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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 July, 2003, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Rolling out the old cliches
Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Most Europeans use the same money to buy the same brands, sport the same fashions and watch the same films.

Fried breakfast
The Brits start every morning with a fried breakfast, and maybe a pint
Yet still, it would appear from recent events, they insist on drawing a line between themselves and their European neighbours by drawing up unkind caricatures of one another.

The well-worn stereotypes of Germans have been wheeled out over the past two weeks by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and one of his junior ministers, Stefano Stefani.

Mr Berlusconi opted for a Nazi cliché, while his employee went for the image of sunbed-hogging German tourists who "invade" Italian beaches.

But are these politicians simply being just that - politicians, or are their remarks symbolic of a wider hatred of each other which lurks in the heart of every EU citizen from Seville to Stockholm?

Moving on

The Germans are not the only ones to suffer from dogged stereotypes.

The British are still portrayed as class-obsessed, aggressive fox hunters, while the people of the Mediterannean may be passionate when they are awake but usually they're taking siestas.

It doesn't really matter that much as long as people keep their stereotypes to themselves
Adam Rutland
Behavioural analyst
Stereotyping is not, of course, a recent phenomenon.

In the days when it was not possible to draw unflattering caricatures of those from other countries, because the nation state did not exist, Europeans had to be content with stereotyping those of another religion, or of the opposite sex.

Jews, along with Muslims, tended to be portrayed as swarthy skinned souls sporting exaggerated features and menacing grimaces.

Usually they were pictured stabbing Christ, or lambs.

Women, for their part, had to contend with being typecast as nags or temptresses, hysterical or otherwise.

Some of these stereotypes, unfortunately, still persist. But over the past 500 years, Europeans have worked on a new target - their counterparts abroad.

Growing up

One school of thought would suggest that forming and propagating derogatory perceptions of our rivals is inevitable, an almost ritualistic exercise designed to boost our own sense of identity.

"When people are uncertain of themselves and feeling insecure, negative stereotyping does tend to follow," says Dr Adam Rutland, a behavioural analyst.

Usually however, Dr Rutland notes, people have learned by the time they reach adulthood to keep their prejudices to themselves, unlike Signori Berlusconi and Stefani.

The Dutch only wear clogs
Indeed, according to Jens-Peter Bonde, a Danish eurosceptic member of the European parliament, the remarks say much more about these particular politicians than any European trend.

"This is about infighting within the political elite and some rather ridiculous Italian politicians. It's childish politics that Germans and Italians along with the rest of Europe have viewed with contempt."

"I believe it's politicians that Europeans feel distanced from, rather than each other. Globalisation means stereotypes are fading, within the EU, beyond the EU. In fact, it's got nothing to do with the EU."

Why not?

And even if a handful of well-worn clichés persist, it may be worthwhile not to be too po-faced about them.

As one German cultural official conceded to BBC News Online, Germans had to work out whether they really cared if some people in some countries occasionally poked fun at them.

"Perhaps we have to learn to laugh too, at us, at them," said Christoph Muecher, head of the commission for marketing at Germany's cultural arm, the Goethe Institute.

Plus, with the rough comes the smooth.

The alleged French obsession with odd culinary dishes which earned its people the term "frog" in the English vernacular, has earned Paris the reputation as the world's gastronomic capital, even when other cities now arguably have equal claim to the title.

German industry has long benefited from an international reputation for ruthless efficiency from untiring workers, even though their working day is now shorter than most and their holidays longer.

The chances are that Europeans will just have to learn to live with the odd inaccurate portrayal as a fox-hunting obsessive or as a flamenco-dancing bull-fighter, despite increasing integration.

When stereotypes exist not just at the national level, but also between north and south, between neighbourhoods, between gangs in the playground, the chances of an occasional cross-border jibe are likely to remain.

Why do you think stereotypes persist? Can you imagine them coming to an end as our world view gets wider? What stereotypes annoy you the most?

