East Asia Student

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Outgroup homogeneity in China

There’s a lot of commentary on Chinese society, culture and even behaviour on the Web. Just the term “Chinese behaviour” ought to raise more than a few eyebrows, but unfortunately it seems like that’s not the case most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a lot of quality China analysis out there, but there’s even more that can be fairly described as complete nonsense.

What I want to talk about here is this issue in relation to the good old outgroup homogeneity effect. If you’re not already aware of this, it can be summed up as the human tendency to think in the following way:

If someone outside of my group does something, it’s because everyone in their group is like that. If someone inside my group does something, it’s because that individual person is like that.

It’s a pretty obvious point these days, but as with all cognitive biases, knowing about it doesn’t stop you doing it (there’s no shortage of studies that have found the majority of people consider themselves less susceptible to cognitive bias than average). I think pretty much every China expat has done it at least once: something crap or ridiculous happens in China, and we decide it’s because of China. There’s even a dedicated website for it.

It’s the bad China days, frustrations, manners, safety, hygiene and whatever else that’s the topic of endless blog posts and forum threads. I do them too.

But you only need to consider it for a moment and in the end you know that most of that stuff happens everywhere. There are arseholes, idiots, jobsworths and racists back home, and they’ve got plenty of infuriating bureaucracy, incompetence and general ignorance between them.

No-one denies that, but at the same time we don’t write articles about it, because it’s not interesting. Everywhere that has people has those issues, and we all make that discovery sooner or later. For some reason, though, as soon as we come out to a different country, they become cultural issues. So then it becomes meaningful to analyse it on that level, rant about it and back-slap each other for living in such an unliveable country.

I’m by no means the first to say it, but: what a load of crap. Yes, every once in a while something happens in China that isn’t really conceivable back home. But far more often, weird and/or bad stuff happens in China because the individual in question is weird and/or bad. If we’re being honest, it’s extremely rare to encounter an issue that’s unheard of back home.

I’m sure this post will prompt a lot of people to think “get off your high horse”, but whatever. I’ve found that having an opinion on other people’s opinions often provokes that response. I still think this is something that most people know about, but don’t pay enough attention to to resist the temptation to whinge about China every now and then.

The whingeing is fine, the ‘about China’ bit is not.

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