Tag Archives: stereotypes

Gypsy Weddings

Is this genuine curiosity or is it prurient ‘peeping on the others so that we can make fun of them’?  I am not entirely sure why people want to watch and then make fun of or be outraged by ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’.

Exhuberant Wedding Dress

Roma or traveller culture is a very interesting culture in its own right and there are some excellent and very readable anthropological books about their life, customs and beliefs about the Gadji (that’s us, non-Roma people).  In many ways, the Romani are much stricter about personal hygiene, morality and drinking than mainstream society.  But of course that’s not going to improve TV ratings, while excessive titles and pictures of larger-than-life wedding dresses might.

I come from an East European country where (thanks to EU integration) the Roma are no longer officially repressed, but they are still feared, distrusted, abused verbally, avoided, ignored and blamed for everything that is wrong with society.  Of course, in return, they take revenge for this state of affairs through petty crime and living up to their fearsome reputation (some of them).  The traveller community in Britain leads an almost parallel life to the mainstream society, so barely registers in visibility, but I find much of the discourse about them very similar.  Fearful, negative or disparaging.

It is a typical example of resorting to stereotypes rather than really learning about and from each other.  I do hope that TV programmes like ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’  will- in spite of the title, the pictures and the laughter in the media – make us slightly more knowledgeable about traveller culture, more curious about other cultures in general and less quick to judge.

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Do not overestimate the importance of culture!

Here is one of the key pieces of advice that I hear most frequently given to people who are thinking of relocating abroad or starting a partnership with a foreign company: ‘Do not underestimate the cultural differences.’  I have repeated this myself, like a mantra, particularly for those who believe they will be operating in nearly identical cultures (UK and US, for instance, or US with Australia).

Always culture...

However, sometimes we can fall into the other extreme.  Blame everything on culture! 

  • No wonder they didn’t laugh at our jokes and we couldn’t create rapport, they come from a culture where humour is not appreciated. 
  • Typical, I can’t believe a word that person says, he comes from a culture where they never say exactly what they mean. 
  • We failed to get the contract because they asked for too many facts and figures, they are too detail-oriented.

Isn’t there a danger there that we are slipping back into stereotypes?  I have suffered from that stereotyping myself, even though I don’t really fully belong to any culture.  And I believe a good many of us nowadays are the products of multiple cultural influences.   I myself have never met or spoken to Hans Average German or Ms. Everyday Russian (despite their frequent appearances in James Bond films).    It is reductionist, over-simplistic and, to be frank, rather insulting to believe otherwise!  We are always establishing a relationship with an individual, rather than a nation.

Besides, isn’t cultural difference sometimes just a convenient excuse for us when we don’t do our homework? 

  • Perhaps our humour did not work because our jokes were actually not very funny. 
  • Perhaps that person is saying exactly what they mean but we don’t want to hear what they are saying. 
  • And perhaps we did not get all our facts and figures straight and just waffled on pointlessly.

Can you think of any other examples where you blamed culture for misunderstandings but ultimately discovered it was a personal thing?  Do share your experiences with us (I’ve got a couple of good anecdotes myself).

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Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!

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What is it about small nations?

Let’s continue for just a few seconds with the World Cup theme: and how the ‘small’ footballing nations (I say small in quotation marks, because by no stretch of the imagination can the US or Australia be considered small nations other than in footballing history) have upset the established giants of this tournament.  How is that possible?  Have all the favourites become too complacent?

Dejected German fans after match with Serbia

One of my friends suggested, somewhat cynically, that players from lesser-known countries have to demonstrate their skills so they can get a lucrative contract with a club abroad.  That is true, but it’s part of the bigger picture, namely that the ‘underdogs’ have little to lose and always something to prove.

This holds true outside the world of football, of course.  If you come from a small nation like the Netherlands or Romania, and no one can speak your language, you take great pride in the fact that you are able to speak several.  If you are a Chinese student in the US, you work doubly hard to prove that you are equal or better than the Americans.  You delight in confounding expectations and stereotypes.  ‘Think I am lazy or corrupt or unpunctual because I am Italian or Greek or Lebanese (insert adjectives and country names as you see fit)?  Well, that will show you, huh!’

You have a chip on your shoulder.  In a good way.  And it’s easier to be agile and surprising when nobody sees you coming.  Because sometimes the reassuring ‘big nation’ in your background is a lumbering elephant that brings with it overwhelming expectations and knocks down trees.

