On Defeating Stereotypes

earth-11015_150The Danger of Generalizations

Recently, I overheard two women discussing an earlier business meeting. “I couldn’t believe how rude that guy was! French people are all so rude,” one angrily said. The other agreed, “Well, yeah, this is now the second time I’ve dealt with that kind of rudeness, so you’re definitely right.”

Whether we readily admit to it or not, we’ve all likely been guilty of making assumptions about a culture. Even if we don’t say it out loud, we’ve perhaps thought about it. Sometimes, we even fall ‘victim’ to it. As a Dutch native, people ask if I “smoke marijuana all the time,” or why I don’t “look more Dutch” (i.e have blonde hair and blue eyes), or if I own “lots of wooden shoes,” (okay, the latter is actually funny). As far as the Polish half of me goes, I’ve gotten the “dumb light bulb” jokes, I’ve been asked if I eat pierogies every week, and if Poles drink “vodka with most meals.”

I’ve laughed most of these assumptions off. Nevertheless, they can also be hurtful as people question part of your identity. Assumptions often stem from short interactions with those who supposedly “represent” a country. If these interactions are in any way negative, stereotypes are easily born. Faulty assumptions can spiral out of control into a continuous, dangerous phenomenon of making blanket statements.

Why do people make generalizations? Is it because they feel they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone? Is it out fear? Or, worse, is it out of ignorance for some? 

“Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance. ” – Plato

One interaction should not taint our views of all people of a country. It’s scary when people generalize, because how can one be so sure about something based on limited interaction or knowledge? Blanket statements are nothing more than glossed over opinions, which doesn’t speak to what people know, but rather what they think they know.

It’s even scarier when people readily share opinions when they, in fact, know nothing about a particular subject or people. If you’ve never interacted with a foreigner, how can you “know” that the “French are rude,” or that “Asians always carry cameras everywhere,” or that “Italians are constantly late” or confirm any of the other stereotypes out there? You simply cannot know.

Dispelling Stereotypes through Travel 

Travel allows us to expand our world views and can help dispel stereotypes.

1. Be Open. Instead of assuming things, go into travel with an open mind. That one instance of a “rude French man” should not translate into an overall view that “all French people are rude.”

2. Highlight individuality. Think of people as individuals, rather than automatically lumping them all together.

3. Ask questions. If you have any preconceived notions, fight them by interacting with locals. Be informed and find out for yourself what’s important to someone else, and how you can learn from someone. Don’t rely on the bias of others.

4. Do your research. Research a country before you visit, to be informed as best you can be about its history, traditions, and more.

5. Break down barriers through language. Learn at least a few words in a foreign language of the country you’re visiting. People will appreciate your efforts to communicate.

Your Take

How else do you fight stereotypes? Have you ever been stereotyped (share a story in the comments)? How does travel help?

23 thoughts on “On Defeating Stereotypes

  1. Nicolette, the 2 countries where I was pretty much laughed at for learning any of the language were Sweden & The Netherlands. The general reaction was: (giggle) “we speak English here” but I still try to learn the basics before going on an International trip.

    1. Weird! I wouldn’t laugh at you for trying Dutch, and I am Dutch. 🙂 It’s always funny though, because we want to practice a language that’s foreign to us, while the locals often would love to practice the language that YOU’RE speaking. I’ve noticed this when going to Spain. I wanted to practice my Spanish, and the locals often tried to make it easier by speaking English (they wanted to practice, too).

      1. TBEX is in Stockholm, so I’ll find out if anything has changed since I was last there in 2005. Really looking forward to the long summer days in Scandinavia! Last time I went it was November (5 hours of daylight).

          1. Haha, seriously! Same here! Would be amazing! Are you going to New York Trav Fest in April? If you haven’t gotten a ticket yet, I’m happy to share a discount code if you’re interested.

  2. Great post – thought provoking and often a topic on my mind!!!!
    This is a typical scenario – I think at some point we have all probably been guilty of doing this. I know I actually said something derogatory about another culture today! This was because I was angry at the particular person for doing something rude, and not offering an apology. So, to be fair I don’t feel guilty for saying something as a dig at them. They were awfully rude to me!
    I do think most times these stereotypes or cultural discrimination exist purely because people by nature, regardless of culture, are bitchy, vindictive, enjoy calling each other nasty names, feel generally uncomfortable around new people, feel entitled to feel superior and are even jealous (mostly jealous, as this is the cause of 99.9% of all bad feeling and hatred).
    I have experienced cultural stereotyping too though; here in Spain people think I’m Spanish because I have dark hair. They think all people from the UK are blonde and blue eyed (not sure why). I have explained this is a myth, and I am not Swedish (another cultural stereotype, but not meant as vindictive)!! Also people from the UK get the bad rap as drunkards, yobs, loose women and football hooligans, when of course other people from other countries also share these bad behaviour traits!
    I don’t like stereotypes, but I think it is something we won’t eliminate. Many people seem to be naturally distrustful of one another, and guarded when they are out of their comfort zones, also, unable to adapt to new cultures. It seems most people prefer sticking to their own culture, especially when the ‘chips’ are down (it is something to unite against, disliking other cultures). It is so sad, but so true (for most people)!!!
    Thanks for posting, Bex 🙂

    1. Hi Bex,

      I like how you mentioned looking at individual behavioral traits and how people respond to situations when they’re out “of their comfort zones,” which plays a big part in stereotypes perpetuating.

