Cultural stereotype or cultural prototype?

What is the difference between cultural stereotypes and cultural prototypes?

Why do we make sweeping stereotypes when it comes to dealing with other cultures? This is stereotyping, and it’s all too easy to do. All Japanese are inscrutable. All Germans are efficient. All Americans are confident extroverts.

Expecting all cultures to exhibit certain behaviors is our way of managing our own expectations of the unknown. We all have a need to categorize others and put them in context. Although a stereotypical view at its worst could be called a prejudice, not all stereotypes are bad, and stereotyping is not necessarily a negative activity. But it is a limiting one. Stereotypes, by nature, are fixed and do not change. They may contain a grain of truth, but essentially, they’re oversimplified views. You can veer wildly off course in your understanding of another culture if you fail to look at why a stereotypical viewpoint has developed and what variations on it might exist. So, for example, just because a culture embraces one particular belief, say, Confucianism, you cannot assume that all members of that culture will actually subscribe to that belief, and even if they do, they certainly won’t all interpret it the same way.

“You can veer wildly off course in your understanding of another culture if you fail to look at why a stereotypical viewpoint has developed and what variations on it might exist.”

What’s more useful when dealing with different cultures is to look at prototypes instead. A prototype is an original model which is subject to modification and improvement. In cultural terms, it’s a central tendency, while the stereotype is the assumption that all members of the culture are the same.

Stereotypes and prototypes in action

Take the idea of entering into a new business partnership with a company based in the Middle East as an example. The stereotype would be to assume that the managers are Arabs and adhere to Muslim beliefs. The deal will require lengthy relationship building, because that’s what Arabs like, and your new partners will be tough negotiators, because Arabs, culturally, have a history of haggling.

While this is not an unreasonable assumption, it could be completely wrong. Your new partner could be a Lebanese Christian, for example, or an Indian with Hindu beliefs who has set up a business in the Middle East. They could have been educated in the United States, cut their teeth in a multinational and have much more of a ‘let’s get down to business’ approach than you would expect.

If you take a prototype approach to this new partner, you may form a different picture to what would result if you based all assumptions on stereotypes. For example, yes, you might reasonably assume that because the company is based in the Middle East, where relationship building is important, then this is how they will conduct business initially. You can formulate your initial dealings with this in mind. But you need to look at other factors. Considering prototypes rather than stereotypes means adopting a wider viewpoint. Where else do they have offices? Who owns the company? What is their trading history? Who is the individual with whom you’ll be working, day-to-day? What is their personal management style? What’s the corporate culture?

Next time you’re in a position of doing business with a new culture, stop to think about this stereotype vs prototype approach. You never know – you may even find yourself challenging your own stereotypical views.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.