make it seem a little less complex. Stereotypes make everyday life easier for us”
During my research I came across a similar description by Tajfel of how stereotypes can be defined. He explains:
‘Stereotypes are certain generalizations reached by individuals. They derive in large measure from, or are an instance of, the general cognitive process of categorizing. The main function of the process is to simplify or systematize, for purposes of cognitive and behavioural adaptation, the
abundance and complexity of the information received from its
environment by the human organism…. But such stereotypes can become social only when they are shared by large numbers of people within social groups.’ (Tajfel, 1982, p.146-147).
This can also be seen by work conducted by Bruner et al who subsequently suggested that categorisation was an essential part of learning and the forming ideas and concepts of the world within the mind (Bruner et al, 1956).
Turning to examples of international stereotypes in communication, Pelle focused upon the stereotype of people from the Alp region of Europe. He explained that,
”I think no one is offended if you put all the people living in the Alps-region into one box… .the stereotypes you mentioned are just images one has in mind when thinking about people from these areas…just as one might think of bullfighters and sangria when thinking of Spain or “the Spanish”..such stereotypes are funny, they don’t do any harm and people are at times even proud of such stereotypes, as they know that this is the way people see them abroad, ”
This appears to back up some of the findings we have encountered in our studies. For instance, we might have certain stereotypes concerning a specific group of people but we may be the only ones who perceive “them” in this way due to our overall perception of the world and the background and experience that we have had in relation to that specific group. Gudykunst suggested in reference to research by Devine (1989) that,
“Some of our stereotypes are unique and based on our individual experiences, but some are shared with other members of our in-groups. The stereotypes we share with others are our social stereotypes. We may know what the social stereotype of a group is, but still hold a different view of the group.” (Gudykunst, 1997)
Essentially, if we hold a polarised stereotype of a certain group of people based upon their specific region or national identity then an encounter with a person from that country will most probably change our perception. This may change our view of the whole people of this particular country and it may also help us to realize that the stereotype we had in our mind was just a generalized image. Speaking on the notion of generalisation, Pelle said that,
”I think the stereotyping lies around the fact that you are close to the Alps. I don’t think the borders are very important in your region. We (as a Swede I speak for the nation!) have opinions about people living in or near the Alps. No matter if they are from Austria, Switzerland or Southern Germany…you know what I mean,..letherhosen, traditional huts, beer, gulash soup. snow and sunshine in the winter. I think you (they) have been portrayed as rather naive, but cheerful get-along-well-with-life-type-of people.”
I found it interesting that Austrians were generalized through the fact that they lived in the Alps, although this was not a completely new concept for me as I know that these stereotypes were common for the region that I come from. Stereotypes, like the ones that we mentioned in our discussion, were according to Tajfel “social stereotypes” and are known to be shared by large numbers of people within specific social groups. They are frequently used in advertisements and throughout the media due to the fact that they are shared and understood by so many people (Hofstede, 1991). It would seem that we all have certain nationalistic stereotypes. For instance, in commercials advertising pasta the image is often a typically Italian showing characters with stereotypical features and Italian accents even if the product comes from another country, such as is the case with the Dutch pasta sauce Ragu. I am of course aware that I have just used a stereotype myself in the previous sentences as I used the presumptuous term “we all”. However, as I was addressing the use of “social stereotypes” then we can assume that a large number of people share such nationalistic images and generalisations within their consciousness, although I could never speak for every mind. Pelle also used these presumptuous terms such as “we”, “you’, and “they” when generalizing about Swedish or Austrian people. This shows the strength of in group and out group identity.
In summary, it can be said that generalizing is never a particularly good thing. We are people and as people we differ. Of course there are factors such as culture, tradition and heritage that combine us and keep people together holding a shared sense of community. However, nationalistic stereotypes are negative and ignorant to any kind of actual truth about the identity of an individual person. Due to this I would like to raise a concern as many people seem to judge and account for the world on the basis of “knowing” what “the others” think. Acting upon the notion of nationalistic stereotypes is very much a divisional and incorrect presupposition and can lead to many dangerous falsities and ways of thinking.
When reflecting about my ideas, beliefs and values and what I have learned about them during this experience, I have found that I cannot only think of my discussions with Pelle and the research I conducted as I have gained more insight from the module as a whole. Our e-mail discussions and the theoretical research being only a part of the overall process I have undergone during this module. The issues raised in class made me aware that I actually think about myself, my beliefs and my values from a cultural stand point I, which has made me subsequently even more aware of the impact that terms such as abroad have on my overall view of the world. All these processes have made me think seriously about many situations I have faced in everyday life. As a consequence, I see many things from a different perspective now. I have experienced what may be called a culture shock and have become aware of my own ethnocentrism and started to reflect upon my perception of the world, the many cultures and the people that surround me. I see many things in a different light now and all of these concepts have contributed to a valuable experience which has broadened my cultural thinking and awareness of national stereotypes.