EU at 60: European stereotypes reveal some inconvenient truths
European nations have much in common but cultural differences abound and while stereotypes should be treated with caution they may both confirm positive and inconvenient truths.
The Irish drink too much; the French are arrogant; the Swedes are boring; the Dutch are the biggest misers in Europe; the Belgians are uncertain as to what they are; the Italians are good lovers but hopelessly disorganised; the Germans are organised but heartless; the British pine for a lost empire and 3 decades of exaggerations before Brexit from the British media made some of the public believe that the EU was planning to ban bent bananas and the like. Here the European Commission details some of the bullshit. While Paris is not France, last year Bernard Migneau, head waiter at Paris bistro Le Petit Machon told The Wall Street Journal: “Even City Hall is telling us to be more smiley. We are all experiencing real pressure from L’Office de Tourisme to be cheerier and chattier – more American. But it isn’t going to happen tomorrow."
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word stereotype as "a fixed idea that many people have about a thing or a group that may often be untrue or only partly true" and it notes that the "words cliché and stereotype have a good deal in common. Both come from French, both were originally printers’ terms (referring to printing blocks from which numerous prints could be made), and both have come to take on somewhat negative meanings in modern use."
For example while the majority UK vote for Brexit reflected a number of factors, one was the impact on older voters of decades of negative stereotyping of the European Union.
The populist tabloids stoked [ ] anxiety and resentment, often veiling it in easy stereotypes and portraying anyone who objected to the coverage as tediously "politically correct." They used crude World War II metaphors when England played Germany in soccer. They mocked Europe as a place of humorless Krauts and garlic-eating Frogs, deriding the European Union as an impenetrable, out-of-control bureaucracy sucking up British money and imposing risible, onerous laws on an unwitting populace. Multiculturalism, the zero-sum argument went, was causing Britain to lose sight of what it was meant to be.
Gender, race and immigration, have also historically provided dangerous stereotypes and in the early 1970s, London-based Professor Hans Jürgen Eysenck, who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, in Race, Intelligence and Education (in the US: The IQ Argument), linked genetics with IQ differences and identified the Irish, blacks and Poles, as having lower intelligence than other racial groups.
For its high IQ readership, the London tabloid, The Daily Mirror, headlined a story on Eysenck's work: Irish not as brainy as Brits says Prof.
European countries have been stereotyping each other for centuries and citizens of countries often merely joke about their neighbours.
Sedate Switzerland, not a member of the EU, has faced turbulence in recent times over tax secrecy and the cost/benefits of servicing wealthy foreigners. The clash between the influence of the austere religious doctrine of John Calvin (1509-1564), a French national, who had taken refuge in the Alpine country, which centuries later hosted the plunder of foreign dictators or hidden the wealth of Holocaust victims, was a far cry from the gripes of the main character Michel, in the 1902 novel L'Immoraliste, of renowned French writer, André Gide (1869-1951), who was awarded the 1947 Nobel Prize for Literature: "I detest these honest folk. I may have nothing to fear from them, but I have nothing to learn from them either. And they have nothing to say...Oh, these honest Swiss. Where do their good manners get them?...They have no crime, no history, no literature, no art...They are like a sturdy rosebush without thorns or flowers."
While reliable data on characteristics such as on arrogance are hard to compute, there are other reliable data available, including diet for example which show that the British and Irish have high obesity rates.
During the financial crisis Northern European countries ex-Ireland were seen as prudent while countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy were regarded as feckless or reckless. However, it was banks in the northern countries which were also reckless in extending credit.
In November 2013 the US Pew Research Center published the results of polling in 7 European countries, including Germany, which showed Germans as most trustworthy while Greeks chose Greece. People in all 8 countries chose their own as the most compassionate; France and Germany chose Britain as the least compassionate while 6 countries chose Germany (see chart).
Germans maybe more trustworthy than others but the majority of household workers in Germany work in the black/ shadow economy, according to a recent study. Fewer than 350,000 of the estimated 2.7 to 3 million cleaners, babysitters and garden assistants in Germany were legitimately employed, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) found.
The truth can be bitter and in 2015 when Tony Abbott, then Australian prime minister, said in a St. Patrick's Day message: "I can't be there to share a Guinness or two or maybe even three," Enda Kenny, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), was offended.
It was a stupid reaction. While Ireland's pure alcohol consumption at about 12 litres per adult over 15 annually is in line with several European countries, Ireland was just behind Australia in a survey of 194 countries on the percentage of the population that engages in binge drinking - defined by health experts, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), as six or more standard drinks in one session, which is the equivalent of three or more pints of beer or six or more pub measures of spirits.
Abbott had a positive message and he did quote the claim by Prof Patrick O'Farrell in the latter's book The Irish in Australia that the Irish were "the dynamic factor in Australian history, that is, the galvanizing force at the centre of the evolution of our national character” - this was lost in Kenny's fake outrage.
I was once having a drink after a business conference and an Englishman was highly amused when a Belgian called the Swedes the most boring people in Europe - they maybe boring but credit where it's due: if the world had more places governed with the level of transparency and competence as in Sweden, it would be a wonder to behold.
The Economist noted in 2007 that almost every year, some organ of the local press drew up lists of the top 100 or most famous 50 Belgians of all time, in defiance of the old foreigners' demand: "Name me 10 famous Belgians."
That was the year when a future Belgian prime minister put his foot in his mouth and made a real ass of himself.
Belgium comprises Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south which Marine Le Pen, the current French presidential candidate, suggested in 2011 should be annexed by France again.
The people of Flanders would welcome that as long as it got control of Brussels, the capital of both Belgium and the EU, and in 2006 Yves Leterme, a Flemish politician whose father was from the south, said that Belgians had little in common apart from the king, the national football team and certain brands of beer.
Then in 2007 Yves Leterme was ambushed by a French television crew on the way into a Catholic mass for Belgium's national day. He was asked if he knew the national anthem of Belgium, La Brabançonne. "A bit," he responded. "Go on, then," the reporter implored and Leterme sang the opening bars of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. The Economist reported that he then "fled into the cathedral, where he caused further upset by making calls on his mobile telephone during the service." Youtube
Leterme was prime minister twice in the period 2008-2011.
Belgian jokes about the French usually refer to hygiene while about the Dutch, they generally refer to Dutch stinginess. British holiday visitors to for example Spain do not joke about the Germans but they complain about placing towels on sun loungers/ deck chairs early in the day while the Germans head back to sleep or to breakfast.
English jokes about the Irish typically portray us as stupid but we just change the jokes to have them as the stupid ones. Sometimes we substitute a local Kerryman for the English - see more stereotypes/ jokes here.
Deloitte, a Big 4 accounting firm, has published an annual survey of Christmas plans in Europe for almost 20 years and the big spenders typically are the British and the Irish with the Dutch usually among the lowest.
In 2015 the average in Europe for 14 countries comprising gifts/food/socialising was €513 with the UK at €884; the Netherlands at €245 - the second lowest with Russia last at €217.
Ireland wasn't included in 2015 but data for 2013 show an expected Irish spend of €894, with an average of €484.81 spent on gifts, €258.84 spent on food and €150.76 spent on socialising.
The Dutch planned to spend only €25 on socialising!
One Dutch blogger at least has a sense of humour as does McDonalds which produced an ad joking about each party on a date paying for themselves.