How We (Mis-)See the World

“Isn’t China is the country where...?”

                        “Latin Americans are always doing...”

                                                “I heard that people in Nigeria like to...”

Misperceptions.  Stereotypes.  Half-truths. We’ve all heard them.  And most likely, we’ve repeated a few of them.

Where do we get these ideas?  Well, when we have gaps in our knowledge, we rush to fill them in with any random tidbit we’ve seen in the media. Or worse, they’re misunderstandings we’ve heard from those around us who are similarly under-informed.  And instead of checking with experts, we pass them on.

Map by Alan Headbloom and Sarah Ignasiak

Map by Alan Headbloom and Sarah Ignasiak

Above is a map full of such bad information and half-guesses about lands outside US-Americans’ personal experience.  It makes two observations: 1) When you come from a particular place, you idealize that place.  You refer to its customs as “right” or “logical.”  This makes you see other places as “backward” or “rude.”  The phenomenon is called ethnocentrism, and it is not restricted to residents of the United States.  Everyone grows up ethnocentric, thinking his/her country is the best.

2) We rely on hearsay, media, and others to form our views of foreign lands.  This makes us lump all “those people” into the same category.  Of course, when we make judgments that all Indonesians or Argentines have certain traits, we limit the chances of real Argentines or Indonesians to succeed in our presence because they will likely miss the marks that we’ve set for them.  (For a useful distinction between stereotypes and generalizations, go here.)

What is the solution to overcoming half-baked judgments about other people?  No way around it.  You need to get out in the world and meet those people.  Better yet, you will travel there and spend some time with real citizens in real places (not tourist traps).  Then you will engage them in real conversation and you will ask them how their lives work and what makes them tick.  The only way to drown out ignorance is through exposure.

Happy explorations, everyone!

“Patriotism is the belief your country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”  – George Bernard Shaw

“Patriotism is the belief your country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”  – George Bernard Shaw


Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.