      “Many people seem to be naturally distrustful of one another, and guarded when they are out of their comfort zones, also, unable to adapt to new cultures. It seems most people prefer sticking to their own culture.” — I especially loved your points made here. The distrust is an unfortunate byproduct of bias and hearing things through the news or maybe even word-of-mouth about a culture. Again, it’s so dangerous to just assume things based on one or two experiences with people of a country – what are these beliefs founded upon? one bad interaction? It’s a sad reality for some.

      1. Thanks, appreciate that. Yes, what you say is very true. People view one person as a representative of everyone in a country or one bad experience as the norm for that country. I believe it is very sad too, and it would be great if such things could change.
        Thanks again, Bex 🙂

  3. Sterotyping is natural, and we all do it. What I try really hard to do is 1) not to judge, and 2) remember that everyone is an individual. I loved how you brought that up as one of your points.

    Stereotyping (there are both positive and negative stereotypes) is a dangerous intersection of probability, misunderstanding, and short-cut-thinking. When we interact with someone, we’d be insensitive if we didn’t try to understand something about who they are. A person dressed in a suit is likely to desire to be treated differently than a person dressed like a hippie might want to be treated. But even this stereotyping is super dangerous, and can only be a starting point. Everyone has their own back story, and everyone is an individual. Women are more likely to vote Democrat. Majority? Yes. All of them? No, of course not. We need to use thinking shortcuts in our daily lives otherwise we’d go crazy. But my can they be dangerous if we are not aware of them. tellingobservations mentioned how being a tourist made her more aware of her stereotyping of others. Such a great observation.

    I have no idea what this website is, but it recounts one of my favorite parables, which is essentially about how dangerous it is to stereotype and judge, originally by the author Stephen Covey: http://www.naturalhealthstrategies.com/health-paradigm-shift-03-the-power.html

    1. Thanks for sharing your take/the article (should be a good read), Marc! I like your perspective on stereotyping being at the intersection of “probability, misunderstanding, and short-cut-thinking.” I think the danger lies in people not seeing a problem with stereotyping, and it then translates into becoming the “norm.” Looking at individuals for who they are, and what they have to offer is far more telling – i.e. considering that everyone has a “back story,” like you suggested.

  4. I am careful not to stereotype others. People sometimes make assumptions about me based on me being from Kansas. People often think I am a gun-toting, ultra-conservative redneck, but I’m not.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Brian! Yeah, it’s unfortunate that people assume things (in general), but also about different states they’ve never actually visited. Generalizations are so dangerous! Luckily, not everyone is that way, and people see the value of travel in opening up views.

  5. Great post! I remember a school trip to London earlier this year. As American tourists, we were well aware that we would be stereotyped as loud or rude, and our teacher told us to try and defy this stereotype as much as we could. What I found most funny, though, was that we ourselves began to stereotype other tourists! After a few sentences the group would come to it’s senses and someone would say something along the lines of “We’re being a bit harsh” or “I mean, we’re tourists, too”. It’s so important to step back and reexamine a situation like this, especially while in a group where people can get swept up in a pack mentality.

    1. Hi there! Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping and for sharing your story! It’s funny how the tables sort of turned, and stereotyping happened of other tourists. Like you said though, it’s good to observe that behavior and interesting to notice the “pack mentality.” I like what you’ve written about on your blog so far 🙂 Looking forward to more posts!

  6. Thanks for your post! I couldn’t agree more here. It’s so sad when people base everything they know off of one conversation with one person from a country. As an American, I’ve been stereotyped a few times and it gets ridiculous. People have asked why our politicians meddle so much, and if that’s how all Americans are. And they always assume I love football and only eat burgers. I do like football and the occasional burger, but can you get any more silly?

    1. Hi Nicky,

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your stories. It does get silly when people base things on what they hear or see as well. Football and burgers are so American, but to assume that’s all you eat or watch…well, it’s sad.

  7. This is a really insightful post. I’ve been generalized before (I’m white so I can’t dance and have no butt, which is true lol) My boyfriend is from Iran and boy did I have some stereotypes about his culture which I found out were mostly incorrect. However, in many cultures there are tendencies of those who live in it. When you are speaking directly to someone of that culture I think its important to forget those tendencies and just observe them as people.
    We are all individuals but products of our cultures. There is good and bad in everyone. Travel however, is the one thing that allows you to see both and then decide!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Liz! It’s tough to not take stereotypes personally, but you seem to have a good approach and sense of humor to it as well, which helps! I completely agree with your ideas about looking at people as individuals, but also as “products of our cultures”! There are definitely tendencies present, but I love your perspective on travel and how it allows you to see the “good and the bad.”

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