A stereotype free discussion about cultural differences? Yes we can!

Let us begin with the best definition of stereotype that I know:

A stereotype is a mental shortcut we take when trying to make sense of what other people say or do.

Here is a sensitive illustration of it. Since 2015, after the terrorist attack against the French satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo, a new viral trend appeared on social media: “Are the lives of Europeans more important than the lives of Muslims?”. Those posts would compare the important media coverage of the attack in Paris with the silence on more deadly attacks in the Muslim world. This trend intensified after the second attack in Paris (November 2015) and the attack in Brussels (March 2016). Now, if I want to discuss this phenomenon with a Muslim, there is a chance that we will end the chat by throwing stereotypes at it each other: “You Muslims believe that the world is against you”, “You Europeans are islamophobic”.

To avoid this, here are 2 principles of intercultural communication:

1) All cultural differences will appear reductive and offensive if not phrased tactfully

2) Never consider yourself as an expert of someone else culture

If you don’t apply those principles, any model for intercultural communication, from Hofstede to Lewis, no matter how serious it is, will be useless. You will never find this ultimate feature of French, Japanese or Moroccan cultures that would be applicable to any French, Japanese or Moroccan. There is a simple reason for that: humans are subtle, ambiguous and ever changing. We just don’t like when someone states that he understood us, without giving us a chance to show how unique we are.

As a consequence, if you want to learn intercultural communication, you should study rhetoric: how to take into account others’ identities (ethos) and feelings (pathos) when interacting with them? How to phrase (logos) your ideas about cultural differences in a tactful way? Here is my advice: put the other in the position of an expert of his own culture. Ask open questions with a real willingness to learn and try as much as you can to avoid our natural tendency to look for confirmation of our believes. This is not a small task. But the Rhetorical Craft is now in your hands.

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