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Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Cultural Stereotypes


I have been an expat for almost 13 years or roughly one-third of my life. I grew up in Northern Germany and moved to the South in 1990 so really we’re talking about 21 years that I have not lived “at home.” (As in most countries, the North and South of Germany are very different.) I think I am so used to it by now that I can’t easily say where exactly I come from. I do know, however, that I will probably not go back.

There are some aspects of life in Germany that I frankly do not like a lot. The most annoying bit about us Germans is our manners. We are generally not the most polite people around. I have lived in the UK long enough to know how much a bit of politeness can make daily life more enjoyable. Of course that’s a stereotype. I know some very polite Germans and some very impolite people from other countries (even from the UK!) The overall tendency is valid, though.

Stereotype? No, It’s the Truth!

When I was a teenager, before leaving my home town, I was convinced all humans were basically the same. I am not talking about individual character traits but the big picture. An average French, I thought, was exactly like an average Dane. The last 21 years have changed that a lot.

I have seen how people are very different depending on their cultural background. “Experience working abroad” really means “go build your own set of stereotypes. Learn how to effectively deal with people who are culturally different.” I am glad I found out because it has made my life more interesting. And it is a valuable skill.

I have even acquired some of the behaviours myself: I learned to drive like a French (from 06, to be exact – the worst), I can queue like an English. I sometimes use my hands while talking, like an Algerian. I would still be able to tell a joke without using them, I think. Well, if I was able to tell jokes, that is. I am German after all.

Hey, Isn’t That Racist?

Go to Northern England and drive around. You will notice how people here are generally very defensive drivers. They will often stop to let others go first and you very rarely hear someone beep. Compare with France (lots of beeping) or Germany (very aggressive driving). Go to Germany and try to queue up for something like you would in the UK. People will go past you without flinching. Same in Algeria. You might be surprised now. “But Germans are organised, aren’t they?” Well, if someone told us to line up alphabetically by last name, we would. Very quickly. Go on to lunch with some French people and feel the relaxed athmosphere. You can easily spend two hours in a restaurant before you head back to work. Compare with the UK, where most people eat a sandwich in front of their screen.

These are merely observations. It’s easy to draw conclusions, though. That’s probably something we humans just do. Comparing driving styles might lead us to the conclusion that English are generally polite while Germans are rude and selfish. It is tempting to judge people based on these conclusions. If Germans are rude and selfish, I might decide not to like them. Why bother? I’d much rather surround myself with polite English people, right?

The problem, of course, is that the observations do not apply to specific individuals, and judging based on generalisations is not helpful. I will be making some very bad choices if I do. I will likely miss out on good relationships with Germans who might have become really good friends, for example. Don’t judge a book by its cover. If I’m completely honest I have to admit that I don’t know where experience ends and where racism begins. Is it the judgement that is based on generalisation?

A racist says, “I hate the Germans!” That’s wrong. An Englishman who lives in Germany might really dislike that we don’t queue up properly. Is it racist for him to complain about that? Of course not. He’s right!

Racism is both the belief that attributes like race, colour or nationality determine character and the judging of others based on these attributes. The stereotypes we expats develop are based on observation of cultural differences. They feel more justified. We know that there is no real genetic difference between a German and an English but we can clearly see that daily life is not the same for them.

I do believe that people align with their surroundings. The place where you grow up or live will determine parts of your personality. It’s not race, skin colour or nationality, it’s the people around you. And it is not an absolute truth, either, just an average.

The most important bit in my opinion is not to judge anybody. Not their race, not their colour, not their nationality and certainly not their cultural background.

© 2011, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsStereotypes in Bringing up Children | InCultureParent   |  Thursday, 10 February 2011 at 3:27 pm

    […] is the follow-up to the article Cultural Stereotypes) Where to live? On a recent long-haul flight, I was talking with an American who lives in Germany […]

  2. CommentsRaising Girls in the U.K. so They Don’t End Up Pregnant at 15 | InCultureParent   |  Friday, 23 September 2011 at 8:27 pm

    […] about what our little girls will be like when they are 14, 16 and 18 years old. There are a lot of stereotypes about English girls in my head that are less than flattering. What if my daughters grow up to be […]

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