Recently, I overheard two women discussing an earlier business meeting. “I couldn’t believe how rude that guy was! French people are all so rude,” one angrily said. The other agreed, “Well, yeah, this is now the second time I’ve dealt with that kind of rudeness, so you’re definitely right.”
Whether we readily admit to it or not, we’ve all likely been guilty of making assumptions about a culture. Even if we don’t say it out loud, we’ve perhaps thought about it. Sometimes, we even fall ‘victim’ to it. As a Dutch native, people ask if I “smoke marijuana all the time,” or why I don’t “look more Dutch” (i.e have blonde hair and blue eyes), or if I own “lots of wooden shoes,” (okay, the latter is actually funny). As far as the Polish half of me goes, I’ve gotten the “dumb light bulb” jokes, I’ve been asked if I eat pierogies every week, and if Poles drink “vodka with most meals.”
I’ve laughed most of these assumptions off. Nevertheless, they can also be hurtful as people question part of your identity. Assumptions often stem from short interactions with those who supposedly “represent” a country. If these interactions are in any way negative, stereotypes are easily born. Faulty assumptions can spiral out of control into a continuous, dangerous phenomenon of making blanket statements.
Why do people make generalizations? Is it because they feel they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone? Is it out fear? Or, worse, is it out of ignorance for some?
“Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance. ” – Plato
One interaction should not taint our views of all people of a country. It’s scary when people generalize, because how can one be so sure about something based on limited interaction or knowledge? Blanket statements are nothing more than glossed over opinions, which doesn’t speak to what people know, but rather what they think they know.
It’s even scarier when people readily share opinions when they, in fact, know nothing about a particular subject or people. If you’ve never interacted with a foreigner, how can you “know” that the “French are rude,” or that “Asians always carry cameras everywhere,” or that “Italians are constantly late” or confirm any of the other stereotypes out there? You simply cannot know.
Dispelling Stereotypes through Travel
Travel allows us to expand our world views and can help dispel stereotypes.
1. Be Open. Instead of assuming things, go into travel with an open mind. That one instance of a “rude French man” should not translate into an overall view that “all French people are rude.”
2. Highlight individuality. Think of people as individuals, rather than automatically lumping them all together.
3. Ask questions. If you have any preconceived notions, fight them by interacting with locals. Be informed and find out for yourself what’s important to someone else, and how you can learn from someone. Don’t rely on the bias of others.
4. Do your research. Research a country before you visit, to be informed as best you can be about its history, traditions, and more.
5. Break down barriers through language. Learn at least a few words in a foreign language of the country you’re visiting. People will appreciate your efforts to communicate.
How else do you fight stereotypes? Have you ever been stereotyped (share a story in the comments)? How does travel help?