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David Moser said on February 28th, 2013 at 11:06 pm    

Jason: This is a very important issue you raise, and one we have to confront squarely. It can be uncomfortable, but those of us who do cross-cultural studies know that in order to make useful generalizations, you have to risk skirting the edge of stereotyping. And yes, it’s important to stress the difference. We’ve all been in discussions where someone tries to make a cultural generalization like “the collectivist orientation of Chinese culture” or some such, only to encounter opposition, or accusations of being overly simplistic or racist. I talk about Dick Nisbett’s “The Geography of Thought” every semester with my students, and I must spend quite a bit of time at the outset making this distinction — which you elucidate well here.

The problem of qualifying statements is important. I like your continuum of stereotype-to-cultural generalization. I also want to point out that the cultural generalization can also go too far in the direction of mushy timidity. There surely must be a middle ground between:

“All members of X society have quality Y!”

and:

There is at least some evidence that society X — or at least certain segments of society X — at a certain time in history, have manifested behavior that some analysts — admittedly from an outsider and culturally differing perspective — have characterized as being Y-like — for some definition of Y, that we can perhaps call into question…”

Just for fun, here’s a phenomenon I’ve overheard — and committed — from time to time.

China-savvy American #1: “The Chinese love to categorize the people of different regions and provinces. You know, things like “The Shanghainese are money-grubbing and materialistic”, “The Beijingers love to gab and are very pragmatic”, “The Cantonese eat everything”, etc. They’ve got all these websites and jokes and sayings. They really love to make these regional stereotypes.”

China-savvy American #2: Yeah, you’re so right. The Chinese are really that way. They’re so inclined to stereotype people.

A cultural generalization or a stereotype? I don’t know. I’ve often made these kinds of observations myself.

Another related encounter:

Overseas study student in China (Jewish, from Israel) to me: “Every time I tell them I’m Jewish, they all say ‘Oh, you must be really smart.’ They all seem to have this stereotype of Jews as being smart.”
Me: “I think many of them do. But don’t a lot of Americans have that stereotype, too?”
Overseas student: “Oh no, not ALL Americans.”
Me: “Of course, not ALL Americans. But you just said ‘They all seem to have this stereotype.’ You think ALL Chinese have this stereotype about Jews?”
CET student: “Hmm. Maybe you’re right. You’re pretty smart. Are you Jewish?”
Laughter ensues.

Super useful analysis here, Jason, thanks for putting it out there.

Jason Patent said on February 28th, 2013 at 11:11 pm    

David,

Thanks much for your extensive commentary. I should have pointed out in my post that “cultural generalization” is not my term, nor is it a concept I came up with. I’m not sure who originally did, but it’s become part of common parlance and basic instruction in intercultural circles.

I love the meta-stereotyping about stereotypers. Funny!

I’m presently teaching two courses related to these issues, and it’s funny/embarrassing how often naked, or close-to-naked, stereotypes come out of my mouth. I try to remind people that stereotyping is something we humans just do, and that it’s less about the act itself than it is about how much we believe and act on our stereotypes.

Ed Frauenheim said on March 2nd, 2013 at 2:35 am    

Jason,

Very helpful distinction between stereotypes and cultural generalizations. I really like the piece about intending to understand, and the notion of seeking complexity in the other. Timely for some professional challenges I’m facing at moment, besides a good guide for intercultural exchanges.

Keep up the good work.

Ed

Jason Patent said on March 2nd, 2013 at 8:34 am    

Thanks, Ed. I should have mentioned — and have now added to the post — that the concept of “cultural generalization” isn’t something I invented. It comes from the field of intercultural communication.

Appreciate the support, as always.

Jason

David Moser said on August 28th, 2013 at 11:23 pm    

Hi Jason,
Just out of curiosity, I wonder what you think of Russell Peters and other comedians who sort of deal in cross-cultural generalizations for a living? I actually like Russell Peters (and Lenny Bruce, and Margaret Cho — somewhat — and Richard Pryor, etc. all comedians who deal with race and ethnicity), and some of the people laughing the loudest in his audience are Asians. It probably helps that Peters himself is Asian. But I wonder what you think about comedians or writers who bring out stereotypes and generalizations as the basis for laughter (often cathartic)? Any thoughts on the tricky fine line between valid generalized statements and crude stereotyping? Obviously comedians (and jokes of all kinds) have to walk this fine line. Any Patented wisdom on this?

Jason Patent said on August 29th, 2013 at 12:31 am    

Great question, David. Colin Quinn is another good example, and probably more controversial because he’s white.

To me it boils down to intent: Why are the jokes being made? If it’s to laugh at our collective human folly by pointing out the quirks of certain groups, then I think it can serve a unifying function. If it’s meant to disparage, i.e., to make ourselves feel superior to someone else, then it only serves to divide.

I didn’t touch on this in the blog post, but when I teach this material I talk about intent: stereotypes are meant to deride and divide; cultural generalizations are meant to clarify and unify.

Annie Fan said on October 29th, 2013 at 4:11 am    

in your article, you said that there was a middle ground called cultural generalization in intercultural communication. i am interested in cognitive linguistics. what i want to say is from the perspective of cognitive linguistics. people from different cultures have different frames in their minds. when they talk with each other and if they want to communicate effectively, they need to enter into a new frame that is different from their own yet includes some components of their own and the other’s. i think this new frame equals the knowledge of their cultural generalization of the other people and their own. do you think possessing the intercultural competence means people can enter into another culture?

Jason Patent said on October 29th, 2013 at 9:38 pm    

Annie,

I think your cognitive-linguistic analysis makes a lot of sense, though I think your use of “cultural generalization” in this case is a bit different from how it’s intended in the world of intercultural training and education.

Any abstract frame that captures the specific frame elements of two or more cultures will be a “generalization,” so in that sense your use of the term is apt. The specific sense of “cultural generalization” I discussed in the blog post is meant to stand in contrast to stereotyping.

With regard to your question, it depends on what you mean by “enter into another culture.” I like Milton Bennett’s formulation of switching perspectives: the ability to empathize with people from other cultures — to truly experience the world as others do — is the most crucial aspect of intercultural competence.

I hope I’ve addressed your comments. Please comment again if there’s more you’d like to discuss.

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