Prejudices and Stereotypes

Give yourself a minute and try to think about somebody from an African or Asian country and what you associate with them.

The associations you had are what are generally called ‘stereotypes’.

Literature often says that stereotypes are neither negative nor positive but handy tools for our own orientation. They relieve our cognitive processes by reducing what we perceive and by providing intellectual categories. In this sense a stereotype provides a neutral assessment of value.

A prejudice, on the other hand, is a (more often) negative assessment of a person, group, country etc. and includes (mostly) negative feelings (Mast & Schmid Mast 2007). Please consider that we also have positive prejudices but these lead to critical situations less often.

We can try to avoid stereotypes and prejudices by

  • learning to be aware of them and
  • counteracting them by analysing the intercultural situation objectively.

(See Mast and Schmid Mast, 2007, who describe it in a similar way)

How to avoid cross-cultural conflict

Give yourself a minute to reflect: If a police officer behaves in a domineering way – does this reflect his personality? If a foreigner is smiling and friendly – does this reflect his culture? When a person is loud – is this behaviour due to his personality only?


Which elements influence our actions and reactions


How we act and react is neither exclusively related to our personality nor to the situation we are experiencing nor is it deducible from our cultural background only. Our actions are a result of various concurrent elements:

  • the individual disposition,
  • the situation and
  • the cultural background.

(see for the attribution triangle: Fachstelle für Internationale Jugendarbeit der Bundesrepublik Deutschland e.V., n.d.)


How to Deal with Intercultural Misunderstandings

It is helpful to keep this in mind if we want to understand why a misunderstanding with a person from another country has occurred.

It may be helpful to observe the following steps when problems occur in intercultural relationships:

  • Observe the situation actively.
  • Describe the situation to yourself or somebody else.
  • Remember that in another context, in another culture, what you experience can have a totally different meaning.
  • Don’t judge what you see but try to find out what the disturbing behaviour really means in that culture.
  • Listen actively, ask questions and be conscious of the fact that your cultural “map” will automatically lead you to filter and interpret what you hear.
  • Try to understand the values, beliefs and attitudes of members of other cultures.
  • Establish rapport by finding out commonalities.
  • Save face – respect others and make yourself respected.
  • Develop WIN-WIN solutions.

Applying these steps will help you to understand the other culture and to avoid jumping to premature conclusions. For, as stated by  Alexander Thomas “a certain degree of willingness and the ability to reflect on everyday encounters with dissimilar others is necessary for developing an awareness of intercultural learning and ultimately understanding the factors underlying appropriate and effective behavior in an intercultural encounter (applied intercultural ability). This constitutes intercultural competence” (Thomas 2010, 11).

The Iceberg-Model: A clear way to visualise culture

Culture can be compared to an iceberg with a visible tip and an invisible part underneath the water surface. The visible tip corresponds to the areas of culture we can see in the physical sense.

Which element would you assign to the visible, which to the invisible part of the iceberg?



  • music
  • dress
  • architecture
  • language
  • food
  • gestures
  • devotional practices
  • religious beliefs
  • rules of relationships
  • approach to the family
  • motivations
  • tolerance for change
  • attitudes to rules
  • communication styles

None of the visible elements can ever make real sense without understanding the drivers behind them; and these are hidden on the bottom part of the iceberg. It is these invisible elements which are the underlying causes of what shows on the visible part. So, when thinking about culture, the bottom part of the iceberg will include things such as religious beliefs, rules of relationships, approach to the family, motivations, tolerance for change, attitudes to rules, communication styles, comfort with risk, the difference between public and private, gender differences and more.

A common example is the different understanding of gender roles, which may show in the reluctance of members of some cultures, especially of Muslim religion, to accept females in leading positions.


If we all have our own ‘Iceberg’

Perhaps we reach a still better understanding of the concept if we start by asking ourselves about what we believe our own cultural iceberg.


Please ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does it mean for you when somebody you have an appointment with isn’t on time – is it disrespectful or just casual?
  • If somebody tells you in a straightforward manner that you are mistaken – do you find it helpful or do you feel affronted?
  • Small talk at the beginning of a meeting – is it important for you in order to establish a good atmosphere or is it just a necessary evil?


You will have probably noticed that it is difficult to answer these questions. There is no straightforward ‘true’ or ‘false’. What seems right to you isn’t necessarily right for somebody else who reads these questions.

