03.22.10

Handy stereotypes

Posted in Society, Travel at 7:56 by RjZ

“Sure, Germans are cold and stand-offish, but once you make a friend with a German, it’s a deep relationship that lasts forever.”

I love stereotypes; honestly, they save time and they’re true enough that if you don’t get hung up on forcing people into them even when they don’t actually fit, they can be very handy. Indeed, building relationships, personal or business, stereotypes can be a critical perspective into understanding how others may think differently than you expect at first.

“Americans are very friendly, but it’s all very surface, none of the people I met there during my exchange year are still my friends.”

Much of my blog, essentially, is about stereotypes. If I make a generalization about the Thai, the Chinese, the Germans, or the Americans, am I not stereotyping? I got to thinking about this whole stereotyping thing thanks to recent travels and it’s raised some confusing questions. For example, is that whole friend thing really just about definitions of “friend?” If one language reserves the word for deep, long lasting relationships, and the other uses the translation more freely, then couldn’t this explain why one groups thinks the other is frivolous without realizing that Americans may just qualify for clarity (as I have been forced to do here) when they mean, you know, real friend?

“Italians are just warmer. Generally people from warmer climates are just more full of life. You can’t seriously tell me you haven’t noticed that!”

Each of these examples, reasonably true to some extent, is also patently absurd. Really? Americans don’t make friends that last a long time? Germans, statistically, are less mobile than Americans, but in spite of the distance, I am still friends with the guy I used to deliver newspapers with in the seventh grade. I lived in Germany and Holland for almost a decade and made almost no lasting friendships. Well, there you go, “almost none.” In other words, make a friend in these cold climate cultures and they last forever, see? I guess I must have proven the point after all. Except there really is no real correlation. How many deep, long lasting friendships is any one person likely to have? More likely is that some of the friends we make result in long lasting relationships and some don’t and it has little to do with where you or the friend are from, so long as you connect.

Anyone who has even been to an Italian family dinner can tell you how warm and friendly they can be. It’s hot in Thailand where their friendliness has grown into a country-wide stereotype: “the land of smiles.” Of course, Russians are famous for deep relationships founded on a bottle of vodka but I hear it’s pretty cold there. Doesn’t it seem ridiculous to assume that these surface characteristics mean dinner with a Finnish family is as cold as Helsinki winter? Indeed, very cold climate countries have traditions of letting anyone who comes by late at night in for lodging lest they freeze in the cold. Of course, maybe they’re mean to you if you use this privilege.

Certainly, social mores and cultural biases result in groups of people withholding personal information about their families while for others it’s a condition of conversation. Of course, some groups, on the surface, appear one way or another from the viewpoint of someone outside of their culture; but what’s getting me is that it seems crazy to assume that cold climates make for cold people who can’t make friends, but that these same people, when they finally make a friend, are better at it than any body else. The whole story seems contradictory to me, which is exactly what happens if you bother to analyze stereotypes any further than the shorthand for which they are actually useful.

I’d love to hear what you think? Are Germans really colder? Can’t American’s make deep friendships. Ever met an Italian who was cool and reserved? Or a boistrous Thai? What do the exceptions mean for the stereotypes anyway?

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