Cultural Stereotypes: True or False?
AS Irish people, we are all aware of cultural sterotypes mainly because we have a very strong one ourselves, which is known globally. For some the clichés can be frustrating and the fact that people get labelled collectively as all the same is something we have grown to live with. Having lived in Ireland the majority of my life I have grown up embodying some of the stereotypes which make us ‘Irish’. To an extent I like that, but sometimes I feel the stereotypes can be unwarranted and irritating. Apart from Ireland I have lived in Thailand, briefly in London and have just began my second stint in the Czech Republic. It’s interesting to compare other cultural stereotypes and look at whether or not they really exist or if they have been completely exaggerated!
We all know the main Irish cultural stereotypes – the heavy drinkers, the leprechauns, the potatoes, the red hair and pale skin and having the ‘craic’ for lack of a better description. These are the things that individuals most associate with being Irish and fair enough, some of them are applicable. I would be the first to admit I love potatoes, even in the Czech Republic they are on my shopping list. I would also be the first to admit that I certainly enjoy socialising and as much as I would love to have a tan (or the ability to get one) I don’t! 99.99% of the time, I am the palest wherever I go and after being in Thailand it’s something I learned to embrace. While having sallow or tanned skin is considered more attractive in a lot of different countries, in Thailand they actually strive to be paler. On more than one occassion I had people ask me if they could take a photograph. Admittedly, the first time I was unsure why but I soon figured it out when they would put their own arm next to mine to compare. This was something I found to be very strange when I first got there. Whitening subtances are built into many of their deodorants, shower gels and moisturisers but it would be hypocritical to think it wrong considering we do the exact same thing in Ireland with tan. Sunbeds, gradual tans, instant tans, spray tans, the list is endless!
These characteristics of being Irish have been around for as long as I can remember and while some of them are true I feel others are out dated and tiresome. The stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinkers is an interesting one in the sense that even within the country itself a lot of things are, unfortunately, centred around alcohol. Major sporting events, our national holiday: even the weekend! So if the majority of people maintain that reputation, how can we expect other nationalities to think otherwise of us? The simple answer is, we can’t! Even having been in Prague for just four days I ran into a crowd of fellow Irish who were certainly maintaining the stereotypical Irish drunks reputation. As with all stereotypes though, it is just a stereotype and not everyone falls into the same bracket.
Before moving to Thailand I have to admit my knowledge of their culture was limited. I had never eaten the food before, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know about the main religion and so on. However, I grew to love the food, picked up enough of the language to survive and grew to respect the religion and the devotion they had for it. When I now think of Thai culture the main things I remember are the phrases “Same same but different”, don’t make them lose face and they are rarely, if ever, on time. The latter of these, the time keeping, was something I struggled with massively. I like to know where I’m going, when I’m doing something, how and why I’m doing it and most importantly, I like to be punctual! Not a strength of the Thai people. You can be sure to add on at least 30 minutes to an hour of the said time. The phrase “Same same but different” is something I look back on fondly as it makes me smile. The explanation that something is the same as something else but in fact it’s completely different! The concept of ensuring they don’t lose face was one that was certainly tested in my experience. In Thai culture, if one is embarrased in public or in front of others they have lost face and this is something which can be detrimental to a Thai person. It’s all about the pretence that everything is organised and fine when really everyone knows what’s going on but you are not allowed to confront it in case someone loses face. To a Westerner it’s difficult to abide by but it’s something which is certainly present within Thai culture.
The main stereotypes people think of when they imagine Thailand are the pristine white beaches, the nature of the sex trade and for the back packers – Khao San Road, the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, the temples and so on. Thailand has elements of all these things but there is so much more to it. The relaxed nature they possess is something lost in most Westerners as we are so used to running like clock work not to mention the often breath-taking scenery. Looking back, there are things I miss about Thailand that I didn’t even realise and I would recommend everyone to go there but don’t stick to the tourist trail too much. Get a taste of the real thing.
When it comes to the Czech Republic I think the main stereotypes are that the food and beer are great – true! The ladies here are very pretty – again, true! There is also a stereotype that they can be grumpy, sometimes rude, unhelpful and generally stand-offish. My first experience in the Czech Republic was in 2009. I went to attend Charles University in Prague as part of my degree and my memory of the Czech people was alright. They weren’t overly helpful but they were ok! In terms of my interaction with Czechs I suppose you could say it was somewhat limited to those who worked at my accommodation, some interaction at the University with the Erasmus office and other small bits and pieces. At that time the stereotype certainly was true, especially in terms of those who worked at my accommodation. They refused to even try and communicate, they didn’t particularly care if you needed assistance with something and to be blunt…they were rude. It’s a shame as it did taint my impression of the Czech people.
Having been back in the country a little over a week I have seen the impatient and blunt nature on more than one occassion in restaurants, bars and in one school. But on the other hand I have met very helpful and accommodating Czech people also. A refreshing change to my last experience. While visiting one of the schools last week with my boss she explained to me how if you ask the majority of people how they are, you will simply get “I’m fine” as an answer even if that is not the case. However, a tendancy of the Czech people is that if they are not fine, you will hear about it! Your polite question will result in them giving you an actual description of what a bad day they may or may not be having so beware! The other common association with Prague is the questionable sex trade and potentially dangerous scams. Yes, these elements exist but I wouldn’t by any means judge the city on them. Prague is a stunning city and undoubtedly the most beautiful I have been in to date and that beats several Italian cities too!
I have made my fair share of judgements in terms of countries before and it’s something that I find a little embarrasing in hindsight. I would like to think I wouldn’t do the same in the future and hopefully I’ll have an open mind wherever I go.I know each country and their people are going to have certain traits associated with them and that’s not to say that they don’t exist. But we should all keep in mind that a stereotype is a very broad generalisation of something and certainly not always the case!
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