Are all stereotypes true?
Is judging something as “bad” – bad?
Stereotypes and generalizations
I recently wrote about why I find France and French men irresistible. Everything I wrote was based on my truths. As for the stereotypes and generalizations about French men, I stand by them, as examples of behaviors that I have personally experienced, and certainly more than once. I consider that I have enough information to acknowledge stereotypical realities, to sum up my own observations, and to generalize.
With 35 years of travel back and forth (as well as extended stays several times), I’m not speaking without some knowledge. I’ve lived, studied, and worked in France at various points in my life – in Paris, Nice, Provence, Normandy and elsewhere. Now, does that make me an expert? Does it mean that if I generalize (or stereotype), what I say is automatically and universally true?
Surely not! But my opinions are certainly more valid than those of someone who hasn’t had my diverse experience.
That said, there are a hundred destinations in France (at least) that I’ve never seen and would love to visit. And even more spots where I’d like to take up residence for a time, in a rented flat or small house. It’s clear that I adore the culture, that it suits me, and when I spend time in France I bring that positive energy to the experience. Who doesn’t enjoy a guest who is thrilled to be there, respectful of cultural traditions, and speaks the language?
As for my stereotyping, don’t we all use stereotypes, and therefore are potentially biased? More specifically – my generalizations? I consider that I have enough experience (beyond the superficial) to stand by my opinions. When stereotyping slides into judgment (or even prejudice), is that always a problem? Is judgment necessarily bad? Isn’t it just another form of opinion, and aren’t we entitled to our opinions?
Are stereotypes inherently bad?
Stereotypes are based on elements of truth, on attributes that are observed and then used to classify. We use those stereotypes to make quick assessments. It’s natural for people to form opinions (judgments) from the information we have on hand. As for stereotypes – we’ve got millions! There are stereotypes about America and Americans, just as there are about France and the French, Italy and Italians, Germany and Germans, Canada and Canadians, and so on.
We also routinely generalize about men and women, ethnic groups, religious groups, and political groups. We toss out careless statements about kids, old people, nerds, preppies, stoners, jocks, ladies men, cougars – and so much more. We adhere to our stereotypes (until something changes them), and we ascribe judgments, often simplistically: good versus bad, like versus dislike.
Yet stereotypes offer no shades of gray, provide no narration, no explanation, and certainly no exploration.
When you judge an individual based upon a stereotype, do you know his inner world? The stories of his upbringing? His talents? His choices? His constraints? The psychological and intellectual terrain that comprise his experience to date?
Traveling at a young age
I have been fortunate in that I traveled a great deal internationally, and from the time I was 15. I’ve dabbled in many languages, speak a few, and have been chameleon-like in my ability to adapt to new countries and cultures. As I’ve lived in or wandered through France, Russia, Poland, Greece – or as I vacationed in Aruba, Jamaica, or Guadeloupe, I found elements of truth to the cultural stereotypes I held in each country. And I found just as many surprises, as I got to know individuals.
Stereotypes are partial truths about groups, generally without context; they are as false as they are true, when it comes to individuals. So, judgments based upon stereotypes (with little to no additional information) will tend to be unreliable. Might that be what makes our judgments less than a good idea?
- If you generalize based on one experience, by definition, that is not a generalization.
- If you rely solely on “stereotype” of an ethnic or cultural group, a religion, or a political affiliation based on limited experience, you’re as likely to be wrong in your assessments, as you are right.
We all make judgments. Constantly. They are opinions that occasionally slide into prejudice. They are conclusions that sometimes serve to assuage us in some way. They are justifications for behaviors or actions. Judgments, in my judgment, are not inherently bad. What is problematic is the way in which we make them, wield them to damage others, or rely upon them inappropriately.
My world view on short men (or Napoleon?)
I generally prefer tall men, romantically speaking. Ridiculous, considering I’m barely five feet tall. But c’est la vie.
Once, I was involved with a short man. About 5’4″ tall, with elements of the dreaded “Napoleon Complex.” Being a petite woman, I’m very aware of the special difficulties in our world which seems to worship physical stature. So I understood the origin of some of his (over)compensation.
The gentleman in question was wildly funny, incredibly smart, spoke four languages, and… well… he knew a good deal about how to treat a woman. Yes, he was French.
He swept me off my feet, painted us a delicious future, then dropped me out of nowhere. Piecing things together months later, apparently several of us had succumbed to his charms. No, he wasn’t married, but one of the women found out, told us all, and that was that.
Did he break my heart? Well, let’s say he bruised it badly. He was a Frenchman in the US (so I stand by my French men are irresistible remarks). But seriously – does this mean I should never be involved with a short man again?
From one experience, can I say that all short men are not to be trusted?
I don’t think so!
No, it wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the closet. It was our Latvian student, the 17-year old who came to stay with us, brimming over with a number of preconceived notions. About Americans, about the region we live in, and about the religion that we “sort of” practice. He was quite vocal about his ideas, which came from ignorance and stereotypes, based largely on stories he’s heard growing up, along with music and media.
Yesterday afternoon, he boarded a plane for home. I suspect he returned to Latvia with some impressions confirmed, and others irrevocably altered. I know he returned to Eastern Europe with the knowledge that he made two American friends, and one of them is my son.
As for us? We were the ideal environment for this very outspoken young man, in a relatively conservative part of the country. We are not “typical” in many ways. We’re culturally hybrid, reflecting two religious traditions, a single parent situation, and we mix our languages for pleasure. We get mad when we’re mad, we laugh when we find humor, and we take each day more or less as it comes. Study, learning, respect, and an open mind are the essential values in our particular family circus.
We are not stereotypical Americans. Yet we are the essence of America.
If this young man “judges” based on us, will that be a bad thing?
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