This question elicits a range of responses, from defensiveness to relief.
In my work, I am careful not to stereotype when talking about Japan and how people generally do things in Japan. Or conversely, when discussing the United States and how people generally behave in the U.S.
This choice is practical because stereotypes are misleading, and may result in loss of business.
2 Ways Stereotypes Mislead You
1. Stereotypes are like good lies, convincing but unreliable.
Stereotypes are often a mishmash of apt observations, outdated information, and arbitrarily formed opinions.
A common stereotype is like a good lie. It mixes just enough “truth” with tons of “lies” (outdated or skewed perspectives) to make the whole thing convincing.
2. Stereotypes focus on the “average person” and block out the individual in front of you.
Even when the generalization is accurate, you still run the risk of treating an individual like a “general person.”
Generalizations can be based on actual statistics or on exposure to many people who appear to fall in the same category. Those generalizations give you a feel of how the majority population behaves. The individual you are dealing with may or may not be a part of that majority and share that general trait, however. The best you can do is to make “educated guesses” based on other information, what we call ‘cultural knowledge.’
What Can You Do?
To navigate cultural differences, you need a deep sense of self-awareness and concrete cultural knowledge.
But when I talk about the importance of specific cultural knowledge, I often get pushback, saying, “No, we are all people after all. We should treat people as individuals on their own terms.” I suspect this is because many people associate understanding cultural difference with stereotyping.
Stereotypes can shut down communication. Cultural knowledge makes your communication more effective.
Knowing that some people don’t appreciate being told they are beautiful when you are having a professional meeting with them—that’s cultural knowledge.
Knowing that some people can’t eat pork or pork-derived foods for religious reasons—that’s cultural knowledge.
Knowing that some people might say “maybe” and actually mean no—that’s cultural knowledge.
Some people accumulate cultural knowledge through a broad range of experiences such as reading, traveling, and meeting many people from varied places.
When you are aware of differing cultural backgrounds, you can ask yourself questions that smooth your interactions. Imagine these situations.
Politeness is expressed differently. Is looking someone in the eye polite or rude?
Gratitude is expressed differently. Do you express your gratitude with words or actions? How much expression of gratitude is too much? Are the times and occasions for expressing gratitude the same?
Regret is expressed differently. When do you apologize? How do you apologize? How much do you apologize?
If you are just meeting someone casually and you don’t have to work with them, you can afford to experiment as you go along. In fact, in a personal relationship, working through your differences can become a bonding experience. And if you don’t ‘click’ you can each go your separate ways.
On the other hand, what if you have to work with someone? When parties trust each other, the collaboration is more likely to succeed.
For that, you want to go in prepared with as much cultural knowledge as possible. Part of that is anticipating potential points of conflict because of different cultural assumptions.
You will be amazed at how having concrete cultural knowledge combined with deep self-awareness can lead you to see the individuality of the person in front of you. They will appreciate that and so will you.
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