Stereotypes – The „typical“ German, Chinese or Indian - Katja von Glinowiecki
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Stereotypes – The „typical“ German, Chinese or Indian

A few days ago, I visited the conference „Women in the Digital Future: Breaking through Stereotypes, #BreakingBias”. The event was organized by professor Isabell M. Welpe, Chair of Strategy & Organization at the Technical University of Munich. Sounds good, right? Many women and a few men listened to the key notes and visited the panel discussions. The topics presented were inspiring; the participants were encouraged to share their experiences; and many recent studies about the issue were discussed, mostly relating to media, education and economy. Regardless the context or specific topic, the tenor was simple enough: We have to break with stereotypes and move beyond simplified generalizations.

How does this relate to my field?
I work with stereotypes on a regular basis. I think they have merit and utilize them often to explain cultural phenomena and characteristics. It is a rather subconscious method, a simple approach to illustrate typical cultural behavioral patterns. Of course, I know that every human being is an individual, and that stereotypical generalizations don’t always apply.

The prototypical German does not exist – you know, the one who punctually and accurately works on his project plan, who always separates the recycling, who isn’t exactly spontaneous and complains a lot. The same rings true for THE Chinese – who has no manners, spits on the ground, who eats only rice and drinks only green tea, and who masters the art of KungFu. Or the Indian, for that matter, who is poor but happy, living in a chaotic and dirty slum and waiting, as an uneducated but devout Hindu, for a better life next time around.

The human brain uses stereotypes to process information faster. In contrast to our fast brain, we use our slow brain only 5 % of the time. It takes more energy and time to analyze a new situation. Why is it problematic, then, to utilize more or less widely-shared stereotypes? It is the thin line between the useful stereotype and the harmful prejudice that potentially trips us up.
Everything I just said about THE German, Chinese or Indian, those sets of characteristics are no stereotypes but prejudices. That is, they are no fixed patterns but emotionally charged opinions. If we don’t reflect on those notions constantly, and revise and re-evalue them, we consolidate prejudices that are used by our fast brain in cognitive pattern recognition.

So what to do about it? Engage with foreign cultures, people and societies; travel, explore the new, be open and enjoy what is different. Those experiences engage the slow brain and will keep prejudices in check – and will help you see stereotypes in a different light.