The mission of AFS is rooted in cultural diversity. In our efforts to act and respond appropriately when interacting with people from other cultures, it is necessary that we understand the existence of and difference between cultural generalizations vs. stereotypes.
When the word culture is mentioned in the AFS context, it is often thought of from the perspective of national cultures due to the nature of AFS work. However, culture is much more complex than that. Within every national culture, there are dominant cultural patterns, as well as countless sub- or co-cultures with values, attitudes, norms, and behaviors that are not necessarily the same as those of the dominant culture. There are also cultural patterns for religions, age generations, and social classes, among others, that are not necessarily related to national borders or even geographical regions.
Being aware of and understanding the patterns of the cultures to which one belongs (nation, age, gender, etc.) provides the basis for understanding other cultures and their sub- or co-cultures. Cultural generalizations can help us with this process.
Cultural generalizations involve categorizing members of the same group as having similar characteristics. Generalizations are flexible and allow for the incorporation of new cultural information. They are a type of hypothesis, or guess, of what we expect to encounter when we interact with a certain culture. This flexibility can subsequently lead to increased cultural curiosity and awareness and thereby improve intercultural relationships. Generalizations are a necessary part of intercultural communication as they can help us to anticipate, sort, and make sense of the new information and sensations we experience in intercultural situations. Cultural generalizations can be used as a base to build upon, while we continue to seek out more information about individuals from other cultures.
An example of a cultural generalization would be “People from Country X tend to have an indirect style of communication.” Cultural generalizations allow for individual difference and help build cultural awareness. Cultural generalizations must not be applied to every person within a culture group, however, and must not be confused with cultural stereotypes.
Generalizations become stereotypes when all members of a group are categorized as having the same characteristics. Stereotypes can be linked to any type of cultural membership, such as nationality, religion, gender, race, or age. Also, stereotypes may be positive or negative. For example, a positive stereotype would be “Participants from Country Y are good students” or “Host families in Country Z are great hosts to participants.”
Stereotypes, however, tend to be more negative than generalizations. Also, they are typically inflexible and resistant to new information. They can, and often do, lead to prejudice and intentional or unintentional discrimination. A negative stereotype may be “People from Country A are superficial.” Whereas cultural generalizations give us a starting point from which to continue learning about others, cultural stereotypes do not allow for individual difference and interfere with efforts to understand others.
To better understand this difference and cultural continuums, dig deeper into the AFS article “Generalizations & Stereotypes” from which this Culture Point borrows.