Everyone loves to hate generalizations. In fact, they might be the easiest target for the cross-cultural police, who think everyone is the same (deep down), and everyone is unique (deep down).
This kind of thinking might work in some cultures, but won’t last five minutes in India. As soon as you get here, you start making generalizations because it is so “other”, and you don’t have a mental category for what you are experiencing.
But in a country filled with so many sensitive paradoxes, nothing will get you into trouble faster than making a blanket generalization (#Thinskinned).
This is the tension you face as you try to make sense of the new world you are working/living with. What are you allowed to say? What is true? Don’t all generalizations break down anyway? Should we just abandon them altogether?
No. Generalizations have a lot to offer us.
Generalizations are natural
We generalize because our brains are pattern-seeking machines. They hate randomness, and are always looking for ways to synthesize the massive amount of data coming in. If you didn’t have a way to process and categorize that information, you couldn’t function.
Here’s how it happens in everyday life. When you look at a large group of people, you start to notice trends. You see a group of a hundred people in Brussels, and ten of them have purple hats. You think, “Wow, people wear a lot of purple hats in Brussels.” You go home and tell all your friends about how basically everyone in Brussels wears purple hats these days. This is normal.
When we look broadly at any large swatch of a population, the trends we notice become generalizations. Tamilians love Rajnikanth. Mallus have their noses stuck in some Russian author’s book. Bengalis love a good fight.
Generalizations are a natural cognitive process, and there is no use in trying to stop them.
Generalizations are pervasive
Even if we were to stop making new generalizations, there are way too many existing ones in the world, and the majority seem to be in India. Bangaloreans go out to pubs at night. People in Gurgaon are obsessed with status symbols. Punjabis love to dance.
With so many Indias in India, generalizations abound and will never leave. Whether it be about class, region, religion, or any other segmentation, generalizations make up the foundation of understanding India, and most of the rest of the world.
Generalizations can be helpful
Aside from keeping our heads from exploding, generalizations serve one very important function. They provide a starting point or foundation for understanding.
If you walk into a new place among people you’ve never seen before with a “blank slate”, it will take you months to years of formulating new generalizations and revising them to figure out the people. However, if someone tells you ahead of time that these are time-conscious, versatile people who take their work as seriously as their chaat (Mumbaikars), then you have a starting place to work from.
This starting place forms the foundation for understanding a culture that is new to you, or one you have known for a long time. All of your experiences filter through the generalizations, and you build your understanding off of them. A starting place implies that there will be growth and maturity in your understanding, but you must start somewhere.
The more groups that exist, the greater the necessity for good starting places (or generalizations). This flies in the face of “egalitarian” mindsets that hesitate to generalize any group, because after all, “aren’t we all just the same?” In reality, we are not, and we should embrace the fact that groups are different, and having a good (and relatively accurate) starting place for understanding these groups is important.
Generalizations have their shortcomings
Although they make excellent starting points, here are some legitimate ways that generalizations break down.
Generalizations are never 100% accurate. Part of the problem with generalizations is they sound like they should be 100% true. There are always exceptions, and those exceptions are easy to point out. When you say that Indians love cricket, it sounds like you are saying 100% of Indians like cricket. In reality, the number might be somewhere around 60%.
Generalizations are less accurate the larger the group. To speak about a group as large as India is to invite inaccuracy. If I say Indians love Shahrukh Khan, that’s probably only about 25% accurate. If I say urban, Hindu, lower caste, classic Indians between the ages of 20 and 35 living in Delhi love Shahrukh Khan, my accuracy is likely higher. However, these kinds of caveats are hard to make in normal conversation.
Generalizations can be used to control people. Generalizations can be a means of perpetuating or indoctrinating a particular (often harmful) belief. Take the example of textbooks in Gujarat. Here is a clear case where negative generalizations are used to influence a particular group. This type of tactic is incredibly dangerous and has been used by many evil regimes throughout world history.
Generalizations are often made from a small subset of a population. Let’s assume a Japanese person gets to know a young, single Indian engineer who has just moved to Tokyo. He sees that this person likes to watch Hollywood movies, is eager to go out drinking, but rarely ever eats Japanese food. These observations (especially if they are similar across other Indians in Japan) quickly become generalizations for the Japanese about India.
