Breaking Cultural Steretypes

I love learning from my international English students about what makes us tick in this global village. Cultural stereotypes are slippery, dodgy little creatures that are hard to pin down and are ripe for cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Teacher Catherine

Teacher Catherine

In my English class the other day at the UCT English language Centre, my Italian student shared a story about how she had been offended at a party. She had had enough of the party and decided to leave, so she found someone to give her drinks coupon to, offering it to him she said, ‘Would you like this? I don’t want to drink anymore.’ The man replied, ‘Are you sure you’re Italian?!’

She was horribly offended and spent the rest of the weekend upset. The beauty of it is how long it took us, the class, to understand what had offended her.

It all comes down to cultural stereotypes. She was offended that he didn’t think Italians were generous. I understood, based on my own stereotype of Italians, that he was surprised an Italian didn’t want to drink and party more!

What is a cultural stereotype?

This got me thinking about cultural stereotypes and how, in all my travels, I have been stereotyped differently.  In Spain everyone slotted me in as British, in South Africa I’m (amongst other things) a ‘cheese eater’, and in London, I was a South African.

One fine weekday morning in London, I was traveling in on the tube, crammed up close to people I didn’t know, when I spoke out and asked the girl who was blocking the aisle to please move down the train and make space for others. She shot me a look that meant, in simple terms, ‘no’ and I replied that she was a ‘typical Londoner’. Her response nearly knocked me off socks, ‘typical South African.’ Well I never!

What did she mean?

The process of forming stereotypes is a natural process that the brain uses to ‘simplify our social world; since they (stereotypes) reduce the amount of processing we have to do when we meet a new person.’(

So, coming back to my job, I love meeting my English students from around the world who open up my mind and challenge the stereotypes I hold of different people in this global village.

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