Several years ago, Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the famous BBC television programme ‘Top Gear’, discovered that one of his guests was half German and half Irish. Immediately, he retorted: “That’s quite an odd combination. It’s like, ‘this must be done absolutely perfectly… tomorrow’”.
This joke played on stereotypes of the Germans as ruthlessly efficient and the Irish as lazy. Many people could understandably be offended by these kinds of assertions. We do not know every Irish person, so how can we then conclude that every Irish person is lazy?
Despite this, there are many places which encourage us to make general assumptions about different nationalities and cultures. From travel guides to websites, it is common to receive advice on the attitudes of the inhabitants of a country.
I recently read on a website that Irish business people were describe as being 'generally rather casual' and 'more outwardly friendly than many European countries'. German business people, on the other hand, are considered to be very direct and according to the website, they 'do not need a personal relationship in order to do business'. Once you hear advice like this, it becomes easier to understand where jokes like the one in the first paragraph come from.
So why do some people frown upon the kind of stereotypes as seen in Clarkson’s joke, while not batting an eyelid when it comes to generalisations. What is the difference between the two?
By definition, a stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. A cultural characteristic, on the other hand, is a pattern of behaviour that is typical of a certain group.
So what does this really mean? Stereotypes are simply exaggerated assumptions about groups of people. Imagine if a tourist visited a small town in Switzerland and saw a number of locals playing the alphorn instrument, and then claimed that Swiss people can play the alphorn. This would be a stereotype! This is an exaggerated image of the Swiss which is based on one tourist’s experience.
If, however, this tourist were to say that the Swiss are very punctual, this could be seen as a cultural characteristic. This is because it is a pattern of behaviour which is very typical in Switzerland: from their transport system to their business meetings.
In this way, some people argue that generalising another culture is not just useful, but important. Politicians always have to be mindful of the cultural characteristics of different countries. By becoming aware of different cultural characteristics, they can avoid causing offence in those cultures.
However, others argue that generalising cultures will always lead to offensive stereotypes. They argue that the best thing we can do is to stop generalising cultures and start treating people as individuals.
All this raises important questions: can making generalisations about groups of people be a positive thing? Or should we always avoid making broad assumptions about different groups?
Do you think there's a difference between stereotypes and cultural characteristics?