Americans are unintelligent and overweight while Europeans are loose, pretentious druggies. We’ve all heard something like that about each other. TV, movies and, most importantly, general ignorance (Amsterdam, anyone?) foster many of the most prevalent stereotypes about foreigners. Either accurate or questionable, but always effective and blunt, stereotypes can be flattering but more often are simply offensive.
And yet they still influence our attitudes towards people who are different from us. Yes, stereotypes do not come from nowhere — it’s usually the truth that they exaggerate. But despite being only crude generalizations, they are often treated as facts. That grain of truth is often enough to justify far reaching assumptions and that’s what makes stereotypes at all worth talking about.
Narrow-mindedness, fake smiles, ginormous everything, familiarity, loving everything but really nothing, arrogance. But also: the American Dream, independence, freedom to be yourself, patriotism, adventures, lightheartedness. These are all stereotypes of Americans that I brought from back home and from my friends and family. I haven’t lived here long enough, though, to have any of these validated or unquestionably dismissed. I’ll let you be the judge then.
We like to think in stereotypes because they let us put everyone in these neat little boxes. Thus in the eyes of many people I simply cannot be from Lithuania (or Eastern Europe, in general) because I don’t drink, I am not a tall skinny blonde, I don’t speak Russian and I can’t stand the cold. But nothing is that simple! Stereotypes might be born from the truth, but believing them blindly is just stupid.
Stereotypes can be nasty and it’s normal to want to disagree with them. In public, at least. But try as much as you want, stereotypes won’t go away that easily. People prefer audacious statements such as any of those mentioned above over undistorted facts. Why? I think it’s mostly because stereotypes are comforting — they automatically portray your own kind in a better light. But it’s also much more interesting that way, isn’t it?
As foreign exchange students we are representatives of our countries. This also means that we might unintentionally start new stereotypes among our international friends or among the community that welcomes us. I’ve recently learned that Davis restaurants really don’t like international students because we don’t leave an adequate tip.
Now, it would be courteous to do it properly, but we all come from countries with different tipping practices. When it comes to money, no one wants to spend more than they think they have to. And boom, a stereotype is born — exchange students are very cheap!
Open-mindedness is the key when dealing with stereotypes. Not all Lithuanians are quiet like me and not all Americans think that the Berlin Wall was in Israel! A big chunk of people might conform to the stereotypes, but a large proportion don’t, and they do that in various, completely different ways. We are all unique, and that shouldn’t be lost for the sake of stereotypes. By being ourselves, we help straighten out the beliefs that are definitely wrong, even though it often feels like fighting windmills.
Will I go back home with the same stereotypes of Americans? I don’t know. Davis is as different of an American experience as you can ever get, being a college town and all. But through my travels I have been able to see a fair share of that stereotypical land, too. I hope, though, that I at least learned how not to judge anyone by stereotype and I’m thankful to my American friends for helping me do that.
Stereotypes are a tricky business. By assuming some things you can offend people. But you also can learn a lot about those same people from stereotypes about them. As long as you know when to keep quiet, you should be just fine.
If you’re not afraid of your personal information being leaked to some Eastern European mobsters, you can reach KRISTINA SIMONAITYTE at firstname.lastname@example.org.