When did you last use a stereotype? What was it?
As an avid student of human behaviour and a keen observer of people, I find that stereotypes are all around me. Everyday I hear or read about all manner of stereotypes. They can be gender-related, like “that’s such a typical guy thing to do!”, or profession-related, such as “spoken like a true lawyer”. But I think the most prevalent stereotypes are the ones related to a certain nationality or culture.
I think the last time I used one was whilst discussing the current situation in Greece with a few friends and family members right after the election on the 6th of May. We were talking about our inability, as Greeks, to unite and work together to help the country out of the crisis. The sheer number of political parties, from the far left to the extreme right, shows that voters are both angry and confused, and politicians are using this to the max. We were discussing where this stems from, and inevitably it became a discussion about the mentality of the nation.
Individualism and thinking only of ones own interest are stereoptypical characteristics of “the Greek”, as are stubbornness and rebellion, particularly towards “foreign” authority. These are aspects of the Greek mentality that can be both problematic and an asset. Of course, these characteristics only represent a fraction of the complexity of the subject, and were mainly highlighted to illustrate a specific aspect of our topic. No-one taking part in the discussion was under the illusion that they form the whole story, as stereotypes also tend to generalise in a simplistic manner. But the interesting thing was that everyone in this discussion recognised these characteristics as typical Greek attributes, albeit non-exhaustive. We all recognised parts of ourselves in them, even though all of us are Swedish citizens, living and working in Sweden under completely different circumstances. But we all felt entitled to express ourselves about “our” people, and the stereotypical attributes created a relation to “the Greek”.
Can stereotypes serve a function?
I think stereotypes emerge and continue to exist for a reason. Human beings always try to find ways of relating to each other, and to ”the other”. Stereotypes emerge when we feel enough people of a certain culture (I use culture in its broadest sense) demonstrate similar traits or behaviours to eventually represent whole groups or nations. Sometimes they can be derogatory and used to illustrate what is ”typical”, in a negative sense. Taken too far stereotypes can lead to catastrophic results, especially when they are thought to be exhaustive, and true beyond any doubt. Stereotypes can lead to the demonisation of whole groups of people, such as the Jews or Roma, or even entire nations.
Stereotypes should, in my opinion, be taken with a pinch of salt and be free from value-added judgement. By this I mean that recognising common characteristics in a people or a group should not lead us to think more or less of them in relation to ourselves. One should remember that stereotypes do not tell the whole story, they are just indications that help us recognise people around us.
In fact, I think the most fun part of stereotypes is when they prove to be wrong! We tend to assume that just because someone is Italian, or French, or a teacher, accountant or doctor, that we know everything about them, how they act, think and behave, what food they like, what clothes they wear, if they are fun or boring, warm or cold etc. And then just when you thought you knew this person you end up talking to them, and they are not what you expected. That’s when stereotypes go back in their box, and you see the person.
The funny thing about stereotypes, however, is that they can also come in handy, if they are positive. Tourism boards all over the world use positive connotations to promote countries and cities. People also like to use stereotypes when they portray them in a good light, like ”is it true that all Scandinavian women are tall, blonde and beautiful?” Yes, of course, would be the answer (not even close to being true!). Or ”Danish people are the happiest in the world” etc. These stereotypes should also come with a heavy pinch of salt!
Ultimately I think we use stereotypes in order to relate to each other, to recognise something in the unknown that helps us navigate the world. Sometimes this can be good, sometimes really bad. The important thing, in my opinion, is to remember, that it is merely a tiny fraction of the story, and what lies beyond is much more complex, and interesting, than stereotypes could ever take credit for.
Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?
It is difficult to consider this question without looking at what is happening in Greece and how the rest of Europe is responding to it. There are a number of stereotypes that have been fortified over the course of the last few years. I say fortified because they has existed for a long time, but back in the good old days it was more of a smile and a resigned shrug at the hopelessness of Greeks and their inability to get organized. But that was back then.
In today’s Europe the stereotype has become fact, absolute fact for many. We can thank the media for this. We can thank panicky politicians and big business bosses for this. And we can thank ourselves for this too. The “lazy”, “irresponsible”, “frivolous” Greek, who doesn’t pay taxes, who spends all his time trying to find a way to cheat the system, to get as much as possible for as little as possible, that is the image we have today. And many accept it. Are there elements of truth? I’ll be the first to admit it. But is it the whole truth? Can we really sum up the crisis that easily? I don’t think we can.
See, the problem with accepting one-dimensional stereotypes is that once you accept one, you end up accepting more and more of them, and they spread, like a cancer. For instance, the crisis has given rise to serious anti-German sentiments. Germany is once again a symbol of oppression, a threat and a bully. This does not lead the “lazy” Greek to want to pay for a bailout that’s being enforced by the “fascist” German, believe me! Instead, the stereotypes become dividers, a way of separating “us” from “them”, and ultimately it distracts us from the real issues (bankers gone bonkers, to put it simply). The consequences, in my opinion, are dangerous. I have argued before that stereotypes are only acceptable if there is a general awareness of their superficiality, when we know that there is more to the story. But they become dangerous when they replace the complex, multi-layered truth. In this case I would argue that the situation in Greece cannot solely be put to the nature of the Greek, because if it was then how come so many more countries are in trouble? ! Are all these countries just bad? Or could it be that the story is bigger than that, bigger than what Der Spiegel tells us?? And isn’t it far too simplistic to point to Germany and say that all Germans are oppressive fascists who want Greece to go under? What about those arguing for helping Greece out of the crisis? German MEPs have repeatedly raised the warning flag of populism and point to the issues we really should be concerned with.
The more I think about stereotypes the more I start fearing them. I can self-critically say that occasionally, they get to me too. It is easy to be affected, just look at the rise in extreme right-wing populism all over Europe where people just buy the simple stereotype because the truth is too complicated, too hard to handle.
Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?
I must admit, I don’t like this question. The reason is, I am not very happy about Europeans at the moment. And I find it hard to describe a European without resorting to stereotypes, which, as I reflect more and more on them, I find odious.
I would like to think that looking at a European one would see a cultured, intelligent, open-minded, wise and worldly person, with a natural curiosity and easy friendliness. I am, however, afraid in reality the picture would be less flattering. I think we Europeans think very highly of ourselves, our history, our traditions such as democracy, our humanism and our collective culture. I know I do. However, I also think we have taken that picture a bit for granted. I recently spoke to a friend of mine
from Somalia. We talked about her experiences when she first arrived in Europe, and they are pretty shameful. Turns out, we are not necessarily that civilized and open- minded. We can be pretty nasty, to be quite frank. We are not necessarily curious but suspicious, and we are not true humanists because, as she put it, “we value people differently depending on where they are from”. This embarrassed me, because I do suffer from European guilt after centuries of colonialism and expansion of our European, might I add Christian, ways. As for the Brazilian and the Chinese, I believe both would probably see as a has-beens, given their steady rise in the world.
Having said that, I do think that the European would also be seen as wise and cultured, especially in comparison to other countries in the West. I do think we are still the strongest champions of justice, equality and defense of human rights, if we compare to other parts of the world. And I do think many people see Europe as a place of freedom and of peace. I’m just worried that we’re resting on our laurels and take it for granted, not safe-guarding these qualities but using them as we see fit. That’s not the kind of European I would like to be seen as.