Stereotypes vs. Generalizations

What is the difference between the following statements?

  1. Latinos are closed to outsiders; they only do business among themselves.
  2. Trust is important in the Latino community; to do business, you first need to build relationships.

In intercultural conversations, we make a big distinction between stereotypes and generalizations.  If you remember only one idea from this conversation, remember this: 

  • Generalizations are helpful.
  • Stereotypes are hurtful.

These two concepts are often confused because they both involve making broad statements about a group of people.  This is where the similarity ends.

When we make a generalization, we are attempting to look at the behavior of many people and note similarities.  While we do this, we focus on being descriptive and not judgmental.  We are also able to modify this broad view if we encounter new examples which disprove the description we are trying to make.

On the other hand, stereotypes tend to lock people into categories with the idea of limiting that group.  Stereotypes seek to make judgments rather than to describe.  Once we make stereotypes, we then are reluctant to modify them.  

In the examples we mentioned earlier, statement #1 uses judgmental words like “closed” and “only.”  By contrast, statement #2 gives examples to describe (and not judge) interpersonal behavior.  We can use this second statement to inform how we might approach Latinos for the purpose of doing business.  

The first statement gives us a negative view which doesn't allow any flexibility or growth; this negative view will be retained in our subconscious (where we don't think about it) and can influence our future interactions.  On the other hand, the generalization of #2 gives us actionable knowledge which may (or may not) be borne out in individual interactions with, say, Venezuelans or Mexicans, for example.  We don’t take the generalization as iron-clad, but it gives us principles to consider when we enter into relationships with members of that group.

Here’s a useful summary to keep in mind.

Generalizations are helpful because they

  1. are used consciously and analytically
  2. are descriptive and flexible
  3. seek to be accurate
  4. are an attempt to capture similarities and principles
  5. are constantly modified by new input

Stereotypes are harmful because they

  1. are used unconsciously and reactively
  2. are judgmental and rigid
  3. seek to be simple
  4. are an attempt to limit and pigeonhole
  5. are fixed and not open to revisiting

I hope this distinction is useful to you. Let us know if you have good examples of generalizations that have helped you in intercultural situations

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.