Apparently the British Foreign Office once published a guide to foreigners featuring fair and helpful comments such as “Serbs: violent and nationalistic. Croats: hard-working. Hate Italians. Italians: extrovert, hate Croats” etc, etc. This isn’t what the Foreign Office actually said — but it was along those lines.
(If you know where I can find this fascinating document, in the name of GOD please tell me!).
A decade ago I would have said that this was all prejudiced nonsense, and so it is. But now that I’ve lived in four different countries (counting Scotland and England separately!), I can’t help but notice that there’s a grain of truth in certain national stereotypes.
So here’s my take on the whole business. I haven’t included many nationalities since I haven’t met enough people from most places to figure out to what extent the stereotypes match up to reality, but maybe you can help me complete the list …
The stereotypes listed here are just for fun — please don’t take them too seriously! On one level, people are basically the same everywhere, and in any country most people most of the time stubbornly refuse conform to racial and ethnic stereotypes.
So on that note, here we go with Squiffy’s “Foreign Office” Guide to Those Pesky Foreigners.
British Telephone Box
I may as well admit up front — I’m English myself. Here’s what others seems to think of English people, my own opinions aside. We’re reserved, a little boring but wealthy (if only!). We make good music and TV but our food sucks. While the stereotype of the English gentleman or gentlewoman still exists (and some ‘foreigners’ really rave about England, bless them!), sad to say I’ve heard the following phrase applied to us from the lips of people from a number of different countries: “loud, rude and drunk”. Unfortunately lots of English people like to go on holiday and get very, very drunk. Sigh. Bye bye international reputation ….
American Apple Pie
Just after World War II, we all loved Americans to bits. We still love them, but now we also hate them at the same time. Americans are reputed to be loud, friendly, rich as Hell, and astonishingly naive about their own government’s foreign policy. European children love Hollywood films and McDonalds, but adults grow suspicious and cynical about both. Meanwhile America’s military ventures attract both fear and loathing, and at the same time sometimes gratitude. For instance last week I was talking to a guy from Afghanistan who thought the military war waged by America over there (my own country tagging along behind like a sort of military puppy) is really a great thing. I don’t know why, but that’s not what I expected. Maybe I’ve read too much Noam Chomsky. The bottom line with Americans as individuals is — they’re excellent people, but sometimes you might need to take along a pair of ear plugs. Oh, and they really hate communists! That’s probably a good thing …
A Typical Ordinary German
Germans are serious people. Fortunately these days they’re seriously into peace and prosperity, but when they have a war, boy do they go at it. Stereotypes of German people revolve around them being serious, precise, intelligent and occasionally built like Schwarzenegger (who himself is actually Austrian-American). The stereotypes doubtless have something to do with people like the pioneering electronic band Kraftwerk and advertisements for Audi cars featuring cool-headed engineers speaking in precise Germanic tones. Unfortunately lingering memories of the Nazis throughout Europe still color perceptions of Germany today just a little bit. Thankfully those days are gone, and today Berlin is possibly one of the most interesting towns to visit in Europe.
Dutch people are widely regarded as pragmatic, tolerant and easy-going. There’s a lot of truth in this. They are also, by their own admission, obsessed with money and taxes. This is the nation that gave rise to the expression “going Dutch”, meaning sharing a bill equally. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since the Dutch invented the stock exchange, the corporation and now enjoy tax rates of as much as 52%. Foreigners are sometimes inclined to see the Netherlands (aka Holland) as an exciting place, this view being based upon the Dutch legal toleration of cannabis and prostitution. However, the open sale of sex and drugs is more about tolerance and practicality in the Netherlands, rather than hedonism; far from being a wildly exciting place, the Netherlands is really just an extremely practical and down-to-Earth sort of a place. You might even call it boring. If you ever meet a Dutch person, expect an extremely tolerant and reasonable conversation — provided you don’t mention money. And get used to gazing upwards, because the Dutch are the tallest people in Europe, outstripping their closest rivals, the Scandanavians, by about an inch.
Pizza. Thankyou, Italy
Italians are seen as extrovert, warm, passionate and good at cooking. They are also, dare I mention, somewhat associated with organised crime in the public mind; an association which is both negative and, thanks to the appeal of a certain classic film (The Godfather!), strangely positive. The book Pinocchio, a children’s story about a rambunctious puppet who has trouble with rules but wants to be good in his heart, is often claimed by Italians themselves to sum up the national character. Italians often see themselves as belonging primarily to the region they come from rather than the country as whole. In fact the Italian language only attained full coverage of the country with the advent of television; even now, many Italians grow up speaking a regional language that is incomprehensible to people three kilometres away. If you meet an Italian, whatever you do don’t mention Silvio Berlusconi. This man has the power to reduce many fully-grown Italians to a brooding, angry silence. And yet strangely they can’t stop voting for him. But do ask your Italian to tell you some Italian recipes — these people know their food. FACT.
I must mention Hungarians on this page, because I’ve decided to move to the country shortly. Hungary has a strangely low profile, at least in the West. If you ask around, you might find someone who will tell you that “a Hungarian is a person who will enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead of you”. I’ve been trying to work out what that means — does the Hungarian come out ahead due to their fiendish intelligence? After all, the country has more Nobel Prize winners per capita than any other country (24 at the last count), and the Hungarian language, which is unrelated to most other European languages, is so fiendishly complex that it surely must do something whacky to their brains.
OR — does the Hungarian stick a knife in you inside the revolving door? The legend of Dracula seems to have given Hungarians a slight, but highly undeserved reputation for violence; Béla Lugosi was Hungarian, and Transylvania used to be a part of Hungary. While I think of it, I’d better warn you that Hungarians are still hopping mad about the treaty of Trianon, which deprived them of 72% of their territory and removed them from their position of a dominant global power. Neither do Hungarians share the Western obsession with communism; in spite of (or because of) emerging from forty-four years of communism in 1989 and being extremely glad to see the back of it, and in spite of being instrumental in the destruction of the iron curtain, Hungarians appear to be not exactly wild about revisiting their communist past, and a museum that opened in Budapest a few years ago commemorating victims of the notorious AVO secret police was met with a mixed reception. Hungarians are reputed to be intelligent, direct, a little pessimistic and to enjoy black humour.
Well, that’s it for the moment. This is a very limited and eclectic selection of national stereotypes, I admit. Most countries I know nothing about people’s views of, much less what the countries are like in themselves. Other countries I just don’t want to comment on, since the stereotypes I’ve heard are too horrendously unfair! Tell me what you think via this page’s comments, and maybe we can build up a definitive list of our biased and unfair prejudices!