Stereotyping in the age of inclusion

Last week I stumbled onto an interesting phrase in a personal finance blog I read occasionally.

…knew to negotiate like an Indian — meaning he recognized that he has more control in his relationships with companies.

On first glance, the phrase “<action> like an <ethnic background>” seems offensive.  Try it yourself, plug a few in there, negative or positive.  In general it ends up sounding ignorant, maybe even hateful.  The fact that the author is Indian leads me to believe this wasn’t his intent, of course, and when you read a follow-up comment on the blog you get a clearer picture of what is going on here:

Spent some time backpacking in India … I realized I was very undergunned when it came to negotiating with the auto-rickshaw drivers. After six months, I could hold my own.

So one possible meaning here is that there are opportunities for confrontational negotiation in the Indian culture that are not in the US culture.  I asked the author of the post for clarification but he didn’t respond, so I can only guess.  But for someone in a global corporation, interacting with people from different cultures (even in different cultures) every day, this isn’t just an academic question.

I took the opportunity to discuss this with a few co-workers at EMC.  It’s easy to compare this to, say, a class offered internally which helps managers understand the cultural norms and how they differ in some of the countries in which we operate.  You might hear a story about how employees in the US and employees in India tend to react differently to authority figures, for example.  In fact, if you extrapolate out a bit, you can think of similar examples around personality types — creative people do this, while analytic people do that — or gender, or religion, or … you get the point.

So how do you accumulate knowledge about cultural (or other) differences without resorting to stereotyping?  Here’s one metric:

  • If you’re increasing your toolset and adding new things to think about in your interactions, you’re being inclusive of differences.
  • If you’re creating mental shortcuts to limit what you think about in an interaction, you’re picking up a stereotype.

For example:

Joe manages a multinational team and holds regular staff meetings.  At the close of each he invites discussion and sometimes the debates get heated.  He expects his team members to question his decisions in these meetings to help make sure the best decision is being made.

Joe does some reading and learns that culturally, it is not common to publicly express disapproval with authority figures in China.  Up until now, he had assumed everyone was comfortable with his style.  What does he do with this information?

  • Does he use this as a mental shortcut and assume his Chinese staff members are incompatible with his style, and change nothing except how he interacts with those staff members?
  • Or does he add the fact that some people aren’t comfortable with this type of debate to his leadership toolbox, and try to be inclusive of other types of group decision-making, not just for those individuals (who may or may not even have a problem with it) but for everyone on the team?

Our first instinct is to stereotype.  Don’t be ashamed of that.  It got us to where we are today — apes who can’t learn not to eat poison berries won’t survive long enough to reproduce.  But we’re not apes any more, and while generalizing is an effective risk avoidance technique it carries a high opportunity cost.  Apes who assume all berries are poisonous just because one made them sick are really missing out on some delicious and nutritious foods.

Evolve a bit.  When you learn about a new behavior, a new cultural norm, a motivating factor … put it in your toolbox.  Use it as a reason to make your style more inclusive of everyone.  Don’t take the easy way out and start putting all your co-workers in buckets.


#1 Stephen Foskett on 08.10.09 at 8:29 am

Right on, David! Right on!

#2 Amit on 08.10.09 at 9:27 am

In the age of Political Correctness, opportunities lost and found are best judged by a mixture of Instinct and Experience. I guess that would summarize what you said above.

#3 The power of language – what does sexy mean? | Adventures in Corporate Education on 08.11.09 at 7:00 am

[…] colleague Dave blogged about this yesterday. He has a really good post about stereotyping. We all do it, its part of how we build our world […]