We Europeans

Stereotypes with a sting

Many of the world’s foreign affairs initiatives are powered and propelled by stereotypes. “Freedom”, “evil axes” and the like. We tend to think such things are a product of folk wisdom handed down over generations. After all, didn’t the Sicilians have a saying back in the 17th century that “the French are wiser than they seem and the Spanish seem wiser than they are.”? It was recorded nearly 400 years ago by two visitors from the British Isles – Francis Bacon in his essays Of Seeming Wise and William Lithgow in his travel book, Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations – and it is as true today as it was then.

Yet quite a number of the world’s stereotypes owe their origins to a governmental act of deliberate disinformation about a people. It is a practice that has been perpetrated by most nations at some time, but suffice it to quote two examples.

The first is the stereotype of the Dutch as mean, a perception that is widely shared by perfectly intelligent people. It essentially owes its existence and vitality to a propaganda campaign sponsored by His English Majesty’s Government in the 17th century, with the aid of pamphleteers and diarists like Samuel Pepys. Fearful of the challenge posed by the newly emergent Dutch republic, the court cultures of England and France could only accept the reality of Dutch wealth by linking it to a denigrating stereotype. So they commissioned the authorship of such derogatory phrases as ‘going Dutch’ and ‘Dutch auction’ to emphasise meanness, ‘Dutch comfort’ (thank God it’s no worse!), ‘Dutch courage’, ‘talking double-Dutch’, ‘talking like a Dutch uncle’ and the like. Meanness, moralising and other abusive connotations were knowingly grafted onto the public image of the Dutch.

Some people will say it’s all true, but I interpret the perceived meanness of our northern neighbours as a proper appreciation of the value of things. As a long established foreigner in the Netherlands puts it: “I have come to the conclusion that the Dutch are not stingy after all. They just hate to waste anything.”

The second example of deliberate disinformation is the stereotype of the Swedes. In response to an anti-USA movement in Sweden during the ’60s and ’70s, the CIA set in motion a smear campaign attributing Sweden with the world’s highest suicide rate, also the highest alcoholism rate. John Alexander, an Australian interculturalist working in Sweden today, says that “the CIA programme proved effective. Ask any American and they will tell you about Sweden’s high suicide rate. Even many Swedes believe it, as well as people outside Sweden. It makes you wonder what other cultural myths are out there…” Indeed.

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  1. Every ‘large’ country creates disparaging myths about their ‘stupider’ smaller neighbours: every English person I know has a collection of Irish jokes, for example, while the Belgians get it in the neck from both North and South.

    Generally this happens when the smaller country successfully thumbs their nose at their larger neighbour – Irish independence, for example, turned British superiority into question, while the simple fact of Belgian existence was an affront to both the Dutch and the French.

    The question is whether these were in any way deliberate, or just emerged culturally.

    PS Last time I was there, the Australians weren’t joking about New Zealanders (although the reverse is certainly true), but the jokes are just a few defeats on the rugby and cricket pitch away …

  2. You’re right. Almost everyone makes jokes about their neighbours, also about elements of their own culture. Here’s an incomplete list for Europe:

    Country Domestic Foreign

    UK Yorkshiremen > Lancastrians Irish
    All > West Country/East Anglia
    > Welsh (Cardiganshire)
    > Scots (Aberdeen)
    Ireland Kerrymen Themselves
    France Provencals/Auvergnats Belgians (French)
    Bretons Swiss (French)
    Corsicans Portuguese
    Germany Saxons > Bavarians Austrians/German Swiss
    Bavarians > Saxons
    All > (East) Frisians/Swabians
    > Turkish Gastarbeiter
    > Opel ‘Manta’ drivers
    Switzerland Baselers>Zürchers Austrians/Germans
    All > Bern/Fribourg/Niedwalden
    Austria Burgenlanders Germans
    Opel ‘Manta’ drivers
    Italy Sicilians/Pugliese/Neapolitans Germans
    Suburb of Padua/Cuneo
    Spain Catalans –
    Citizens of Lepe (Andalusia)
    Guardia Civil
    Netherlands Limburgers/Frisians Belgians
    Sweden Stockholmers>Gothenburgers Norwegians
    Denmark Jutlanders (Århus/Mols) Swedes
    Norway West Coasters Swedes/Finns
    Finland Citizens of Laihia, Ostrobothnia Swedes
    and Northern Karelia Danes
    Portugal People from the Alentejo Political leaders from the ex-colonies
    Greece Pontic Greeks Albanians
    Poland Citizens of Wachock Czechs (Pepiki)
    Militiamen Galitzianers Russians
    Czech Republic Militiamen Poles
    Hungary Bureaucrats Poles
    Traffic wardens Slovaks
    Bulgaria Citizens of Gabrovo –

    > = make jokes about…

    As for the Australians, they do make jokes about the New Zealanders but they’re unrepeatable.

  3. I think one could add the Oltenians for Romania, the inhabitants of Zahorje for Slovakia, the Chuckchas for Russia and the Laz people for Turkey.

    Richard Deiss

  4. Something weird about jokes, ethnologically speaking, is that the national jokes will almost always unpurposefully target the historically “celtic” part of the country…

    Hispanic will make fun of the Galegos (galicians), Anglo about the Welsch/the Scots, French about Walloons, Americans about “West Virginians” (state whose ancestry happens to be Irish/Scots), Western Norwegians (more “celtic” than the “nordic” east)…

  5. One of the exceptions being the Portuguese who prefer to make jokes about the people of the Alentejo, rather than the Celtic Fringe in the north of their country.

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