Question

"Isn't all this talk about culture really about stereotypes? And aren't stereotypes oversimplifying, and in the end kind of dangerous?

John Magee

I once had an exchange on LinkedIn. With a very accomplished German who has been working in the U.S. for almost two decades.

He described how he and his colleagues were discussing cultural differences, that they were referring to my articles, and that he was living up to the stereotype of how Germans think and work. He was being self-ironic. So I decided to take it literally. This was my reply to him:

Here's how MerriamWebster online defines stereotype: "something conforming to a fixed or general pattern."

As you know the term stereotype often has a negate connotation. It is a pejorative. However, the above definition says something very different. Let me put "general pattern" into my language.

We all come from somewhere. From a culture. A national culture. A country. A society. Which has its ways of thinking and of doing things. Call it our national cultural dna.

Yours is German, with a very heavy dose of American. I am spiegelverkehrt (mirror image) to you. As I remind Americans when they get frustrated or vexed by Germans and their ways of doing things: 

"Yes, I understand. But remember, they have the fourth largest economy in the world with only eighty million people. Clearly the German way of thinking and doing things works, leads to success." And I often have to remind Germans, that this is also true for how Americans think and do things.

Stereotypes - when accurately identified, and clearly described, with examples supporting the description - are general patterns which are true. Patterns in behavior. Well-functioning societies have patterns in behavior, that just about everyone understands, accepts and lives. Let's call patterns in behavior culture. National culture. Country culture.