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Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Pitfalls of Stereotyping.


A multinational crowd in Paris, taken from the Eifel Tower.
You do it; you know you do. We all do, usually without realising it. We have a tendency to put all people from a nation, class, occupation or whatever into the same pot and accuse them all of the same faults. It’s a form of laziness, sometimes a simple resort to shorthand because we find it too onerous to look beneath the surface, sometimes because we lack experience, sometimes because our circle of friends and acquaintances simply isn’t wide enough.

Here, today, I want to look at the way we, as writers, can easily be persuaded into making our characters into stereotypes; specifically, national stereotypes. Of course, what we should strive for is the archetype instead, if we are attempting to portray a ‘type’ at all.

So, let’s start by understanding what a stereotype actually is. My SOED (Shorted Oxford English Dictionary - 2 large authoritative volumes for those who don’t know), my personal bible for definitions, defines the noun, for the purposes of this piece, as follows: A preconceived , standardised, and oversimplified impression of the characteristics which typify a person…often shared by all members of a society or certain social groups; an attitude based on such a preconception. Also a person…appearing to conform closely to such a standardised impression.

And, because it’s germane, let’s also look at what inspired me to post this today. My wife and I have just (Tuesday 2nd October) returned from a 10 day holiday in France. It’s a country I’ve not visited before, so my expectations of the people were formed by impressions from friends and colleagues. Now, it’s well known that the Brits and the French aren’t natural buddies. They’re said to consider us conservative, dull and uncultured. We, especially the English, apparently consider them arrogant, dirty, sexually predatory and unwelcoming to strangers.
 
But, Paris is as cosmopolitan as any major city so I also expected to meet people of many other nations. I wasn’t disappointed. We were greeted at Charles De Gaul Airport by a charming Frenchman, who drove us to our hotel in the city, speaking excellent English and quietly informative. The receptionist, Karolina, was a pretty, efficient, charming and multilingual Polish girl who greeted us warmly and answered all our questions with knowledge and confidence. The lady who prepared breakfasts and cleaned the rooms was a black Frenchwoman, with no English, who smiled and greeted us with warmth.

We’d booked an all day walking tour of the city and found the French staff at Cityrama helpful and competent with no trace of the arrogance they should have displayed with their superior knowledge. Our guide for the day was Chantal, a charming mature French lady who conducted the tour with skill, humour and encyclopaedic knowledge, shepherding our small group of five around the crowded Louvre, Eifel Tower and Notre Dam with casual expertise and patient attention to our varied needs. The group consisted of my wife and I, both from the north of England, an English woman from London and an American couple from a small town near Cincinnati, Ohio. The latter pair, who made no effort to speak even a greeting in French, could have impressed me with an idea of Americans as being selfish, self-important, inconsiderate, grouchy, complaining, demanding and generally rude. However, not only was this initial impression softened slightly during the day by the addition of a glimpse of inappropriate humour from the man, who seemed to think it okay to mock the armed guards patrolling the Eifel Tower, much to the distress of his wife, but also by his willingness to engage our lone black English lady in conversation.

It helped modify my first impressions of Americans that we sat next to another couple, from Texas, in the first floor restaurant at the Tower (lunch there was part of the package), and they proved charming and interesting neighbours with no trace of the gung-ho attitude displayed by our tour companions. When they left and were replaced by a couple from Washington State, my impressions were further improved due to their quiet and almost shy responses to our conversation.

I could go on to describe the French staff at the Tower restaurant (all charming), the Italian staff at the restaurant where we ate one evening (also charming), the Japanese group who shared our carriage on the train from Paris to St Raphael (amusing, multilingual and helpful), the French taxi driver who waited exactly as arranged via my pigeon-French emails to collect us for our ride to St Maxime and proved to be friendly and welcoming, and the various groups and couples we met on walks, boat trips and in restaurants - Swiss, German, Australian, English and French. But I think you get the picture.

Perhaps the one fly in the ointment, for the French, was the utter lack of customer care shown by the owners of the holiday resort where we spent our week in St Maxime. We were greeted there by an envelope stuck on the outside of the door of the reception point. An inadequate map directed us to our accommodation, where we were expected to make our own beds, and where there was nothing in the way of a welcome pack - no food or drink to refresh the weary travellers, not even any paper in the toilet, and no information about where we might buy such items. This theme extended throughout the week, with an early morning meeting demanded for the following morning, which we attended but for which they failed to show up. This was followed by a departure, where we were expected to allow an inspection prior to leaving, for which they also failed to arrive as arranged, leaving us concerned in case we couldn’t finalise things before the taxi arrived to take us to Nice Airport. As it happened, both these failures were dealt with efficiently and in a friendly manner by two English maintenance men who happened to be on duty, cleaning the swimming pool, at the times.

If I’d based my impressions of the French on the behaviour of the owners of that complex I would have left the place with a very different impression from the one I gleaned by contact with many other people. And that’s my point: apologies for the convoluted trip to arrive here.

If we, as writers, have no contact with the people about whom we write, it’s clear that we can’t rely on the impression provided by minimal contact with a few representatives of a nation or on information given by friends and acquaintances, no matter how well-meaning. The popular habit of labelling people from other countries as if they were all the same is patently absurd. The world, as a whole, seems to regard the French as arrogant, Germans as aggressive, Americans as obsessively self-important, Italians as incurable Lotharios, the Swiss as boring and the English as dull and repressed. If, as writers, we employ such lazy categorisation to describe fictional characters, we do the citizens of the whole world a serious disservice.  

People are different or the same according to our own perceptions, ideas, philosophies and personalities. Whilst the placing of a descriptive label on a whole nation may be considered acceptable for everyday reference (and I don’t think it is), it’s certainly not a satisfactory way for an author to represent a character. If I’ve learned anything about the peoples of various nations it’s that they’re all as complex and individual as we are ourselves. It’s an insult to make a box, label it ‘French’ and stick inside it every person from that nation, unless, of course, it’s a shorthand joke intended to create humour rather than offence.

We’re more than the seed of the country of our birth, however proud, or otherwise, we may be of that origin. Americans are more than America with its brash, overconfident, hypocritical, Bible-bashing, superior and dominating world image. Germans are more than Germany and its efficient, calculating, aggressive, bullying and precise global persona. And the English are more than England with its quaint, bumbling, reserved, atheistic and self-effacing world picture. Each nation is seen as a specific type by every other nation and these types differ according to which nation is describing which: a proof, if ever one were needed, of the inaccuracy of such stereotyping.

So, when you decide to make your villain an Englishman, your business tycoon an American, your lusty lover an Italian, your artist a Frenchman or your engineer a German, please call to mind the simple fact that people are individuals first and national types, if at all, a long way down the line. You’ll make your writing so much more real and accessible and, perhaps more importantly for a writer, you might even collect some foreign friends and readers along the way. 

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