In all of our travels, we should seek to understand similarities and differences. Above all else, we should seek to understand people. For better or worse, most of those understandings start with preconceptions, with stereotypes. Try as we might, we can never completely get common wisdom, wives’ tales, and Hollywood imagery out of our heads. When we meet and get to know someone from another part of the world, most of those stereotypes quickly fade. But if we don’t run into a Korean everyday, if we don’t live next door to an Iranian, stereotypes about those nationalities are likely to dominate our thinking.
Stereotypes are not by definition evil: they are natural, human tools we use to try to make sense of the world around us. I have sat on airplanes and listened to a Dane tell me all about the idiosyncrasies of the Norwegians and Swedes, I have listened to a Panamanian tell me how weird the Nicaraguans are, I have heard Hoosiers from Indiana explain what hicks Kentuckians are. In almost every case, there are some facts or historical experiences that gave rise to these stereotypes. They are not usually complete fiction. You and I harbor plenty of similar stereotypes about people. But always remember three things about stereotypes:
1. Stereotypes Change
In mid-nineteenth century Europe, the Germans were generally thought of as romantic dreamers, while the French were considered militaristic and fanatically nationalistic—a legacy of the Napoleonic wars. A hundred years later, those stereotypes were practically reversed. Had the character of both nations changed completely? Probably not—but the dominant image changed, influenced by specific historic events and trends.
If you are my age, you will remember an America where many thought of Asians as “Gooks.” Our understanding of China was sometimes limited to cliches like, “There are so many people over there, they place no value on human life.” Today, the more common stereotype of Asians is “good at math and science,” and the basic image of China that many businesspeople subscribe to is, “There are so many people over there—and someday they all might drink Coca-Cola.”
2. Relying on Stereotypes Is Dangerous
I remember working with a shopping center developer from small-town Missouri who had begun his career as a plasterer and built his business from nothing. He had no MBA. He made the most of his easy, folksy style. I would sit in meetings where he was negotiating with the “suits” from Wall Street and you could tell that they thought they were taking advantage of him. He’d say “Howdy,” and they’d draw out their HP calculators like dueling pistols. But his understanding of the implications of every clause in the contract was always three steps ahead of theirs. It gave me great pleasure (especially since I was on his side) to see the slickers realize, usually several days later, that they had been had.
If you are dealing with anyone and assume you are smarter than they are, you may already have begun to fail.
3. It’s Unfair To Apply a Stereotype to Any One Individual
No matter how “true” a stereotype may be, it will never be true for every member of the group. There are Asian students who can write novels but are bad at math. Many people used to assume that only white people could play golf. Then Tiger Woods came along.
When you get on that plane heading to a new city or new country, ‘fess up to your own stereotypes – try listing them on a sheet of paper. Then prepare to dismantle them, prepare to grow into a broader understanding. Look hard for the real similarities and differences that all people exhibit.
In my travels around the world, meeting people of all types, it strikes me that there are some major and important similarities that cross borders and cultures. The most striking thing that I have noted about the people I meet everywhere I travel is that they all want to create a better life for their children. Even in those societies where parents are known for working away from their families the longest hours, or driving their kids the hardest in school, they usually do so in the belief that it will make their children’s lives better.
In addition to this core value, there are many small threads of life that unite people around the world. Outside of the United States, the rituals of cigarette smoking are still strong forces that bind people. Back when I was a smoker, I came to the conclusion that the most universally valuable currency on earth was a carton of Marlboros. Other universal languages include movies, sex, sports, and music. Beer ranks fairly high on the same list. Increasingly, the English language is also a bond – starting with a simple “Okay” or “Hello.”
But for every similarity we see, there are probably a dozen differences. This reality came home to me when I was traveling around the island of Bali in Indonesia. My guide, like thousands of other Balinese, was named Wayan. After he got to know me and felt comfortable speaking his mind, he told me that one of the most perplexing things was “Why you Europeans walk so fast and eat so slow.” This statement made me aware that I was a European in his eyes, because of my language, my culture, and the color of my skin. Like other “Europeans,” I tended to walk more briskly than the Indonesian people, but then to stop and linger over a meal that a Balinese might gobble down with no conversation. Wayan could not understand what all the hurry was about when we were walking, if we lost all the time saved when we sat down to eat!
In looking at differences, I think it particularly dangerous to assume that moral values are the same everywhere. To be sure, there are a few virtually universal ethical standards. The world is unified in its opposition to murder and slavery. But there are many other moral areas where standards differ dramatically from place to place. Attitudes toward alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution, abortion, and pornography differ greatly around the world. They even differ within our own country over time – forty years ago gambling (in casinos or lotteries) was legal in only a few states; now it is allowed in almost all. Whether to tip the waitress or not, whether bribes are evil or part of a civil servants’ pay, varies greatly. In Singapore, chewing gum is evil and against the law, while in other countries even ministers do it. No matter what your own beliefs on issues like this, remember that not everyone feels the same way.