By and large, we all agree that stereotypes are bad. It’s unfair to assume that every southerner is a redneck or every northerner is rude. We know it’s wrong to judge an individual based on his or her skin color, accent, education, etc. Yet, we should also realize that stereotyping is a necessary function of our brains that allows us to make quick judgments based on past experiences and learned information: “This is a small red chili pepper, I can expect it to be spicy.” or “This is a growling dog, I can expect it to bite me.” In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains this paradox: “Some stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences, but the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct an false, are how we think in categories.”
Without question, stereotypes are an unavoidable necessity for navigating cross-cultural settings. We need to learn how groups typically interact in order to avoid embarrassing situations and to correctly interpret the behaviors of others. For instance, failing to shake a person’s hand isn’t always a sign of disrespect and refusing to look someone in the eye doesn’t necessarily signify dishonesty. Learning the differences between cultural norms can save us a world of misunderstanding and frustration.
However, learning stereotypical differences can only get you so far. Being a cross-cultural superstar requires you to move past the stereotype and discover the individual. The greatest cross-cultural challenge is to force our lazy, stereotype-loving brains to push past the differences to uncover points of commonality. In their article, To Connect Across Cultures, Find Out What You Have in Common, Andy Molinsky and Sujin Jang argue that “by focusing on similarities you have the power to create connections and build relationships that either supersede cultural difference or make them irrelevant.” Shared interests or even values provide a more solid foundation on which to build a relationship of trust. Moreover, focusing on similarities triggers a strong psychological effect called the “similar to me” bias. This bias can positively affect cross-cultural relationships in terms of creating liking, understanding, familiarity, and psychological (emotional) safety. (The “similar to me” bias can sometimes be negative when it comes to bias in hiring decisions or performance reviews – but that’s another post for another day.)
What’s most important in successfully navigating cross-cultural relationships is to approach them as a learner. Ask questions and apologize for mistakes. Most people are pleased and eager to share about their culture and their own stories. Positioning yourself as a learner also creates a climate of psychological safety to others by communicating a position of vulnerability. In other words, humility begets approachability and invites trust.
If you are considering a cross-cultural assignment or even if you’re already there, we’d love to help coach you across the often tumultuous sea of cross-cultural adaptation. Contact us to learn how we can help.