Artillery Row

Thank goodness for stereotypes

While living in a world of constant confusion, at least we can have some idea about how a person might behave depending on which country they are from

The practice of referring to stereotypes was already increasingly frowned upon well before the past few years of progressive policing and locking down what you can or can’t say. Stereotyping was increasingly viewed, often understandably, as too judgemental, especially when applied to people through failing to acknowledge personality, nuance and depth. But as with clichés being clichés because they tend to be based on truth, so it is with stereotypes—they do not just leap into existence like Athena out of Zeus’s head: more often than not they are rooted in solid grounding.

Italians are perhaps the most stereotypical of the lot

This certainly is the case when it comes to national characteristics, as I have been pleasurably reminded during my peregrinations across the Iberian Peninsula during an increasingly Odyssey-like Camino pilgrimage, encountering a smorgasbord of nationalities and the characteristic traits that come with them. More often than not, each nation’s ambassador expresses exactly those stereotypes that are the basis of international jokes and banter of old that you would likely get in trouble for indulging in these days.

And thank goodness for these stereotypes. For one, it’s reassuring to know that while buffeted by storms of confusion all around, at least we can have some idea about how a person might behave depending on which country they are from. Some things in life are consistent. So, Germans are so… German: polite, friendly and dependable. The Dutch: liberal and reasonable while also very opinionated. The French: feisty, cliquey and proud.

I started my Camino in southwest France, heading toward the Spanish border along the French Basque country’s wonderful coastline. At one point I stopped for a breather as I felt surprisingly fatigued—I would shortly find out I had herpes zoster, also known as shingles, necessitating some rapid medical intervention in San Sebastián—taking refuge on a bollard that also afforded a good view down a hillside toward the beach and sea shimmering in the hot August sun. A white-haired gentleman walking up the hillside with his wife and adult son came to a halt close beside my rucksack propped on the ground and turned around to look back down at the vista.

Standing with his hands on his hips, his legs shoulder width apart, his pot belly lifting as his chest filled with pride. “La France est magnifique?” he said, turning to me with a beaming confident smile. I could only nod at the unassailable truth of this assertion. I spent weeks following the same route as a Swiss couple who proved unfailingly methodical and precise, exceedingly fair, and would never get in an argument. Shared restaurant bills were settled to the cent, everyone only paid exactly what they owed—no more, no less. In Finisterre when we needed a fire on the beach, the Swiss man was all over it: he had been in the Swiss boy scouts followed by national service with the military. He had a Swiss Army penknife of course—other penknife makers just don’t compare, he noted—and told me he had about 30 of them back home as they are a common form of gift in Switzerland.

Being masked-up and locked down has robbed the world and its nationalities of their identities

Irish pilgrims proved warm, avuncular and philosophical. One man in his early thirties proved a startling hybrid mix of Saint Patrick, the nineteenth-century Irish politician Daniel O’Connell known as “the Liberator,” and Conor McGregor, the controversial Ultimate Fighting Championship star. One of seven siblings, the first evening I met this mercurial Irishman, he spent much of the conversation quoting Scripture and wise theological and philosophical adages picked up from growing up in such a busy Catholic household. One of his great grandfathers had been in the Irish Republican Brotherhood that staged the 1916 Easter Rising. One fabled family story, he told me, involved another grandfather as a baby in the 1920s being suckled by his mother beside the fire when a British Army patrol burst in to search the building. Upon seeing the woman breastfeeding her baby, the young army subaltern told his troops to leave. The officer was Arthur Ernest Percival, the future general and British commander who surrendered Singapore to the Japanese during World War II and those heady days of the “Singapore Grip”.

In Portugal I have encountered plenty of Brazilians: typically ebullient, keen to party and some of whom would be likely to cause heart attacks on a warmer day at Copacabana beach—proof that there’s a far comelier type of Brazilian strain that’s found in its former colony.

Then there’s the Italians. My goodness. What a people. Perhaps the most stereotypical of the lot, as I learned when I did my first unrestricted Camino in 2017: exuding gregariousness and generosity, always cooking excellent food and inviting you to join their pasta-based banquets amid impassioned conversations in Italian, leaving you feeling like you are in one of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, albeit a much friendlier version. Passionate lovers too. Lots of deep, searching looks, entreaties to just kiss softly on the lips without the tongue. Tender stroking, known as morbido—goodness me, it’s endless, as is the foreplay. The Italians go in for marathon loving, it appears, and it’s exhausting, the emotional side of it far more than the physical, with exhortations to keep it tranquillo: to pace oneself, to focus on and stay present in the exhilarating moment—have you ever heard such wild notions! No wonder the country’s politics can appear a bit dysfunctional—while also keeping it instenso. But they are also great fun to be around—offering the compensatory passion to our cold English hearts, as one Italian put it (while also acknowledging that Italians and Italy could benefit from embracing more of the pragmaticism attending the English character).

I couldn’t bear being stuck with someone just like me

In addition to illustrating how we must not let Brexit and the failures of the European Union’s political body distract us from how the continent of Europe contains an astonishing array of countries and peoples, it has also been a demonstration of the genuine diversity that makes humanity so wonderful—even if it does make things so damn complicated—and a repost to the globalist trend to make us all bland world citizens that all agree on the same things. We have had a terrible taste of this dull conformity during the pandemic, when being masked-up and locked down has robbed the world and its nationalities of their identities and essence. We have endured what it is like to live as automatons without character. All being well that should end, and when (I really don’t want to write if) it does, we must learn from our experience of losing our flamboyance and national idiosyncrasies and cherish them all the more so, even with all the cooperative friction they inevitably bring.

The increasing polarisation of politics and society in general, especially in the US, seems partly a result of people losing the ability to handle others who are different to them. I can’t really understand this aversion—I couldn’t bear being stuck with someone just like me, who talks the same way, or, even worse, thinks exactly the same way.

In not fretting so much about stereotypes, let’s also recognise how they play a useful role when we have to make those split-second judgements that underpin everyday existence. More than two decades of research into so-called “thin-slicing methodology” has revealed that humans make a reasonably accurate assessment of a person from observing just a few seconds—or a “thin slice”—of their behaviour. Speed dating is an example of thin-slicing in action, as is working the room and crowd at a busy cocktail party or negotiating a conference floor.

Our ability to thin slice enables us to tackle highly complex situations speedily. In his book The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, American writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses how “many different professions and disciplines have a word to describe the particular gift of reading deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience.” Gladwell gives the example of the military, where brilliant generals are said “to possess coup d-oeil, which, translated from the French, means ‘power of the glance’: the ability to immediately see and make sense of the battlefield”.

Interacting with someone wearing a mask mirrors many of the dehumanising problems of interacting with someone on a screen

But, typically, you have to be on the ground to achieve it. That’s one of the reasons why as we communicate online even more during Covid-19: people are noticing problems with the likes of videoconferencing, indicating it isn’t the unqualified blessing initially assumed. A New York Times article entitled “Why Zoom is Terrible” notes how experts increasingly agree that “the distortions and delays inherent in video communications can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already).” A big part of the problem is that those distortions are cancelling out the usual tiny facial cues you would be interpreting and going off when physically face to face with a person, allowing you to “stereotype” about what that person might be thinking or how they are reacting, thereby allowing you to respond accordingly.

Interacting with someone wearing a mask mirrors many of the dehumanising problems of interacting with someone on a screen. You can crinkle those lines around your eyes and get those eyebrows pumping as much as you want, but you and the other person will continue to have a hell of a time in trying to gauge the true emotional response of the other. Here’s hoping for a return to a world without masks and to a world full of stereotypical behaviour.

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