Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Cultural stereotypes or national character?

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

We have all heard vacationers come back from an exotic locale with tales of how wonderful the locals are. Often, these exclamations characterize, unhesitatingly, an entire nation: "Everyone is sooo nice in Mexico!" Or, "I just love the Bahamas, the locals are so happy and carefree!" It can be hard to argue against these impressions, particularly since the people who express them are speaking from personal experience.

The impressions we form about entire groups of people based on limited interactions are very strong, and easy to generalize. I am guilty of this myself: having lived in Turkey for five months, I am always struck by how respectful people are to each other, how... well, nice. In sharing this impression, I get puzzled looks from Turkish people, suggesting that I am way off (similar to the looks I give people who think Mexicans are just so full of simpatia!) Yesterday, witnessing a fight that came within seconds of coming to blows here in Istanbul, I understood that I was probably overgeneralizing my impression of Turks.

But does this mean that I'm wrong about the value of interpersonal respect in Turkish culture? Does it mean people are wrong about Mexican simpatia? More broadly, is there really something to the impression that the French are different from Americans, who are different from, say, the Thai? Or do these impressions only amount to so many caricatures?

Where do we draw the line between cultural stereotypes and ideas about national character?

An example from within the U.S. helps.  Many people will recognize the stereotype of Southern charm and politeness. Charleston, South Carolina, for example, was ranked as the nation’s most polite city for the 10th straight year. “When you pass people on the street, they will nod at you,” said a Charleston city tour guide, “people who live here are, for whatever, reason, polite. Whether it’s breeding or in the water, it’s hard to say". At the same time, this reputation for politeness co-exists with a reputation for violence in the South. Consistent with this reputation, homicide rates in the South and West have been shown to be higher than they are in the North for argument-related homicides (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996).

One might be tempted to dismiss either extreme — Southerners are SO violent, or Southerners are SO polite — as examples of stereotyping, with the evidence seen in the fact that these over-generalizations contradict each other.

But can these cultural tendencies actually co-exist?

Research by Dov Cohen and colleagues in 1996 shows us how this might be. The researchers recruited northern and southern White men to participate in a study, and as with many psychology studies, the participants were asked to fill out questionnaires. The participants had to drop off their questionnaires at the end of a long, narrow hallway, forcing another person (who was, unknown to the participants, working with the experimenters) to interrupt his work. For half of the participants, this person called the participant an offensive name and intentionally bumped the participant on his way out. The other half of the participants were not bumped. Now, as the participant continued to make his way down the narrow hallway, another person (also working with the experimenters!) approached, essentially setting up a situation in which one of the two people had to get out of the way to avoid a collision.

The results showed that for Northern men, the distance at which they "gave way" to this second person did not differ much as a function of whether they had been bumped. But the Southern men showed a much different response. If they had been bumped earlier, Southern Men waited much longer before giving way to the second person — as if playing a game of "chicken" — and were rated as more aggressive and dominant in their demeanor. However, if these Southern men had NOT been bumped, then they actually got out of the way even earlier than the Northern participants did — being even more polite than Northerners.

How can one reconcile these two contradictory behaviors? In the old South, the land was not heavily populated, and this feature of the land made it difficult to have effective law enforcement. As a result, people had to rely on their own means to protect their families and their property, and one of the best tools at their disposal was their reputation — if people knew not to mess with you, you were likely to be safer. As such, a culture where honor became valued developed — a Culture of Honor — in which affronts to one's honor were to be treated with the utmost seriousness. The culture of honor is characterized by strong vigilance to disrespect and use of violence to protect property and name, and is symbolized in games of  “manhood” such as “chicken” games, or kicking each other in the shins to see who can stand the most pain.

But how does the Culture of Honor explain politeness? As it turns out, in a land and historical circumstance where affronts of honor could quickly develop into life and death situations, it simply made sense to afford people very visible and clear signals of respect as a default when one is not looking for trouble.

So, are Southern men more violent, or more polite than Northerners? The answer is both-- but it depends on the situation, and even more importantly, on the values and sociopolitical history of the group. Are Turks more respectful than Americans? I'm sure that this is the case — I have seen it with my own eyes — but I also now very curious about what was said between the two men whom I witnessed getting into a fight yesterday.

That's where real cultural learning begins — not in impossibly broad generalizations about people, but rather, in understanding the "triggers" of behavior (pardon the pun) that give us insight into cultural values, norms, and histories.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.