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Cultural Stereotypes: Help or Hindrance?

In the past few months I’ve ran and taken part in workshops across the globe. In one week alone I was in London, Dublin, Madrid and Hamburg, running the same workshop in four very different cultures.

Working in different cultures is a welcome symptom of a globalised society – however this still poses its challenges, so much so the Hofstede Centre has created an online tool to help us understand the motivations of different cultures. For example, if you are doing business with the United Kingdom you should be aware that ‘Britons are highly Individualist and private people, live in a Masculine society and as a nation are quite happy to wake up not knowing what the day brings. Wow.

I’m not British, I’m Irish, but I’ve been living here for nine years now and call myself a Londoner. As an Irish person I’m not immune to being stereotyped: Irish people all know each other (I’m increasingly convinced this one’s true); we drink a lot (I know more teetotalers in Ireland than any other country); and we like potatoes (who doesn’t love chips?). But can’t cultural stereotypes be useful, especially when you’re in the business of understanding people and their motivations?

I’ve been reading the gloriously titled ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell. This easy-read works off the premise that Denmark is the happiest country in the world. When Helen’s husband is shipped off to Billund to work for Lego, the journalist in Helen sees opportunity. Live like a Dane for a year and surely all your problems will be solved? Of course Helen soon realises that Denmark is far more complex a society then the Buzzfeed articles on Best Places in the World to Live suggest. Denmark has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe and the seemingly equal society has shocking rates of domestic abuse. So maybe cultural stereotypes are misleading after all?

Looking back on my week travelling across Western Europe it was clear that certain cultural stereotypes do ring true. To a certain extent, going into those workshops with certain views did help frame them. However, my views were constantly challenged and changed too. When I was running a workshop in the UAE a few months ago, one of the Emirati women in my group swore. I don’t know why this surprised me…but it did. It didn’t fit with my pre-conceived view of what Emirati women would (should?) do. 

As an industry we are often tasked with grouping, segmenting and thematising. And these tools can indeed be helpful as an ‘entry’ point at the start of a project. Our challenge in this industry is to go beyond the stereotype. Let’s be unreasonable with ourselves and the customers we speak to – only by challenging deep set beliefs can we find the human truth and see beyond the wall of experience and prejudice.

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