Illustration by Tala Nassar

Balancing stereotypes with a dose of observation

Internalize the following: there is probably everything everywhere.

Sep 26, 2016

“You are here to become global leaders.” After hearing this sentence every day, I started to wonder: isn’t every leader a global leader? What is stopping us from being global, not only in leading, but in everything we do?
It seems, by looking at the way cultures relate — or fail to relate — among one another, that one of the biggest obstacles to this is instinctive stereotyping. As global leaders-to-be, we should be able to answer the following question: how can we adjust our outlook so that stereotyping becomes society’s tool instead of its shackle?
First, let us explore the question, why is there any stereotyping at all? Friedrich Nietzsche has defined the human being as the “calculating animal.” According to him, the distinctive characteristic between us and the other animals is our instinct to measure, to catalogue and to rank. As human beings, we need methods to quickly measure and judge. The first one is external narratives — I am referring to everything that we hear from others and adapt as our truths. If a child is raised in a strict Catholic family they will consider as true the idea that there is a place called hell, and that heretics go there. Secondly, there are what social psychologists call availability heuristics, which involve making unproven expansions from first hand experiences, or more simply, generalizing. In this case, the same kid could meet a seemingly licentious atheist and, from that experience, generalize the following: all atheists are licentious.
The last two methods of measurement lead to pragmatic, inexact adaptations of the truth. Therefore, they should serve us only as tools of approximation, used for making convenient decisions whenever observation is not sufficient. The problem is that we often grow so attached to these methods that they become our truth. Out of habit, we jump to conclusions, often making generalizations concerning morality, aesthetics, religion or lifestyle. We know that these conclusions are not the result of valid reasoning, yet we insist on keeping them as our truths, even when there is no practical need to do so. This error has stood in the way between many insular leaders and global leadership.
How do we avoid unnecessary stereotyping? What we usually do — and what is often encouraged — is try to disprove through experience, one by one, all of our generalizations. Some basic but widely spread examples: we believe that all Americans are nationalists until we meet one who is not. We believe that all Italian people arrive late until we meet a very punctual one or that all Japanese people are punctual until one arrives late. That is why we hear that traveling broadens the mind. My question is: why do we need to wait to see all of these things in order to disprove our generalizations? The only thing we need to do is internalize the following concept: there is probably everything everywhere.
Each individual country contains people from across the entire moral spectrum. Within each culture, there are people who follow their cultural traditions and others who criticize them. Each person is a mixture of good and bad, and we do not need to discover this in each particular case every single time. If we internalize the idea that there is probably everything everywhere we will have a weight lifted off our backs. I am not criticizing traveling and meeting new people, but I believe there are plenty of better reasons to do it than to disprove our unnecessary stereotypes.
My proposal leaves a gap, however: how are we supposed to define our truths? Here is a counterintuitive option: we do not. We become impartial observers.
The zen philosopher Alan Watts explains that when we cannot comprehend what is happening around us, the only thing left to do — and it happens to be the wisest thing — is to observe. With stereotypes there are always elements we ignore about a foreign culture and in response we have two options: falling down the traditional spiral of fabrication or disapproval of stereotypes, or what Alan Watts would opt for — observation. This does not mean that we should stop learning. It means that we should learn with modesty, keeping in mind that our knowledge about a particular place or culture is usually very limited. We should learn and explore as much as we can, but do so with an awareness of what we don’t know.
An observational mindset might lead us to questions such as, So, what is your lifestyle like? instead of, So, you ride llamas to school in Peru, right? An observational mindset is my proposal to eliminate, once and for all, instinctive and unnecessary stereotypes. We will keep modifying our truths when pragmatism requires that, but for the rest of the time, I propose: let us be peaceful observers of the world around us.
Rodrigo Luque is Deputy News Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo