Any stereotype can be dismantled simply through getting to know the people as individuals. And they will tell you how typical Russian, Italian or German they are, but if we are not careful enough, stereotypes can very quickly become a negative thing. And it blinds us rather than opens our eyes.

James Chamberlain  

Blinding stereotypes

Here is the second part of the interview with our former professor in intercultural communication James Chamberlain. Read the first part here.

We all have heard about stereotypes. Are they necessary?

I think they are unavoidable. I have a feeling from my own reflection they are deeply anchored. There is, of course, a Darwinian, evolutionary function for stereotypes. There is so much information coming all the time, people had to categorize things quickly, to put them in a file. If you are walking over the field, and suddenly someone comes towards you, you have to be able to categorize very quickly whether it is a danger or a safe thing. Is it a friend coming towards me or it is maybe a big animal that’s going to eat me? We learn to do it very quickly, as children, we start differentiating our worlds, and it is primitive in the beginning, but there is mom who is going to give me the milk and there is nobody else I care about. That is how you survive; I think that’s how human cognition works and how we build it up, from black and white, good and bad. Even though the world is not like that, but we need to simplify things in order to survive first.

Is it possible to overcome some of these unnecessarily simplifying stereotypes?

It takes a lot of education and experience and reflection to be able to give up this idea of stereotyping, but they don’t come from nowhere. There are certain collections of characteristics that belong to a certain group of people and help to identify them as a group. There is an element of truth in stereotypes based on observations. In our days even through empirical research, we can say that most western Europeans are like this, or French are like this, but the keyword there is “most”, we are talking about 51 per cent. It still helps us to manage our expectations. For example, I go on holiday to France and if I know the stereotypes about the French people, I can use them, but I need to test it because every person I meet is an individual. And they might be a lot less French than I think they are. Every stereotype or every set of expectations that we bring to a situation always has to be tested. Some people don’t test it, they have their expectations and that’s where the word stereotype gets a negative connotation because many people don’t bother to interact on a personal level. This is very lazy intellectually, but if you are not interested in those people you can easily say: “they are all Italians…”. But remember any stereotype can be dismantled, simply through getting to know the people as individuals. And they will tell you how typical Russian, Italian or German they are, but if we are not careful enough, stereotypes can very quickly become a negative thing. And it blinds us rather than opens our eyes.

Do you think intercultural training only confirms stereotypes?

Unfortunately it can. Actually, as stupid as it sounds, a lot of my stereotypes have been confirmed over the years. I should clarify that because my stereotypes are more refined. I don’t think only about Germans and non Germans, I think of southern Germans, northern Germans, western Germans and Rheinländers, I think of certain educational or class categories, and so my stereotypes have become smaller, but they are still stereotypes. When I meet someone and he tells me that he is a professor at the university and he is a German, so I already have a set of expectations how this person could react to certain situations or my opinion. In a way it goes back to the human habit of classifying things. No matter how long you live in a country, you do not necessarily lose your stereotypes; you refine them to a different level. But I still have to find out if he is a typical German or not. It has to be tested each and every time. That is how we learn all those wonderful things about individuals.

What are the main cultural differences between Germany and the USA?

Directness on various levels, people looking right at you, but also the fact that you have to spell everything out and be specific. Germany is a low-context culture. Where I come from is also a low-context culture, but not as low as Germany. My wife and I, as American, have the same problems talking to Chinese or Indian that are very high context cultures, but my wife and I have problems too. She is much more low context than I am. Sometimes I just think that it is very clear what I am saying when I say: “It’s a bit cold in here.” And that’s for me saying: “Could you close the window please.” The German I am talking to might say: “Do you think so?” And the window stays open. They don’t understand it as a request because it is indirect. Germans have no problem with conflict. It is more important to tell the truth and say what your real opinion is. We don’t do that where I come from. It takes a long time to get used to the Germans for me as an American or as a Minnesotan. I always have to remind myself, they are not aggressive and they are not unfriendly. From an American point of view, they are just acting as if they were. Once you have lived here for a longer time, you start appreciating it. Once you have cracked the code and understand how it works, it can be very positive. But the problem is that you still have these leftover emotions from where you come from. I am playing their game but sometimes it just does not feel right.

What does a person have to do to adjust to a new culture?

At the beginning you will feel like people are unfriendly, a bit aggressive, but then you realize they are not, once you get to know them a bit better. Also what’s nice is that when you are a foreigner and people know that, they give you a little bit more of freedom. If you’re from a different culture you should choose the medium of communication what is best for you. In an office situation, for example, people from Asia don’t like to lose face so they don’t speak up in a meeting to disagree with someone, but if their boss says: “Please send me an email with your thoughts on this”, then they are much more comfortable doing that and they can express themselves. They can also disagree with what was said during the meeting. On my side, it is often walking and talking to people face to face. I am still sometimes shocked how direct emails are here: “Mr. Chamberlain, here is the following…”, without any “Hi! How are you?” or anything like this.

Chamberlain What cross-cultural mistakes have you made when you first moved to Germany?

The thing that was bothering me personally is how close people stand to you. This thing went on for a very long time, probably two to three years until I realised: “Wait! It’s me that has to change, I am the problem here.” I did not realise where I was: I was no longer in the USA. We often forget that we are the ones who bring the difference, not everyone around us. I can’t teach 80 million people how to respect my space, it would be much better for me if I just adapt. This thing was outside of my consciousness, but what was happening there is the violation of my cultural norm by the people around me.

You have heard so many funny cross-cultural moments from your students. Could you share one?

One of the activities I do with my students is called “violating cultural norms”, where we brainstorm the norms of the environment and students come up with very interesting things. Then they set up the task to systematically violate norms in order to measure people’s reaction to that.  Germany is a very multicultural place, so it is not always easy to say this is very German…. Last month we finished this exercise in my class and one of the very interesting ones was from a group of four students, two of them from Egypt and in Egypt it is very collectivist culture, where people will offer help and help you. Complete strangers will help you on the streets. If you have a big shopping bag full of grocery, and you hold your baby in another hand, and your cell phone goes on, you can just give your baby to the person standing next to you, to a complete stranger. And the people will be happy to hold your baby for ten minutes or so while you are talking on the phone. It is not as hectic there as in Germany. They have a different concept of time. So the group of four students tried it here in Germany. Of course, they had certain expectations, for example, people refusing to hold your baby. Actually only one person out of eight refused and that person was not German. They had to speak English to him. The people they asked weren’t necessarily comfortable with holding a baby, but they did not refuse. Interesting to know that you can violate cultural norms, but there is a threshold, people tolerate a lot of things; they don’t get involved unless something bad happens.

Do you think Germany is a multicultural country?

Functionally I think it is. Bonn is very multicultural, so as Cologne or Berlin or any other big city. If you go out to the countryside, it gets very homogenized; the same is in every country of the world. That does not mean things don’t really work in a German way in big cities. There are aspects of German culture that remain no matter how large the portion of foreigners is here. There are certain things that are deep and will remain. People will have to adapt and accept.


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