When individuals or groups from different cultural backgrounds meet, certain preconceptions they have of each other influence their interactions. According to the social constructionist approach, culture is not necessarily based on nationality alone. Biases based on gender, age, social class, occupation, appearance, etc. may equally influence behaviour and communication outcomes, as they can constitute cultural barriers between individuals as well. In the following I will therefore use the term intercultural communication as referring not only to communication between people with different nationalities, but also to communication between members of different social groups.
In this paper, I will first attempt to describe the nature of common preconceptions, i.e. stereotypes, including concepts such as otherisation, prejudice and discrimination, how they influence communication and how they are created and reinforced by the media. To illustrate this, I will use specific media examples. I will then look at whether stereotyping is an inevitable process or whether it can be avoided. I will also address the question whether stereotypes ought to be seen as a positive or negative influence on intercultural communication.
Finally I will try to determine the role stereotypes play in the study of intercultural communication, as some approaches to communication studies seek to discover average tendencies in national cultures, which can lead to similar categorisations and simplifications as in the process of stereotyping. I will evaluate the validity of such an approach and will conclude that stereotypes and categorisations are necessary to a certain degree as a sense-making device, but should at the same time be regarded with great caution.
The nature of stereotypes
There is a variety of definitions of the term stereotype that generally agree about its basic nature but differ in certain additional aspects. For example, Allport (1954) understands a stereotype as “an exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category” (ibid, cited in Gardner, 1994: 3). Taylor (1981) defines a stereotype as “consensus among members of one group regarding the attributes of another” (ibid, cited in Gardner, 1994: 3).
There seems to be common agreement that stereotypes are beliefs about the characteristics of an outgroup or its members. These beliefs can be based on a number of variables ranging from gender, sexual orientation, level of education, and social class to nationality. The characteristics associated with another party can be of a positive or negative nature. Asians are often said to be good at math, while Mexican’s have the reputation of being lazy; Blacks are said to have a natural feeling for rhythm, while Native Americans are accused of having a tendency towards alcoholism – to name just a few common stereotypes.
Stereotypes originate from social categorisation (Stangor, 2000: 2). That means, rather than viewing another individual or group as complex and unique and approaching them without preconceptions, we make assumptions about them based on one or more of the variables mentioned above, and put them in a certain category. We thereby ignore their individual traits, impose a certain interpretation on them and reduce our view of them to a simplified image (cf. Holliday et al., 2010). For instance, when we see a person whose arms are covered in tattoos, not know anything else about them, we might assume they like to listen to punk rock, belong to a gang, do not have a permanent job or drive a motorcycle, because these are attributes that are often associated with tattoos. Once we have assigned a person or group to a certain category, thoughts, feelings and interactional patterns are activated that are associated with that category rather than the actual individuals we are dealing with.
According to Stangor (2000: 2ff), we could likely not do without social categorization. It occurs naturally and is not limited to people, but also extends to types of houses, television shows, music, etc. It is a process that happens frequently, particularly when we are confronted with something or someone new, and we are largely unaware of it. Without this tool to make sense of our surroundings, reacting to new objects, situations and people would become an infinitely more complex, overwhelming process.
Another reason for categorisation is our need for social identity. We achieve a feeling of belonging and acceptance by setting our ingroup apart from other groups through categorising ourselves more favourably than them.
Once we have identified an individual or group as belonging to a certain category, we associate certain characteristics with them according to what “social category label [is stored in] long-term, semantic memory” (Stangor and Lange, 1994, cited in Stangor, 2002: 6). Stereotyping is thus an extension of social categorisation. What kind of mental associations we hold depends on which stereotypes are commonly reproduced in the society we lived in, on what we picked up during childhood and on personal experiences with members of social categories.
Concepts closely related to stereotypes are prejudice, discrimination and otherisation.
In social psychology, prejudice has also been labelled ingroup favouritism, social antagonism, and ethnocentrism (Augoustinos and Reynolds, 2001). These and other terms emphasize different aspects of prejudice. While stereotypes can include both negative and positive characteristics, prejudice can be described as beliefs that attribute negative characteristics, and they usually carry a more emotional component. This involves negative feelings such as dislike, fear, condescension, anger or even hatred, which can lead to favouring members of one’s own group, or discrimination against outgroups. When applied to certain social categories, prejudice can be labelled more specifically, e.g. prejudice based on gender is called sexism, and racial prejudice is called racism (Stangor, 2000). The notion that blond women are stupid is an example for sexist prejudice.