On stereotypes and generalisations

25 Jun

Prepare for a blitzkrieg of tabloid headlines in advance of the England-Germany World Cup game on Sunday. It's a dangerous game, because it risks masking some truths such as the surprising youth of the German squad when compared with England's ageing team. 

Stereotypes may originate in accurate observations, but they tend to slip further from the truth over time. Take this from an otherwise excellent US textbook on Global Public Relations: 'The British respect authority and rank' (p269). That was right fifty years ago – but it's surely wrong today.

I know, there was a big fuss at Wimbledon when the Queen visited for the first time since 1977 and the players had to practise their bows and their curtseys. But this may be the exception – or it could describe our love of the picturesque (Walter Bagehot described royalty as the dignified part of our system of government, as distinct from the efficient part).

I've recently spent two weeks being addressed with unaccustomed formality by a group of postgraduate students from the US. They seemed determined to give me a title, while I'm used to my students calling me by my first name.

This group made excellent ambassadors. Punctual, courteous, well-read, literate, intelligent, curious and culturally-sensitive. Could I have started out with my own false stereotype?

3 Responses to “On stereotypes and generalisations”

  1. Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow 29/06/2010 at 2:03 am #

    When I lived in the US Richard it became second nature to use Sir or Ma’am; it was expected. titles or Sir / Ma’am were also used in the workplace to as well.
    Punctual – school schedules run to strict schedules with bells common in lower years.
    Courteous – there seemed to be a far higher deference to parents as well.
    Well-read and literate: I experience a strong emphasis on reading books – long lists of books to read in the summer as well. Different style of learning.
    Intelligence – obviously not limited.
    Curious – possibly the greater deference might limit this impulse when younger. Could it be that they wamted your expert opinion?
    Culturally-sensitive – it is very big country but overall I believe that is something that suffers overall. America is a very young country and the lack of national radio and television don’t help in my opinion. Even some of my friends who holidayed in Europe were often very reticent when it came to trying different foods for example.
    Overall your summary strikes a chord.
    I was there long enough and visited enough places to appreciate the danger of creating a stereotype however.

  2. Gavin Bostock 01/07/2010 at 10:40 am #

    Your mention of the World Cup and tabloid headlines makes me ponder whether the FA would seriously take on the challenge of sustaining a communications strategy that actively sought to counteract the weight of expectation that the media, particularly the tabloids, put the England team under at big tournaments.
    In my view this was definitely a contributory factor to England’s exit from the tournament. Being 2-1 down in the second half they seemed panicked at the thought of losing and left huge gaps at the back as they desperately sought an equaliser.
    After the game Jermain Defoe was interviewed and his comments culminated in the simple phrase ‘Its a game of football’. Perhaps if phrases like that, instead of the ‘more important than life or death’ nonsense were uttered more often by players and management, then it could contribute to the team being able to perform in a more carefree, and ultimately successful, manner.

  3. Richard Bailey 01/07/2010 at 11:08 am #

    I think the hype and inflated expectation is burdensome (but that’s always been the case).
    I was in Italy for the start of the World Cup. I’d anticipated a huge celebration but it was hard to find a single Italy flag and the bars showing matches (not all were broadcast on the main TV channels) were far from full.
    Despite being world champions it appeared that Italians were discounting their own team’s chances… They didn’t even make it out of the qualifying group.

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