America For Beginners

Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants

[Video Review] Is American Culture Full of Stereotypes?

Instead of being presented with stereotypes by age, sex, color, class, or religion, children must have the opportunity to learn that within each range, some people are loathsome and some are delightful.  Margaret Mead

This video is both funny and informative as it covers most widespread cultural stereotypes.  It’s perfect in its simplicity and straightforwardness. Some lines might sound offensive but I would not take anything personally since crazy/stupid stereotypes are exactly the point of this song.

I love those fat Americans.
You know they so obnoxious”.

The view that stereotyping is bad has become a conventional wisdom. Somehow, on the surface level, we all agree upon the evil nature of generalizations and we all freak out when find ourselves on the receiving end of it. Nevertheless, stereotypes live and flourish.

Why? Definitions

Stereotypes are characteristics ascribed to groups of people involving gender, race, national origin and other factors. These characteristics tend to be oversimplifications of the groups involved.

If you think of it as a side effect of categorization, however, you can conclude that it is quite natural. People need  to categorize, or, in other words, to group objects so that the world would make sense. Categorize » Generalize » Stereotype.

It would be unbearable to live in the world with lots of unanswered questions and a position like” I have an assumption but would prefer not to make any conclusions because there is always a risk to make a mistake”. So we make conclusions. And mistakes . And, of course, stupid mistakes. All because we need explanations and some predictability.

Imagine a blank list and three lines, two short red lines and one long blue line. Your cognitive processes will surely create two categories:

1. short red lines 

2. long blue lines

It’s not going to be one short red, one long blue, one short red.

That’s just the way our mind operates. But. If you decide that all short lines are red, for example, you make a generalization. If you go further with this and the society also accepts it as a valid conclusion (in most cases ascribing a positive or a negative value to it ) then comes a stereotype: I don’t like short lines, all of them are red.

Think about this situation: 

A child was adopted by Americans at an early age. His ethnic background is South Korean while his cultural background is American and American only. He’s in his 40s now and he says that all his life he’s been  viewed as an Asian first,  the prefix “Asian”  follows him wherever he goes. He also says that he doesn’t  fit in because of the clash between his ethnical and cultural identities.

Since we can think and analyze and make conclusions, the final outcome of our mental process is our responsibility. Bringing communication to a conscious level might be really helpful and really hard.  I always thought that after years of studying intercultural communication and being constantly subjected to different cultures, I would certainly be immunized against generalizations, stereotyping, etc. Unfortunately, that is not what’s  happening. I still tend to jump to conclusions way too often.

Is American culture full of stereotypes?

Yes, because Americans are no less human than all other nations.

Yes, because American society is subjected to a huge amount of different cultures. People need categories and clichés simply not to get overwhelmed.

Not necessarily, because most people are  not judgemental and tend to be flexible and curious about other traditions and values. I would even say that American culture is one of few cultures that embrace the unknown and welcome multiculturalism with a broad smile.

What to do? 

So, stereotyping is totally understandable but still harmful because it limits us in our adequate perception of reality.

If you encounter clichés, think about it from this perspective: people are just trying to be polite. They don’t know much about your particular culture (and they don’t have to) but they do their best to break the ice by asking questions.

If you have many stereotypes in your head, think more critically. Why not give people a “second chance” or let’s call it the benefit of the doubt.  The world will certainly be better!

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America For Beginners Blog by Anna Kudryashova is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

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2 comments on “[Video Review] Is American Culture Full of Stereotypes?

  1. Ron
    June 13, 2011

    Stereotyping should probably be divided into two categories: (1) ethnocentric/demeaning and (2) honorific/appreciative. What tends to happen is that when a person is stereotyped in the 2nd manner (appreciative), he takes it as a complement, with pride, and would rarely call it a ‘stereotype’. He’d actually think of it as an objective assessment (!). An example of this would be, “Asians are so polite!” However, the category that is most talked about is Category (1); the ethnocentric one. THESE are the comments that sting. “Americans are ignorant” (a well-meaning Canadian once proclaimed). These are the ones that are received as “stereotypes” and considered subjective and unwarranted. It’s interesting to note that both of these are ‘stereotypes’, and that we’re reacting to them (and categorizing them) based on whether or not they make the recipient feel good.

    I appreciate your effort to remind us all that ‘stereotyping’ does indeed have a benign and helpful function. It doesn’t HAVE to be demeaning.

  2. America For Beginners
    June 14, 2011

    The nature of stereotyping is really peculiar. Both variants (ethnocentric and appreciative) are stereotypes and both may or may not distort reality. And you are 100% right saying that appreciative ones are often perceived as objective assessments! Human nature, I guess…
    Thanks for your comment, Ron!

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