Cultural Stereotypes: Superficially Humorous but Potentially Harmful

Written by: Gustavo Lequerica-Calvo

Cultural stereotypes may seem humorous but they can harm people. While many people understand and accept this as true, a “case study” approach, in the form of personal testimony, is often more valuable than a truckload of research.

This article is about my own personal experience with stereotypes. I rarely write in the first person, but this is a topic that merits a deviation from my journalistic practice of assuming a neutral voice. What I have to say is valuable to anyone interested in cross-cultural communication, because stereotypes are an extreme example of cross-cultural miscommunication.

Stereotypes are Distorted Taxonomies

Most likely, all of us grew up hearing comments from our parents or peers about certain individuals or the way they acted. At some point we began to wonder why our parents or friends had said something awful or funny about a person having to do with their being gay, Jewish, Black, Latino, Chinese or a member of some other identifiable social or ethnic category.

When we were young, we probably didn’t have a name for this sort of comment, but as we grew up we learned to label such comments as stereotyping or bigotry. Stereotypes are generated by ignorance and fear of a person or group that is different from the observer. When we first heard the comments, we may have found them funny, even if we realized their inherent cruelty.

On one level, people need to classify everything they encounter in order to know how to deal with them and define themselves as members of their own group. Thus, in certain social situations stereotypes serve to provide “answers” to questions about how we should act toward others. The problem is that stereotypes are distorted taxonomies: incorrect maps of the sociocultural landscape. Just as a distorted map would cause a traveler to become lost, so do false impressions about people and groups cause individuals and indeed, whole societies to lose their moral compass.

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