Culture Clash


Sunday, July 15, 2001

Stereotypes can be isolating

Jane Chen and Cheryl Ho, both from Honolulu, found themselves interacting frequently at a convention of Asian-American business people in San Francisco. Jane and Cheryl had attended different high schools and had never met each other prior to the convention. They found that they recently had similar job experiences. Both had been representing their companies in small cities in Midwestern states: Jane in Nebraska and Cheryl in Minnesota. There were very few other Chinese Americans in the two cities.

While there, they both were asked about how it feels to be a member of a model minority group. People wanted to fix them up with the eligible Chinese American male whom they knew. In their workplaces, they were treated as if they were quiet individuals without well-developed opinions. Children who had not yet learned their social skills stared at them in stores. "I have felt like an exhibit at a zoo," they both thought at one time or another.

Jane and Cheryl are experiencing the results of stereotyping. Whenever there is a collection of people to whom others can apply a label, stereotypes can results. Labels can be of many kinds: Republicans, absent minded professors, feminists, etc. A key aspect of stereotypes is once the label is assigned, then a great deal of information from the stereotype is applied to the labeled individual. This can be very frustrating for people who do not want to be placed into the stereotype. "Not all Chinese-Americans are quiet bookworms and former high school valedictorians who use chopsticks all the time," Jane and Cheryl agreed.

If people are given a label and treated accordingly, then "stereotype exhaustion" can be a result. In this example, the Chinese Americans become exhausted from the number of times they have to explain themselves, respond to negative expectations, and react to workplace behaviors that can put them at a disadvantage compared to their coworkers. They enjoy returning to San Francisco and Honolulu where they are not constantly the targets of stereotyped expectations.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Joyce Liu, Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii. One piece of advice she offers is that people seek out information about individuals that has absolutely no relationship to a stereotype. People might also think about stereotypes that another person might apply to them and consider how unreasonable these can be.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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