National traits can bring out the worst in us

Sat, Jan 28, 2012, 00:00

IS IT possible to indulge in national stereotyping without being a racist? It’s a tricky one. Even the most committed pluralist must, from time to time, remark on certain distinctions between his or her own compatriots and friends across the ocean.

Billy Bragg cannot have failed to notice that his gigs in Frankfurt are more likely to start promptly than are his concerts in Dublin. Get a load of the bare-bosom count in French television commercials. You don’t get that in Poland.

An interesting venture undertaken by the six European newspapers affiliated to the Europa Project prompts this dangerous line of questioning. The loose affiliation of organs – including such impeccably liberal beasts as the Guardianand El País– has compiled a list of stereotypical national traits and asked the relevant papers to comment on their citizens’ supposed quirks and obsessions.

You know how these things go. The British are drunken and snobbish. The French are arrogant and obsessed with sex. The Germans are lazy and hilarious. (Hang on, I may have got that last one wrong.)

For the most part, the responses were fairly good-natured. The chap from the Süddeutsche Zeitungnotes that most Germans think themselves diligent, but regard relaxed Berliners as being the “Latin Americans of Germany”. Monsieur Normand from Le Monde suggests that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair did little to dismantle the belief that his compatriots are obsessed with sex. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland notes that his European cousins seem unable to distinguish between British and English stereotypes.

The only truly uncomfortable passage appears in the response from Adam Leszczynski of the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborzca. He notes cheerfully that his people, accused of being runaway drunks, booze a great deal less than (ahem) a certain island nation tucked just to the west of the United Kingdom. No real ill-feeling there. But the article takes a more sober turn when he squares up to the suggestion that the Polish are prone to anti-Semitism. “Polish anti-Semitism is still alive, even though there are hardly any Jews in Poland,” he writes with an assumed sigh. Did you just feel a slight chill?

That section of the project hammers home the dangers of embarking on recreational stereotyping. Keep at it and the rambunctious horseplay can escalate into genuinely nasty fisticuffs. It’s all very amusing when we’re accusing the Germans of leaving their beach towels on poolside loungers. Spanish folk tend to sigh tolerantly when we suggest they spend every afternoon sleeping off a good lunch. There is, however, nothing very amusing about accusations of racism, sexism or stupidity.

Most Irish people will be aware of the distinction between good-humoured stereotyping and its nastier, more ugly stepbrother. Put simply, if a nation is prepared to advertise a particular caricature on a cheap T-shirt then the accusation cannot be all that hurtful. Parade through Temple Bar and you will find garments advertising our vaunted capacity for drinking ourselves insensible. Postcards brag about our casual attitude to time-keeping. You do not, however, find many promotional items celebrating the ancient notion – once a staple of English comedians – that the Irish are intellectually subnormal.

Two decades ago, when working as a class of middle manager in London, this correspondent found himself interviewing an apparently civilised individual for an office job. Discussing an unsatisfactory software package, the applicant noted that the program had been designed in Ireland and that it was certainly “very Irish”. Putting on an accent most of whose discordant vowels I had long-ago abandoned in south Belfast, I asked firmly what he meant by this puzzling remark. It seems the package was inefficient. It didn’t do what you asked it to do. It utilised a perverse operating system. My theatrically outraged tone failed to make any impression on the blithe jobseeker.

It seems that, at this point in history, “Irish” was still an acceptable euphemism for “stupid”. (It hardly needs to be said that he remained on the Live Register for at least one more day.) Down with stereotyping.

And yet. It is impossible to travel the world without noting that the citizens of this or that nation do things differently to the inhabitants of neighbouring nations. In my experience, press screenings of films tend to start about five minutes (or so) late in Dublin. For some perverse reason, the pernickety English expect such events to begin at the time mentioned on the invitation. Indeed, many Irish still take a weird pride in their supposedly relaxed approach to the clock. What’s that about?

To return to our original question, pointing out this distinction does not, I hope, identify me as some class of budding neo-Nazi.

But it is as well to tread carefully when embarking on such generalisations. Keep it between friends. Make sure of your facts. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t happily emblazon on a T-shirt.

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