A convenient generalisation
Rod Parkes, Hong Kong
Stereotypes are a convenient generalisation that sum up our experience, but they are not universal rules. They only become a problem when we wrongly assume that everyone conforms to them.
Rod Parkes, Hong Kong

A stereotype, like a good joke, often has a grain of truth to it. It is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. The trouble comes when people see others only or primarily by means of stereotypes. When this happens, the seeing of each individual as an individual stops and prejudice begins.
Curt, USA

I don't think Europeans care too much about this stereotyping, because we know that it doesn't apply nowadays. However, it's sometimes fun to think of ourselves in relation to our past - we'll probably laugh it off or put it in our jokes.
Shelley, England, UK

Perhaps we are all taking ourselves too seriously
Katriona, Singapore
There is a fine line between stereotyping and prejudice. Maybe people in Europe find it easier to laugh at themselves. Perhaps we are all taking ourselves too seriously or possibly we are being too crass and general when we articulate so we offend others?
Katriona, British citizen living in Singapore

We are different from each other in many respects, so what? It would be a very dull and boring world if we all had the same culture, appearance, values etc. There would be no point in travelling and meeting interesting new people. Viva la difference!
Luci, USA

People have been stereotyping other nations for thousands of years - remember the Romans and the barbarians? This is not a new thing - people are different and we notice. You can't pretend we're all the same because we're not... and who would want that anyway?
Tom, England

It's human nature to express your feelings, good or bad. It's especially easy if the target is different to yourself. While words can hurt another person's feelings, they remain just words. As long as it doesn't lead to violence or repression, expression is what makes us special. Learn to laugh when you think someone is taking a jab at you...after all, you're being noticed!
Mark, Barcelona

Stereotypes are basically true
Jeremy, US
I think stereotypes persist because they are basically true. People make generalisations based on several consistent observations, and even if not every case fits the pattern, these generalisations are made. It's called 'learning' and it's just human nature. The problem is when behaviours are misunderstood out of context, like when people in one culture do something so openly that has always quietly been assumed to be in bad taste by those in another culture.

For generations people here have strived to become "American" whilst retaining some ethnic pride at the same time. That means accepting the occasional ethnic joke about one's own group with some chagrin, because we all admit the stereotypes have some truth to them, especially among the first wave of immigrants.
Jeremy, US

The one about Brits and fox hunting. Never met a Brit yet who has the foggiest notion as to what "Tally Ho!" actually means.
Topaz, US

Stereotypes serve a necessary function: they simplify the complexity and multiplicity of the world so that we can manage without being overwhelmed. Historically, they helped humans to deal with danger, perceived or real, and today they help us with information overload. That does not make them 'good' or even bad - they just are.
Gary Y. Adkins, USA

Sanjeev Baskar summarised the problem beautifully on Michael Parkinson's chat show. He said something like: "People generally define themselves from the outside in: I was born here, I look like this, my parents are like this, and therefore I am like these people. From the inside out it would be: these are my opinions, I enjoy these things, I dislike these things, therefore who is like me?"
Simon, Switzerland

You can always counter stereotypes with stereotypes and that usually makes people think
Joerg Colberg, Germany/US
As a German, living in the US, I have to deal with stereotypes every day. My accent usually makes people think I'm British but when they hear I'm German they go off. People have congratulated me on the quality of German tools. Or they have told me how much smarter Germans are than Americans (that one has become a real favourite since Bush is in the White House!).

And because people think Germans have no sense of humour I get the weirdest looks when I use even completely absurd irony. People think I'm serious! You can always counter stereotypes with stereotypes and that usually makes people think. Plus most people are polite enough only to mention the harmless stereotypes (tools) and not the nasty ones (Nazis). But then I haven't met Berlusconi in person, yet. Not that I really want to.
Joerg Colberg, Germany, living in the US

I think that stereotypes persist mainly because they are still portrayed by the media. This is especially the case of the low end UK newspapers. As soon as any continental European makes the smallest of disparaging remarks, they start being completely xenophobic (Up yours Delors etc). Then, two pages later they have these huge promotions for day trips to Europe - sometimes the very countries that they are berating. They should remember that some of us, living in the UK, think of ourselves as being European as well as being British!
Gregory Martinez, England

Stereotypes persist because we prefer to remember differences rather than similarities. I still get asked by European acquaintances about the frontier shootouts we supposedly have every day on the streets of Calgary, and where I keep my horses.
Charlene, Calgary, Canada

European stereotyping? In America, we call this prejudice. When it comes to getting along, it seems the Europeans have a lot to learn.
Dan Agramonte, US


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