"All the French love cheese!"
"Americans are all stupid!"
"Polish people are powerhungry and climb to the top."
"Italians eat all the time!"
"Brazilians love to party!"
"Venezuelans put ice in all their drinks"
You probably have heard a few of these before, and if not you probably will hear a similar thing soon. Most of the time these observations are made by well intended travellers "wow so many people in France put cheese on everything" or "Americans don't seem to know any language but English" as they think they are being observant and trying to learn about another culture that isn't their own.
The most harmful part of this is when a well meaning person will talk over somebody from that culture;
American: So all those Japanese people do x
Japanese Girl: Actually not all of us...
American: As I was saying
Ahhhh no this isn't helpful dialogue my friends in fact in damages cultural dialogue. We should never claim to know more about a situation or a place than somebody who is actually from that country. Even then we must keep in mind that within the same country you can have many different perspectives and people who are all individuals. I had a conversation with several Italian friends and they all had different ideas about their country's politics and situations, I loved talking with them and felt like they were giving me a glimpse into their life. Italy, Austria, Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands, China, Japan, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and the list goes on- I have had so many fantastic dialogues with dear friends from these countries and each one had something unique and special to share with me. I forever value every international dialogue I have had and hope that I will have many more in the future as we strive for a more connected world where cultures are shared as frequently as the weather in Washington, DC changes!
One of the best things about my group of international friends is that we all have something different to share and we all are unique individuals with cool topics we are reaching. While we all come from vastly different backgrounds we get along wonderfully and share new facts with each other, and have a great time laughing and having adventures.
I hope someday that all cultural dialogues can be as strong as my friends and I but sadly this is not always the case.
Two things I have observed over the years that is coming in the way of cultural dialogue are these
2) Talking over people
My friends, keep in mind stereotypes are a trap! While some stereotypes may seem innocent and harmless like the French people and cheese (I eat a ton of cheese and am not French) it still is a lazy way to "observe" cultures and is not observing a culture but a stereotype of that culture, or a stereotype you already know and are trying to confirm it. While it may be true that many in France love their cheeses, there are French people I've met who can't eat cheese or have allergies to cheese. This stereotype isn't harmful as some others but please keep in mind if you see a French person who can't eat cheese it doesn't mean they are less French.
Likewise my homecountry the United States is a target of many stereotypes- most of them are negative. At the tender age of 9 years old I memorized every country of the world and read a book about each one. I frequently went to events involving other cultures and talked to people at church who were from places like India, Syria, Lebanon, Venezuela, Bolivia, and countless others. I remember being captivated by stories about far off locations, and wanted to travel to every single one. I dreamed of a day I would be strolling the streets of Paris speaking perfect French, a day when I'd see the jungles of Thailand and climb the peaks of the Bolivian Andes. I still am forever intrigued by the world outside of my homeland.
Was I not an American? Ahhh that would be silly to assume so! My family has lived in the United States since the 1700s, and yes I do care deeply for my homeland as well as I do about the rest of the world. My ancestors took part in the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, I grew up on these stories just as closely as I grew up on stories about the world.
Most people I've talked to know better, an American can be intrigued by the world but unfortunately I have encountered individuals who hold to the idea that all of us are stupid. Now I have had moments where I talk to people from outside the United States and they marvel that I know the capital of Russia is Moscow. I laugh and I'm like "That's an easy one! now want to talk about Tajikistan?" Instantly I get bombarded by questions about where my family is "actually from" as though I can't be truly from the United States.
Sadly most of the people who hold to the "Americans are dumb" stereotype are also Americans. This is a harmful stereotype and comes from the days when the rich were well traveled and wanted the poor people back in the US to feel stupid about not knowing all the regions of England. Many Americans today hold the idea "ohh if you know German your parents must be from Germany" or "if you know so much about Poland- are you actually from there?"
Ahh alas, I can lay no claim to any German heritage and neither am I actually Polish. I love both cultures and am knowledgeable about them regardless.
My friends, this is a silly example but shows what stereotyping does to people's thinking they generalize to the point where when they meet somebody who does not fit their stereotypical mold their minds are confounded by this "problem" and want an explanation.
The explanation is clear my dear readers- we are all individuals and our cultures influence us, but stereotypes are just that- stereotypes. While they may be true in a general sense such as many cultures in the African continent have wonderful dances and celebrations, this does not mean your new friend from Burundi is the best dancer on earth.
The most harmful part about stereotypes is what it does to marginalized groups. My story about "smart Americans" is quite light and not as serious as the very real problems that Jewish people, Hispanics and African Americans face on a daily basis. Discrimination is real and many people are unfairly targeted by the color of their skin. Hatred and harmful stereotypes feed into these false perceptions of "lazy people!" or "criminals!"
These stereotypes are the most obvious that come to mind, the harm that real people are facing everyday. A Pakistani friend of mine got called a "terrorist!" on the bus, I have Hispanic friends who also have been targeted by such hate.
Why does this happen?
My friends the answer is ignorance. The best way to confront this is to stop stereotyping, and to recognize stereotypes whenever you see them.
Listen to people who are from that culture as they explain what things are really life. I don't appreciate it when I explain to people "actually, most Americans know where Germany is" and I get cut off by people claiming to know more about my homecountry than I do. The same goes for Americans who cut off Venezuelans and say "actually this is what is really going on in your country!"
The list goes on, and while I'm sure many of these are people trying to make sense of a new country and culture by simplifying it you are not simplifying it you are destroying the richness of culture with stereotypes seen on TV and reducing people from unique individuals into figures from Gulliver's Travels.
We cannot truly know another culture if we rely on stereotypes (both harmless and harmful) and talk over people from other cultures. At the core of cultural dialogue is the principle of- humanity.
My friends the solution to ending stereotypes is simple, listen to people for who they are as individuals. We can joke and tease about harmless cultural stereotypes such as "ahhh yess I may be Italian but I hate pasta!" or "can you believe I'm Irish but can't do a jig!" but do not let stereotypes become your basis for talking about world cultures. Listen to people and your friends who are from cultures that aren't your own, observe but do not claim to know more about their country than they do. Ask questions! Remember each culture contains knowledge and stories that are found in that culture, and unique perspectives to world events. I cherish the stories I have heard from Republic of the Congo and Ecuador, from Liberia and Austria- from all the far reaches of the world, from Norway to Argentina, from Japan to Ireland- we are humanity. We are diverse as our nations are, we are all humans at the end of the day who love to dream and love liberty.