On stereotypes

Thursday 21 March 2013

In El Pais the other day (18 March 2013), there was a letter from a teacher of Spanish as a foreign language, describing and commenting on an incident in one of her classes. She had asked a group of Danish students to carry out the exercise of writing down traits of the Spanish character, five positive and five negative. She found that her students made huge lists of the negative traits, and were hard pressed to find much positive to say apart from 'good climate' (and of course, she pointed out that 'climate' is not a description of national character).

The negative traits included: arrogant, domineering, ignorant, lazy, corrupt, poor, xenophobic, unpunctual, frivolous, bad at other languages ... quite a damning selection. The teacher was upset by this, felt humiliated, and protested that these qualities certainly did not, in all honesty, apply to her. However, she also felt compelled to accept that there was some element of truth in the criticisms, and had written the letter to urge that all Spaniards should be concerned by this bad international image of Spaniards, and should try to do something about it.


The letter disturbed me, for a number of reasons. Firstly, having lived in Spain for more than ten years now, and married to a Spaniard for many years more, those negative qualities are absolutely not what would dominate my view of the Spanish character. Try these qualities - warm, open, direct, engaged, lovers of life, socially skilled, brilliant at group activities, resilient in adversity, honourable (if fatalistic about failures of honour), absolutely not xenophobic (rather, intensely curious about other cultures, as many opinion polls have shown) ... and, dammit, not lazy, in my extended personal experience. So, I can only see the views of that group of Danish students as representing the crudest of caricatures.


And then, it disturbed me that this obviously observant and acute Spanish teacher felt more obliged to agree with the caricature than protest (much) at its crudity. Now, it is certainly true that one can cite clear evidence that arrogance, ignorance, laziness and corruption exist in noticeable quantities in Spanish society ... but how much more than in any other culture? I wondered, hesitantly, whether one aspect of the Spanish character might indeed be a certain pessimism, a certain fatalistic acceptance of alleged national flaws ..."It's true, it's true, Spain's such a disaster!" I recall cultured friends of ours quoting sardonically that famous old advertising slogan 'Spain is different', meaning 'Spain doesn't operate by normal intelligent rules, so what do you expect?'


The origin of the Danes' stereotype also puzzled me. To start with, what were these students doing learning the language of a country that they apparently despised? Had they really thought "I know, I'll learn Spanish, and so be able to meet lots of arrogant, ignorant, lazy people ..." ? Did they spend their time outside class socialising with people who were xenophobic, frivolous, etc ? So, had they arrived in Spain with the stereotype already formed? And if so, how was it formed, and by whom?


Finally, it occurs to me that perhaps it is in the nature of stereotypes to be negative. We might accept that stereotypes are a form of generalisation, and thus necessary in order to handle the confusing flow of specific details and observations - but if this is true, there appear to be many more negative stereotypes than positive ones. Stereotypes tend to suggest that those Others are more or less comic or ridiculous or even rather contemptible - in short, that the Others are worse than we are. How many stereotypes can you think of that suggest that the Others are better than Us ?





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