As you’ve seen, every country and community, whether multicultural or monocultural, tends to have stereotypes about other cultures, languages, races, nationalities and so on. In addition, cultural and other groups also have stereotypes about themselves and there is a strong interdependence between the auto-stereotype and the hetero-stereotypes (other-stereotypes) of any given group. For example, if many people in Britain see Spain as a hot, sunny country and think of the French as good cooks and the Germans as humourless, this tells us something about how they view their own country in contrast. Someone from Morocco would not consider Spain to be a hot country with lots of beaches and sunshine, because these features do not distinguish Spain from Morocco. Understanding depends on cultural knowledge and, consequently, communication between members of a cultural group depends on such shared knowledge. Stereotypes form part of the assumed shared knowledge in a community.
While much of this shared knowledge is cultural and may develop on the basis of naive, handed-down theories, personal experience can play a role in modifying stereotypical views. Immersion in another culture, in particular, can influence people’s attitudes. For example, some people who come to live in Britain think initially that the British are ‘cold’ but later on report that their views have changed. While they may still encounter behaviour that they find cold, they have also formed close and warm relationships with a number of individuals and this affects how they think of the British as group.
Read the following slightly tongue-in-cheek article written for a local newspaper in Hackney, East London, and select words from the box below to complete the gaps.
categories ● complex ● distinct ● groups ● identify ● superior ● thinking
Why do we hold stereotypes?
You may well think that stereotypes are something from a past age. After all, aren’t we educated, sophisticated citizens of twenty-first-century multicultural, multi-ethnic Hackney? Yet, we still seem to think that the woman in her eighties in front of us in the post office queue is a poor old dear who finds it hard to get by on her pension. And that the guys in neighbouring Islington have nothing better to do all day than chitter-chatter whilst sitting down to their Heston Blumenthal dinners.
The reason is that stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our  __________. And precisely because our world has become so  __________, we need  __________ and simplifications and we want to  __________ with those we feel close to. We are all members of many different  __________: we are family members, we are staff members at the local library, we are in the rowing team, we are East Londoners, and we want to see these groups as  __________ from others. This does not mean we need to see them as being  __________ to other groups, or indeed, use condescending language such as ‘poor old dear’. But each group is different. My rowing team at the Boat Club is very different from Tottenham Hotspur. And my age bracket is miles from that of the over-eighties (well … for the time being).
Select here to reveal the answer
1 thinking; 2 complex; 3 categories; 4 identify; 5 groups; 6 distinct; 7 superior
Think about your own social and cultural context. Make some notes in response to these questions.
What are some of the popular beliefs about men and women that are held in your country (e.g. men love action movies)?
Are there people of different cultures in your country? What do people commonly think about people of those cultures?
Are there people who speak a different language from you? What do people commonly think about speakers of that language?
Select here to reveal the comment
Your response to the questions will depend on your own cultural context. Here is an example written by one of the authors of this, which shows that attitudes to gender are culturally determined and that a lack of contact can lead to simplistic views of another culture.
I’m from Sri Lanka and in my community women are generally seen as housewives or as working only part-time. Men are almost always the main earners of the family; they hold the power and they make important decisions. The majority of people from a different culture in my community are Indians. Many people have only little contact with Indian families and their views are based on their own limited experience or reflect what they’ve heard other people say. Typically held views are that the Indians seem to cook mostly curry and chapatti, spend many hours working and always have extended family living with them. When they talk, they shout at each other and disturb neighbours. They always greet others by saying Namaste.
In this unit, you have looked at some concrete examples of national stereotyping, including stereotypes of your own culture, and reflected on the concept of stereotype and various ways of defining it. The reason why reflecting on stereotypes is important is because of the role this reflection plays in the development of intercultural awareness, a highly valued skill in today’s interconnected world.
Intercultural awareness has been defined as:
Knowledge, awareness and understanding of the similarities and distinctive differences between the 'world of origin' and the 'world of the target community', including awareness of how each community appears from the perspective of the other, often in the form of national stereotypes.
- Intercultural skills and know-how include:
- the ability to bring the culture of origin and the foreign culture into relation with each other;
- cultural sensitivity and the ability to identify and use a variety of strategies for contact with those from other cultures;
- the capacity to fulfil the role of cultural intermediary between one's own culture and the foreign culture and to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situations;
- the ability to overcome stereotyped relationships.
(adapted from: Council of Europe, 2001)
We hope that, after trying all these activities, you are now more aware of how stereotypes emerge and function.
Council of Europe (2001) Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment. On-line at http://culture.coe.int/lang
Emig, R. (2000) ‘Introduction: contemporary Anglo-German relations’, in Emig, R. (ed.) Stereotypes in Contemporary Anglo-German Relations, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan Press, pp. 1–14.
Greenland, K. (2000) ‘Stereotypes in international relations’, in Emig, R. (ed.) Stereotypes in Contemporary Anglo-German Relations, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan Press, pp. 15–30.
Herbrechter, S. (2000) ‘Cosmopolitanism and (E)Urope’, in Emig, R. (ed.) Stereotypes in Contemporary Anglo-German Relations, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan Press, pp. 187–201.
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Löschmann, M. (2000) ‘With literary texts against stereotypes: stereotypes in language teaching’, in Emig, R. (ed.) Stereotypes in Contemporary Anglo-German Relations, Basingstoke and London, Macmillan Press, pp. 123–36.
McLeod, S. (2008) ‘Stereotypes’ in Simply Psychology [Online]. Available at www.simplypsychology.org/katz-braly.html (Accessed 11 April 2014).
The Open University (2008) ‘Chapter 6: Gender’, in Equality & Diversity in Language and Image: Guidance for authors and communicators [Online], pp. 12–14. Available at http://learn.open.ac.uk/file.php/4832/Language_and_image.pdf (Accessed 11 April 2014).
Oxford University Press (2014) Oxford Dictionaries [Online]. Available at www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/stereotype (Accessed 21 October 2013).
Wardaugh, R. (2010) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell.
This article is part of a wider collection of articles and activities on the subject of stereotypes. You can view the full collection here.