A Category Allegory

Janet- Sized for InternetTry to see if you can put a label on Janet.

Janet was great member of our team a few years ago. She was born in Taiwan and spoke the Fujian dialect of Chinese in her home. At age one, her family moved to Brazil and Portuguese became her first language. When she was 12, she moved to California and started speaking English primarily. Wanting to find some new friends, she started visiting the Chinese-speaking church across the street from her house and learned Mandarin Chinese. She had a passion for teaching and graduated from college with a degree in teaching Spanish. (That’s her 5th language, in case you weren’t counting.)

So, if you wanted to describe Janet in one or two words, how would you do it? Is she a studious Chinese? A laid-back Brazilian? A liberal Californian?

It’s hard, isn’t it?

We are going to look at categories today in the second and last part of this short series on perception in culture. In the first part of this series, we talked about two important facts:

1.) we have too much information coming into our brains, so have to notice only certain things; and

2.) many of the things we do notice are determined by culture.

Why Are Categories Important?

Every time we see something new or meet someone for the fist time, we must put the thing or the person into a category. This has to do with the “too much information problem” we talked about earlier. Categories are one way that our brains help us make sense of the world by making the world a simpler place.

Are Categories Good or Bad?

Are categories good ro bad? The answer is yes and no. Categories can be good (and are absolutely necessary) to help us make sense of the world. They can be bad because they also are the root of prejudice and negative stereotyping.

Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we are forced to put them into a category in order to make sense of the world. Those categories are largely based on our experience. If the new coworker is Korean and we have had good experiences with Koreans in the past, we are very likely to begin the relationship with a positive view. Unfortunately, the reverse is true. If we have had bad experiences with Koreans in the past, even though we have never met the new employee, we very likely will have a negative view of him or her. We can’t help it; we are humans and that is what humans do to deal with the flood of information hitting our brains every moment.

Two Extremely Important Points About Categories

Firm Categories

People tend to either have firmer or looser categories and this distinction is based both on personality and culture. Some people by nature have very firm categories and some cultures also tend to have categories that are fixed and inflexible. In other personality types and cultures, the categories are looser. The firmer the category, the less likely we are to change our opinion and feelings about the new person or experience.

Category Width

In every category there are 3 areas: “good,” “bad,” and not good or bad, just “different.” When psychologists talk about category width, they are talking about how wide the “different” part in the middle of the category is.

Narrow Categories

Practical Help

If you really want to be effective as part of a multicultural team and communicate well in a multicultural environment, you can do 2 important things.

  • Be less firm in your categories. Be open to new ideas and feelings about new people you meet and the actions of others from different cultures. Expand your mind and be open to change.
  • Expand your category width. Try to see fewer things as either “good” or “bad” based on your cultural perspective and increase the middle part—the “just different” part—of your categories.

Not as good:

Narrow Categories




Wide Categories



So, how do you put a label on Janet? The answer is that we can’t. Neither can we put a strict label on anybody. We are all a mixture of cultures and personalities. Expand your categories and your mind and enjoy the beautiful diversity of this beautiful world.

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