Top 7 Cultural Generalisations and Beliefs

There are some pervasive beliefs about cultural similarities and differences that I hear bandied around not only by people I meet casually, but even (bless them!) by some family members who should know better after living with me as an aunt, cousin or daughter for so many years.  While none of them are downright racist or malicious, uninformed good intentions can be just as damaging. 

Multicoloured and multicultural

Variety is the spice of life

1. Live and let live, I always say…

Great in theory, but in practice it often covers the sin of not being at all interested in the Other, and wishing to banish them to some kind of ghetto.  Out of sight is out of mind, but that is not living together in good cultural integration.

2. Underneath it all, we are all human…

Again, beautifully idealistic statement, but how often is this used to deny difference?

3. Everyone travels nowadays, so we all know different cultures.

I’ve written a blog post about this before but I will just reiterate that, although travelling does broaden the mind, it depends on whether you travel with an open mind and try to get to know the different countries on a more in-depth level than just the beach, the Hilton, the Margarita…

4. Everyone speaks English, so why should I bother to learn anything else?

Estimates vary (and figures can change rapidly), but indications are that between two thirds and three quarters of the world’s population does not speak English.  Besides, the English that does get spoken in different parts of the world may be quite different from what native speakers might be used to.

5. English is THE language of the Internet.

It certainly used to be, but the percentage of Web content that is entirely in English has decreased dramatically in recent years, while Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and German are catching up.

6. I have nothing against these people in general, but why can’t they be more like us (when it comes to democracy or religion or crowd behaviour or business etiquette or…)?

This is the big one and a source of frustration to many when interacting with different cultures or setting up a business abroad.  All I can say is that my parents, husband or children are not very much like me either… although I have nothing against family in general!

7. I’ll be fine when I move abroad, I don’t need any preparation.

Some will be and some will not.  Those who are fine may be so purely by chance, or because they have a company or spouse or friend who makes life easy for them.  Some may be ‘in survivor mode’, rather than truly enjoying their life in another country.  Some may be counting the days until they move back.  Isn’t that sad?  Aren’t those years too part of your life?

While it is true that no one can prepare you for every single eventuality and emergency of your life abroad, having some idea of what to expect will ensure that you don’t rely entirely on luck to thrive in your new location.

What other generalisations have you heard which amused or frustrated you?  And how do you respond to them?



Filed under Globalization

5 responses to “Top 7 Cultural Generalisations and Beliefs

  1. Sanda,What frustrate me the most is people who have been living their whole life in the same place and tell me I am lucky to be an expat !!!! Hey it is a choice and hard one, so luck has nothing to do whit it !

    I agree that no matter how many times you moved you need to do your homework and I mean a LOT of research and networking (mostly virtual) before moving to any country or even another city in the same country.

    Speaking English in an English speaking country does not automatically make you familiar to the culture traits, social etiquette, lifestyle etc.
    I have a very good example: We started living in the US in New York City, my child was a baby so did not get the headache of school hunting and rentals were limited due to cost of living in Manhattan. We just Loved it! The second time we moved to Atlanta and I was not prepared before moving and it was a big culture shock! Drive-in Starbucks and pharmacies, the malls, the countryside, the big houses and huge portions of food in restaurants and much more specific cultural things about Atlanta.

    I stopped talking about my experiences abroad to my family after I came back from my first expatriation in Japan to my hometown near Paris in 1991. Nobody was interested to learn my personal stories good or bad. I stopped asking my nephews’ birthdays and send checks for Xmas. For years we did not bother to come back to Paris for the Christmas family reunion and enjoyed a well deserve vacation at the beach instead. Guilt free !

    • Sanda – a great blog and your observations are spot on! As an expat and and non native speaker of English, I have worked with people from all over the world.

      Many people make the assumption that as long as you can speak English, you’ll be fine anywhere and in any circumstance, and that doing business will be easy. However, communication is far more than the words you use to convey a message, and needs a fair amount of cultural understanding plus the sensitivity that goes with it.

      I particularly agree with your ‘live and let live’ comment. Often when I see people apply this approach, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they tolerate any differences. Sometimes they just expect the others to be tolerant so they themselves don’t have to change or adapt.

      Such a complex topic!

  2. I am really bothered by travellers (whether tourists or expats) who expect people to understand English everywhere – and think them uneducated or
    “lesser” if they do not.

    I hadn’t thought about most of the other points before – but I see it now! So many of those “tolerant” statements enable us to sweep real and legitimate differences under the carpet.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tanya (several ones, actually, thanks for reading my blog entries). I also really ‘like’ the English-speaking travellers who just repeat the same sentence (usually quite a complex one) really loudly or slowly when they are talking to someone abroad. And the speakers of Latin languages will engage in what they call ‘sports language’ (i.e. gesticulation, miming etc.)…

  3. Hey, really great blog post… I’ve enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy. I actually work for the CheapOair travel blog. If you’re interested, we would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail: gchristodoulou(at)cheapoair(dot)com, and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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