Have you ever felt the ‘big nation’ or ‘small nation’ presence in your life?  Have you tried to confound expectations?  Share your experiences here, I’d love to hear them.

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Two Cultures: Male and Female?

Last night we had a rare Mums’ Night Out and one of the topics of conversation was (inevitably) our children and whether it was easier to have boys or girls.  I think that we came to the conclusion that both sexes had their fair share of joys and challenges, but we also ranted a bit about the gender stereotypes that we felt children were being forced to fit into, even from an early age.

By concidence, at the British Psychological Society’s annual student conference today, one research paper shows that even 9- month-old babies choose gender-specific toys.  

Researchers at City University, London found that, when presented with seven different toys, boys as young as 9 months old went for the car, digger and soccer ball, while ignoring the teddy bears, doll and cooking set.

And the girls? Hmmm, let me see if you can guess… At the same age, they were most interested in the doll, teddy bear and miniature pot, spoon and plastic vegetables.

Well, from personal experience, that was not true, as my older son adored dolls and teddy bears, while my younger devoured imitation food and pans.  But of course, what am I, a single exceptional example, in a sea of data that shows the opposite?

 However, it is also fair to add that from birth (and maybe even before that), parents and other carers respond differently to boys and girls, in words, gestures, behaviours, way of thinking.  These young creatures are like sponges, absorbing so much information in those first few months of life that it is difficult to determine exactly how much is innate and how much is learnt behaviour and preferences.

Lise Eliot’s recent book Pink Brain, Blue Brain:  How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps critically examines all of the scientific evidence to date and explains in very clear language how modest differences at birth between the brains of boys and girls are amplified by social factors and eventually  produce greater anatomical changes in the brain of mature women and men.  So then we arrive at the conclusion that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ – two different cultures, speaking different languages, with different values and meanings, never the twain shall meet.

Book Cover

Latest research on gender differences

What I loved about Eliot’s book is its optimistic assertion (which every parent wants to hear) that the brain is remarkably plastic and can remodel itself constantly based on its experiences.  In other words, we are not stuck with our gender roles, we can make boys more socially and linguistically gifted, we can make girls more analytical and spatially aware. 

The two cultures are not incompatible or unbridgeable.  The two cultures are not even two separate cultures unless we deliberately seek to make them so.  And, as with all national or minority cultures, as long as we are open, flexible, curious and eager to learn more, we will find ways to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all.

Have you found boys and girls to be very different from an early age?  Do you find yourself responding differently to boys and girls?  What can we do to ensure our children grow up with fewer gender stereotypes?

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British heritage and stereotypes

The Heritage Lottery fund has just published some research showing that the heritage component of Britain’s tourism economy is much larger than expected, worth about £12.4 billion a year, and that it’s stable (maybe even experiencing an upturn) during an economic downturn.

But is this news truly surprising?  We instinctively know what tourists value about Britain: history, tradition, pageantry and culture.  American banks try to look like English tudor houses.  The Japanese have recreated an English village called Shakespeare Country Park in Chiba prefecture.  

England in Japan

Whether we like it or not, foreign tourists are here primarily for the Queen and her palaces, for the Beefeaters and bearskin-hatted Royal Guards.  And everyone knows and loves the iconic double-decker red buses, the phone boxes, the village green, the bowler hat.  Tourism is in many cases about reducing complexities into stereotypes:  is that necessarily a bad thing?

I try to think back on my first visit to Britain as a child and my understanding of it then.  I was not much of a Royalist child (except when it came to Cavaliers versus Roundheads in our history lessons), but I did love English culture, particularly literature.  So what was most memorable about our visit was Shakespeare’s birthplace, the statue of Peter Pan, the bookshops in Oxford, Blenheim Palace and a rehearsal for a choral concert we overheard by accident in St. Paul’s.

Stereotypes may be what brings you to a country, but, once you are there, allow yourself to be captivated by complexity.  If you only look for what you expect to find…. you will only reinforce what you already thought you knew at home. 

What I think is dangerous is if those living in Britain start to believe the cliches of the good old days of cream teas and cricket being played on the village green.  Yes, there are some places where this may still be the case.  But in how many places was this in fact the norm in the ‘old days’ and what are we choosing to ignore because it spoils the picture?

Heritage is lovely and it helps pay the bills.   But heritage is also about rich, multi-layered complexity in history, about subcultures within the same national culture.  And if we live here, we should not be content with or crave the reductionist picture most tourists get to see.

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