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Intercultural Learning – moving with and beyond stereotypes

Expat, intercultural learning, intercultural sensitivity / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

Intercultural Learning – moving with and beyond stereotypes

One thing that became clear was that the more I moved around and interacted with people from different cultures, the stronger my stereotypes became. Given that I was now in daily contact with many different people from all over the world, I needed to have some quick guidelines about what to say and how to say it, what to focus on, what small talk topics were acceptable and which would result in icy silence, what values to push when negotiating successfully, etc. Basically “stereotypes” became an important tool for success, so what happened to the “we are all deviants” idea? How could those two concepts be
consolidated? Well, my standard phrase at that time was, “My stereotypes have become stronger and richer but I am also quicker to drop them when faced with an individual who is a deviant and does not fit my stereotype”. Today I would say that I had more sophisticated “cultural general categories” (instead of “stereotypes”) that I used to prepare for interactions with people. I would use them as a hypothesis to be validated or not, when dealing with a specific individual. My understanding of “stereotype” now is the rigid application of an assumption that will not change when faced with different facts, rather trying to make the person fit the category. I have to say it was quite liberating to be able to use “cultural general categories” without feeling I was stereotyping. Again curiosity helped greatly to fine-tune those categories and observations.
The next stop on my journey was a three months stop-over in Mumbai where I “starred” as an extra in Bollywood movies, while my husband was working on a project and we were both waiting for our Brazilian visas to come through. Yes, we were on our way to Brazil. While we had envisioned celebrating the coming of the year 2000 with lots of other revelers on Copacabana Beach, we were stuck in Mumbai, where locals had a different calendar and thus no real concept of the Western New Year, and the particular significance of the very special New Year 2000. With the few expats that had travel bans imposed on them by their respective employers, so they could be on standby for the hyped “millennium bug” (remember the big catastrophe that everyone prepared for and that never was?) we celebrated in Mumbai, let’s say rather less glamorously than we would have on Copacabana…
After arriving in Brazil, I quickly learned the concept of relativity…in the sense that it matters greatly from which point of view or previous experience you are looking at things. I remember joining an expatriate newcomers club meeting, as the only Western expat arriving from Asia. When we had to introduce ourselves also sharing some of your observations, my fellow expatriates from Europe and North America noted the chaotic traffic in Sao Paulo, the supermarkets that were less well stocked with European or American food than the ones they knew from home etc. For me it was the exact opposite. After driving in Bangkok and Mumbai, driving in Sao Paulo felt wonderfully orderly and composed. After extremely few “European style” supermarkets in Thailand, and no supermarkets in India, the local supermarkets in Sao Paulo were pure bliss. They even carried Italian coffee and Parmesan cheese, the real one! Most of the expats felt “alien” in Sao Paulo, while I could finally blend into the crowd. As a tall, blond and white woman it was impossible to disappear in the crowd in Asia. I always stuck out like a tall (or was it “fat”?) nail.
So it’s not the facts themselves, which cause our impressions and feelings rather our previous experience and the current standpoint from which we look at a given situation. What we have considered “normal” so far will inform us about what is, and is not, “normal”. Just as my grandma used to say, “One man’s pleasure is another man’s pain,” even more obvious when living internationally.