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THE OTHERS: Origins and Applications of National Stereotypes

September 29, 2011

It’s not easy to begin an article detailing national stereotypes.  Inevitably, the first that come to mind are the negative, often parodied stereotypes that make irreverent persons laugh, and more conventional folk recoil and check the room.   I’ll try to avoid crassness in my examples, but it may prove a challenge, especially in today’s politically correct society.

We are all familiar with these stereotypes.  We may have even encountered a few living incarnations in our time: The cheese-eating, smoking, snooty, American-hating, surrendering French;  the posh, tea-drinking, snaggle-toothed, foppish Brits; Mexicans as luxuriously mustached, sleepy, sombrero-wearing likenesses of Speedy Gonzales (and that all Hispanic-Americans are, of course, Mexican); the pug-nosed, diminutive, fiery-tempered Irish.  Last, but not least is the American stereotype: either obese, lazy, ignorant and loud, or lean, rich, greedy and merciless. Some of these concepts are so prevalent that a British graphic designer created an irreverent series of maps according to common stereotypes.  These viewpoints, while embarrassing and obtuse, took root somewhere in our past and spread.  Even those who reject these stereotypes are acutely aware of their prevalence in our culture.

While I have repeated some popular stereotypes, I did not invent them.  They have somehow become well-recognized in Western society, and left completely unquestioned within some American subcultures.  Stereotypes pervade every culture, every country, and all time.  They exist, in one form or another, due to our very nature as human beings.

Humans are instinctively compelled to categorize, identify and recognize patterns as a way of understanding the world around us.  This allowed us, as a species, a shared understanding of the natural world and how we might best survive in it.   We even see patterns that do not exist as a byproduct of this compulsion, and attribute qualities to an entire group that may only apply to a few.  Humans developed this psychological tool as a way to loosely define not only the natural world, but the nature of  complex, nuanced, foreign cultures.  It is a perpetually running program in our brains to differentiate “us” from the “others,” “safety” from “threat.”

As evidenced by the famous Robber’s Cave Experiment, this phenomenon is found even in the nature of children. When left alone in a group, they will develop an internal social hierarchy and a group identity.  In this particular experiment, two groups of boys, both unknown to the other, were left isolated until they have meshed as a group.   The two groups were then “accidentally” introduced to each other by the adults running the experiment.  Hostilities arose almost immediately; names were called, property was stolen and vandalized, and it nearly resulted in physical violence.  Boys in both groups were certain they understood the mentality and inner workings of the other group better than the other group understood theirs, and that they (the “others”) were inherently bad and strange.

Political cartoons have used national stereotypes to convey messages for centuries. This cartoon by Henri Meyer (1844-1899) satirizes European imperialism.

Seemingly, the result of the experiment was: this instinctive hostility arises when two groups are in competition for limited resources, and the result is often great attention to the perceived faults of the other group, but a lack of attention to those qualities that make the “Us” group similar to the “Other” group.  However, this breaks down if there is a third, greater perceived threat or a superordinate goal.  This was seen when the two groups of boys were told that their water supply had been compromised by vandals.  They worked together to repair it, when just moments before they had been poised to bludgeon each other with rocks.

Stereotypes, as uncouth as they are in modern society, seem to be the byproduct of far more primitive times, when we needed to make quick decisions about the nature of another group in order to survive [1].  Such instinctive behavior persists in us, as was shown by the Robber’s Cave Experiment,  as we judge ourselves against others, subconsciously assigning rank to each other in different social groups at different times throughout our lives.  It is, whether you placed stock in it or not, easy to recall who was considered “popular” or “unpopular” in grade school.  In adult life, steeped even further in social conditioning, we’re nigh-immediately aware of who is considered a little “strange” or “socially off,” even in a new group; we sense it in the behavior of not only the individual, but the group around him/her.  These instincts fuel our subconsciously strategic social behaviors; we instinctively seek our preferred social “position” within any particular group based on snap judgments of the existing members, and these relationships continue to influence our understanding of the world and ourselves.

This is our humanity.  Having instincts that may be contrary to our more intellectual, enlightened beliefs is all part and parcel of being human.  It is not that we ought to deny that we find humor in TV characters like Apu on The Simpsons, with his jovial and oft-repeated “Thank you, come again,” in an exaggerated Hindi accent while working the Kwik-E-Mart counter.  It is, however, our responsibility as an ever-globalizing, super-connected culture of human beings to educate ourselves in terms of cultural sensibilities.  “The Others” are often just “Us.”  “They” simply live in different circumstances and possess different backgrounds.  It is our duty as intelligent, social creatures to acknowledge that each of us deserves to be treated with basic human decency and respect, regardless of our flawed assumptions of one another.

[1] Fear itself: the origin and nature of the powerful emotion that shapes our our lives and our world. Rush W. Dozier. St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
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