However, it is important to remember that you have only interacted with those Indians who are highly educated, unmarried, young, and most importantly, willing to move to Japan. This constitutes such a small percentage of Indians, that any generalizations cannot be placed back on the larger group.
You rarely get a chance to interact with the heart of any large national culture, because those people don’t usually leave! Even when you move into their culture, they might act differently toward you, creating something like the Hawthorne effect.
Generalizing is different than stereotyping
Despite their shortcomings, generalizations can still be extremely helpful and should continue to be used. What should be stopped is stereotyping.
Stereotyping happens when someone takes a generalization (or a starting point) and applies it indiscriminately to individuals. If the generalization is that Indians use indirect communication, then stereotyping happens when I assume that every Indian I encounter is not telling me the full story with his words.
Stereotyping is bad, and is at the heart of why people object to generalizations. There is a fear that if you believe that, “All [insert group] are [insert generalization]”, then you might indiscriminately apply that to me, and it isn’t true of me.
How to use generalizations well
Use generalizations to discuss or learn about groups, not individuals. No matter how accurate a generalization is, you need to allow an individual to speak for herself. Individuals might shock you. You might meet a Hindu Brahmin aunty that eats meat, a Punjabi with no sense of rhythm, or a politician who acknowledges that the opposition has made a good point.
Be honest about the sample size of your generalization. If you meet two northeast Indians who play table tennis, it is not wise, but natural, to start saying that northeast Indians love table tennis. Qualify any statements you make. “I’ve not met many people from the northeast, but they seem to really enjoy table tennis.”
Be honest about the source of your generalization. Did it come from one personal experience you had? Anecdotally from a friend? Passed along through generations? Gathered through a survey? Not every good generalization has to come from first-hand experience, but you should acknowledge the source.
Be as specific as you reasonably can when referring to a group. Do you really mean that all Indians like to talk about their international travel, or mostly New and Wealthy Indians? It’s not always possible or practical to be extremely specific, but acknowledge it when you can. Also, the larger the group size you are referring to, the more helpful (and less hurtful) it should be.
Avoid words like “all” and “always”. These words change the conversation from establishing a helpful starting point to finding the exception. They invite a fight, and all it takes is one example to prove you wrong.
Allow generalizations to be in flux. People change all the time. Trends come and go. Just because something was true in your grandfather’s world doesn’t mean it still applies. Be willing to take in new information and give yourself a new starting point.
Two questions to ask before you correct a generalization
There are plenty of bad generalizations out there. In cross-cultural settings, you may feel compelled to correct someone’s generalization, especially if they are speaking about your home culture. There have been countless times in the India that I felt I needed to correct someone’s basic understanding of the US.
However, it’s not always wise, possible, or helpful to correct every generalization out there. Here are two questions to ask before you try.
1) Is this promoting a harmful starting place?
If you notice someone telling others, “Indians will never tell you what they think”, that can be a harmful place for someone to start, and it is probably worth it to challenge. However, “Indians are crazy drivers”, while not always accurate, is not an immediately harmful starting place.
2) Even if it is not true of you, is it true of most people in your group?
How personal is the indignation you are feeling? When I hear that Americans are always getting divorced, my mind immediately goes to the many happy, longstanding marriages I know of. However, I also have to be honest and say that by and large, a lot of Americans do get divorced.
How generalizations are used on LeaningIndia.in
For a website for people to learn about India, I’ll need to keep using generalizations for these reasons:
- India has so much diversity that generalizations are an absolute necessity for the uninitiated.
- There are so many incorrect assumptions about India out there, and some of the longer held ones need to be corrected.
- Most people aren’t aware of the hundreds of sub-groups in India, and generalizations are a helpful introduction.
- I’m committed to providing helpful and not hurtful generalizations.
- Indians themselves use generalizations all the time and outsiders should at least be aware of what they are.
This topic will always be a tricky one, but I think it’s time we embraced generalizations and used them for good.
Photo Credit: Mongo Gushi on Flickr