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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds[Steve Kulich] So Ruobing, this week in our course, we've talked a lot about cultural identity, but it could be we've over-emphasized or over-generalized a few areas. What are some further thoughts that you have for our participants? [CHI Ruobing] Well, I think one important concept is the stereotype. It refers to the over-generalized views towards a group of people who share similar identities. [Steve Kulich] But sometimes it seems like when we first make contact with a new group, we have to start somewhere with some categorizations of how we're similar or different, so how do we do that in a way that doesn't become fixed ideas like stereotypes?

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds[CHI Ruobing] Well, I would admit that it is useful to have stereotypes at the beginning, but if we stick with that and do not look at the individual differences, that will become very dangerous. [Steve Kulich] Yeah, I think that's what we have to watch out for and, if you notice, a lot of times when we develop jokes or humour, it's very common to talk about this group or that group, but sometimes those things hurt, and sometimes those have a kind of a prejudiced attitude, don't they? [CHI Ruobing] Yes. So sometimes we will hear those things about the different genders will have different behavioural intentions, or different age groups will have their preferences.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds[Steve Kulich] So we might talk about differences of men and women, and at one level it may be helpful, but not all men or all women are that way, and so if we stick with those ideas, we may actually be forming a kind of judgement . [CHI Ruobing] Yes, and if they stay in the attitudes levels, then those are only just prejudices, but sometimes they will cause even more harm when it comes into the behavioural level, and from that we will call it discrimination. [Steve Kulich] So it's very important.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 secondsWe hope that you've picked that up in our course, that we do have to categorise, we do have to think about who am I and who are you, but we have to do so in a way that takes into account dynamic culture and the range of cultures and not be fixed. So good starting points, but let's not get stuck there. [CHI Ruobing] Yeah, that's true. And actually, for these three concepts-- stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination-- they're all related to the distinction between in-groups and out-groups. [Steve Kulich] In-groups and out-groups are actually helpful to get us started, again.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 secondsAccording to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it really does help us to have a sense of belonging to a group and having a sense of security and being able to understand how we can communicate more easily because we have common patterns, but the opposite of forming an out-group of another group can cause harm. [CHI Ruobing] That's true. So we all like to be the in-groups, because when we are the out-groups, we will feel isolated, and we will feel excluded, and sometimes we will be misunderstood. [Steve Kulich] That misunderstanding and this whole issue of prejudice has been a long topic.

Skip to 2 minutes and 58 secondsAlready in the 1950s, Gordon Allport, as a psychologist, was trying to look at how can different groups have contact in ways that's meaningful and helpful. [CHI Ruobing] So this is called the contact hypothesis, and in this hypothesis Allport has specified under what kind of conditions contact could help us reduce prejudice. [Steve Kulich] We've actually prepared a reading for you, as our participants, to examine what does this contact hypothesis mean for you and your intercultural communication, and how can it further a better understanding of our communication across cultures. [CHI Ruobing] And hopefully this reading will help you go beyond this distinction between we and they, in-group and out-group.

Responding to diverse identities

We often form stereotypes about our own cultural groups and others cultural groups based on cultural identities. Stereotypes associated with attitudes can become prejudice. If we act on such prejudice, it can lead to discrimination.

Cultural identity is often overlooked, but there are ways that it can be overemphasized or overgeneralized. For example:

Stereotypes (perceptual level) – our overgeneralized views towards a specific group of people who share similar identities.

Though our human minds need to form categories to sort out information, when we first make contact with a new group, we tend to notice differences more and quickly associate them with others of that type and form fixed ideas. Generalizing can at times be helpful, but over-generalizing certain characteristics to ALL in a group (as is sometimes done in making ethnic jokes), and failing to notice individual variations within a specific group, can be dangerous. It can lead to a “single story” of people as Chimamanda Adichie mentions in her 2009 TED Talk (see the recommended link below).

Prejudice (attitudinal level) – our preconceived opinions (usually not based on actual experiences or logical reasons) and the related judgments about others.

These distasteful impressions or negative attitudes can be expressed as subtle or overt rejection, or even taunts and other physical actions. All can cause emotional harm or even physical injury (You could explore the early work of Gordon Allport further on this topic)

Though it is true all of us develop certain preferences, and that some of them will be shared and create a sort of ingroup comfort zone, it is conversely true that none of us has infinite capacity to deal with infinite variety. Our different group agendas, intentions, or demarcations do not license us to judge, exclude or harm other groups. When we notice differences among cultures, we need to be careful not to stigmatize those differences.

Discrimination (behavioral level) – our unjust, excluding, biased, or proactively prejudicial treatment of those we relegate to different categories, usually based on perceptions of race, age, sex, or other social or personal lifestyle markers.

For each of these conditions, no matter at what level (and they do often overlap), the maxim “Not Wrong- Just Different” can help us try to understand the cultural logics that may be behind the noticeable differences of certain cultural groups. To clarify, we need not become absolutely relativistic and accept every behavior under the sun (some cultural patterns might be harmful to some of their members), but we should at least try to understand the origins and intentions of those actions. (You might find the recommended article by Kelli McLoud-Schingen, 2015, helpful for a better understanding of “Prejudice, Bias, Discrimination,” downloadable below).

As we noted in the video, categorization is important, but we should seek to do so in a way that takes into account the dynamics and varieties of cultures. Seek to re-evaluate the nature of any of your generalized or fixed ideas about other groups.

We further discuss the importance of these terms:

Ingroups provide what Maslow noted as a basic human need for security and belonging. Relating to our cultural ingroups is usually easier, more comfortable, and gives us senses of regular and predictable patterns, reducing uncertainty.

Outgroups, however normally perceived or formed, can exclude, make us feel more different than we actually are (or exaggerate those differences), create misunderstandings and sometimes even hostilities.

Allport’s “Contact Hypothesis” suggests that differing groups can reduce the typical stereotype—prejudice—discrimination cycle with the right kind of social contact. That hypothesis has since been tested in many situations, and though it at times fails, many scholars have clarified conditions that seem to positively promote intergroup contact towards better understanding.

Please read the article provided in the next learning step to help you go beyond these distinctions between “we and they”, “in-group and out-group”.

We recommend that you also watch “The danger of a single story” 2009 TED Talk by the writer Chimamanda Adichie and reflect on when and how you have let your perception of others, especially of their most noticeable features, reduce them to a single story.

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This video is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)