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Do You Know the British?

Stereotypes are a very good starting point for intercultural learning. Below, there is an article that describes some of the uses and dangers of stereotyping, using particular stereotypes of European nationalities as concrete examples.

Before you read

Which of the following terms would you associate with Britain and the British?





















Which of the above would you associate with Poland and the Polish? Are there any other terms you would add?

As you read

  • According to the article, what are the main reasons that we use stereotypes? Which reason do you find the most convincing?
  • What are the benefits and dangers of stereotypes as far as the article is concerned?
  • According to the article, are stereotypes usually negative, positive or a bit of both?

Viewing the Viewer: Stereotypical Stereotypes an article by Adam Dalton

Are stereotypes simply examples of prejudice or the embodiment of identifiable social trends and cultural traditions? Are they subjective, objective or somewhere in-between? Overly generalised, nationally specific or both?

Do you rely on stereotypes? Most people would tell you that they never stereotype others, but that begs the question of where those stereotypes come from and how they continue to be propagated. Perhaps people stereotype others unconsciously, often believing that there is some historical or cultural truth to stereotypes.

I use stereotypes. I admit it. I canít avoid it, and, despite the fact I know I do it, I canít seem to stop it. The class structure is inherent to British value systems and tropes of understanding. As soon as I hear an accented phrase out of the mouth of another Brit, I will unconsciously surmise what the geographical region of their origin is, consider the economic strength and industry of the region, then make a guess as to the quality of the education system of the region (and therefore the individualís access to a high level of education), then make a prediction as to the individualís likely job and then hazard what their social class is.

And thatís just from one phrase or from hearing a certain accent! Yes, itís prejudiced, but itís also instinctive and, perhaps more importantly, useful. For example, if the generalised and unconscious associations I make with the accent I hear are anywhere near the mark, then my response to the individual will be adapted to find some sort of superficial sympathy with them and avoid offence and conflict. Itís just your survival instinct kicking in . . . and we all do it!

There are dangers to this unconscious stereotyping of course. You might come across as patronising if your attempts at sympathy are too uninformed or clumsy. Furthermore, the stereotype you construct may only serve to mislead you and prevent you from benefiting from the communication as much as you might otherwise have done. But your ability to stereotype is adaptive and quickly learns from its mistakes. This is obvious when you consider the fact that on the first occasion that you talk to a new nationality, the odds of you saying something to offend them are high. However, on the second occasion, the odds are significantly lower. And on the third occasion they should be close to negligible. As long as youíre not too slow a learner.

Letís look at some concrete examples. Many countries make jokes about a particular group or nationality being stupid. The Brits make jokes about the Irish. The Poles make jokes about the police. The Canadians make jokes of Newfoundlanders. The French make jokes about the Belgians . . . and so it goes on. Below is an example of a German joke (and an ironic one at that!):

Q. Whatís the difference between Heaven and Hell?

A. In Heaven, the Brits are the comedians, the Germans are the engineers and the French are the lovers. In Hell, the Germans are the humorists, the French are the engineers and the Brits are the lovers.

And other core character traits are identified in this humour of prejudice and stereotype. The Irish make jokes about the Scots being tight-fisted. The Spanish make jokes about the Catalans being scroungers . . . and so that goes on. Iím sure you know other examples that I donít need to repeat here.

That accounts for some of the more negative trends in stereotyping, but there are some that are more ambiguous, even positive some would say. Do you think Brits are reserved, inhibited or distant? Do you consider that a negative trait? I know many Brits who are proud of just such a trait. However, perhaps Brazilians would consider such a trait negative. Are the Brits funny . . . funnier than other cultures? The Brits certainly have a strong tradition in comedy. Is it possible to be funny and outgoing but still reserved? Are Poles romantic or literary? More so than other cultures? Are the French the most romantic? Are men really better drivers than women? Are women really more sensitive than men, or are women simply sociologically programmed to display more emotion than men?

When you really look at it, stereotypes can seem more inaccurate and confusing than useful. They are certainly more limiting than freeing. They can even be dangerous and cause their own problems. So why do we use them? Canít we overcome our instincts? Are we slaves to the unconscious mind? Canít we think with our heads instead of our hearts? How would aliens stereotype human kind?

Why do we continue using stereotypes? There must be a reason other than primitive instinct. Is it laziness and the convenience culture? Do stereotypes represent useful characters that advertising agencies can exploit to sell products quickly and simply, without having to put effort into developing fresh characters, in a way that can appeal directly to a certain target group? Is nationality now becoming a branded good? The case is certainly argued convincingly in Scotland the Brand (reviewed on this website). Do governments actually support stereotypes, seeking to associate certain positive values with their industries, companies and goods? Of course they do. Cultural propaganda is the name of the game. There wonít be physical conflict in the future, only the struggle of cultures. Letís hope there will be fewer victims and negative stereotypes in the future.

After reading

  • Now think about how an alien would stereotype humankind. Make a list of adjectives.
  • The above idea is an aspect of the poem by Craig Raine "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home". Read this poem and compare it with your own ideas.
  • Read a review of Scotland the Brand.

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