The questions aim at our own values, attitudes, communication habits and mind sets. These are all elements our culture consists of and which we have internalised since birth.

Depending on our own culture, we will interpret other people’s visible behaviour differently: it may seem more or less strange, acceptable or unacceptable to us. Cross-cultural conflicts often arise not because what we actually see is different from our expectations, but because what we notice triggers something that deeply disturbs us on an emotional, subconscious level.

Do you remember the Iceberg model? Crosscultural conflict arises when two (or more) hidden bottom parts of the iceberg collide.

Definition: What is culture?

Imagine you have to leave your country because you are politically persecuted or because of war. After a long journey you finally arrive in a foreign country. How would you feel? What would you do to find your way through new surroundings?

You may feel at a loss and will probably try to find some landmarks, some points that seem familiar to you and that help you to find your way. These points that seem familiar to you are elements suggested by your cultural imprinting. Over time the process of adaptation and understanding will enable you to accept and eventually integrate the elements of culture that suit you personally.


There are numerous definitions of culture. As early as 1952 Kroeber and Kluckhohn counted over 150 definitions of the term ‘culture’ (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). Here are some of the most popular ones. Culture is…

  • …the human-made part of the environment (Harry Triandis)
  • …a collective programming of the mind (Geert Hofstede)
  • …the way in which a group of people solve problems (Fons Trompenaars)
  • …an orientation system defining our perception of normality (Alexander Thomas)
  • … a fuzzy concept (Jürgen Bolten)


Culture as an orientation system

According to Alexander Thomas, culture provides us with an orientation system typical of a specific nation, society, organisation or group. We need this system to intuitively find our way through the world because the system defines and influences our perception, our thinking, our values and actions. It is based on specific symbols (language, gestures, dress-code, greeting conventions etc.) and is passed on from generation to generation, creating a sense of group identity and giving meaning to what we see, perceive and do.

The orientation system provides us with behavioural motivators and opportunities but it also sets the “conditions and limits” to our behaviour (Thomas, 2010). For migrants arriving in a new country this means the challenge of dealing with a new orientation system, new explicit and implicit rules, new communication styles, which can be a stressful process, especially because often people unconsciously expect migrants to assimilate to the main culture.


Fuzzy cultures

Due to globalisation and the new migration phenomena, many modern societies are no longer comparable to the homogeneous ones of the past. One of the characteristics of these modern societies is a strong orientation towards processes and networking (Bolten, 2013). Culture is defined over a network of reciprocal relationships between people and group-cultures. In this sense culture is ‘fuzzy’ (Bolten, 2013). It hasn’t got defined limits. People are members of more than only one group i.e. people participate in more than one group-culture. This is why they constantly bring different elements from other group-cultures into each new group they are in contact with. The result of this is a heterogeneous structure as we can observe in modern societies.

However, culture can be perceived as more or less homogeneous/heterogeneous depending on how closely we look at it. The closer we look at it, the more differences we will notice in a society.

Module 5 provides background information relevant for all scenarios described in the other modules. In each of those scenarios, in which police and security staff, coaches and trainers and other staff of integration agencies interact with foreigners and migrants, an intercultural dimension is present. Different cultures – values, attitudes, beliefs – meet and may create misunderstandings. Module 5 sensitises professionals to the existence of cultural aspects in communication and is therefore a crucial counterpart to the language – and communication-related Modules 1-4.

The aim of the module is to

  • give foundation content on understanding culture and to increase cultural awareness,
  • draw attention to appropriate segments of the cross-cultural research of Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Edward Twitchell Hall, Alexander Thomas and the Globe Study,
  • illustrate the intercultural dimension through examples and case studies,
  • encourage professionals to consider intercultural issues in their interaction with foreigners and migrants,
  • give a series of behavioural recommendations, based on cultural dimensions, relevant to the Vocal in Need users.

The Vocal in Need intercultural Training Module consists of three parts:

  1. General introduction to culture
  • Definition of culture
  • Iceberg Model of culture
  • How to avoid cross-cultural conflicts
  • Prejudices and Stereotypes
  • Dimensions of culture
  1. Case Studies
  • The Bicycle
  • Commotion in a refugee centre
  • Individual coaching session
  1. Intercultural Awareness