Enjoying Your Work

Richard Brislin

Moving past stereotypes
is necessary in

Question: "You've written about differences in behaviors that take place in Hawaii compared to other parts of the world," a reader began in a recent letter. "At my company, we want to hire more local people rather than import them from the mainland. Do you have any advice for us?"

Answer: I have a complex feeling about giving advice because I know that my perspective involves a stereotype. Any time individuals make generalizations about a group of people, they are entering the strong possibility of stereotyping members of that group. The individuals should be uncomfortable with their thinking, as I am when making recommendations about the desirable goal of hiring more locals. But if I keep my advice to myself, will I do more harm to locals than if I give my recommendations.

The stereotype is that locals are not as talkative and verbally expansive during job interviews. When asked a question, many locals will answer it with a terse seven- or eight-word statement. People from the mainland, competing for the same jobs, will answer with a much longer answer and will do so with a more animated tone of voice. There are certainly exceptions to this generalization, and we can see them in the worlds of business, entertainment, education and social services. But so many employers have shared this stereotype with me that I believe it has some reality -- if nothing else, in the heads of people who will make important hiring decisions.

So I share the generalization with hiring officials. I then offer other advice. I suggest that they look carefully behind the answers of locals and mainlanders. Just because mainlanders use 30 words, this does not mean that they are saying more than locals who use 10 words. Another piece of advice is to give people preparation time. I advise employers to allow all job applicants to prepare themselves. This can be done by sharing questions before the actual interview. Locals can be very verbal and expressive if they have time to think about and rehearse presentations. The stereotype of "the quiet local" comes from a discomfort with speaking up on the spur of the moment, even if there is nothing to say. Mainlanders (and I am including myself here) are much more comfortable filling empty time with talk.

McGill University's Nancy Adler also has wrestled with issues surrounding people's use of stereotypes. Realizing that people will stereotype no matter how much they are told not to, Adler suggests that they can become more sophisticated in their thinking.

People can learn to view stereotypes as a first best guess about a person. They discover various labels that can be applied to a person, such as "local," "mainlander," "Republican" and "professor." Then, they can be open to movements away from the stereotype as they gain more specific information about any one person from the stereotyped group.

People can constantly caution themselves that they should not make decisions based on stereotypes and should allow others to communicate and to demonstrate their unique abilities and personalities.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.

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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