Have you ever traveled to a new country and come back with impressions like: “The Thai people are so friendly,” or, “The Japanese are really conservative”?

For me, observing new cultures is half the fun of traveling. Returning home with an overall impression of a country and its people is what travel is all about, right?

Maybe not …

I have an American friend who moved to Lyon with her French boyfriend. After she’d been living there a few years, I asked her to spill the beans on the Frenchies. “Come’on, ‘fess up, what’s it like living there? Are French people really arrogant? Are the women beautifully dressed all the time? Does everyone eat cheese for breakfast? Do they snack on frog legs? Huh? Huh? Spill it. Cough up. Tell me the gossip on France.”

“I don’t really know what to tell you,” she said. “All of my friends here are very different. I guess I don’t really like to generalize people.”

Boy, did I feel like an asshole.

I’d just finished reading Almost French by Sarah Turnbull – an Aussie expat’s memoir about moving to France with her boyfriend and the cultural clashes that ensued. Turnbull, a journalist, shares her warts-and-all impressions of the French culture. Among her many experiences, she said she had trouble making female friends because, she reports, French women are competitive and they don’t really mingle together (read: they’re bitchy).

When I ran this past my friend in Lyon, she said she had no problem making friends with a wide range of women, from stylish to unstylish, arrogant to friendly.

Stereotyping is common in travel memoirs. Katrina Beikoff gives an expats view of China in No Chopsticks Required, revealing a number of unflattering details about Chinese culture. In First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria, Eve Brown-Waite recalls all sorts of interesting gossip about her time in Uganda such as how, according to her nose, the people of Uganda smell really bad. (Yes, you read correctly.)

The Friendly Islands

One of my worst cultural experiences was in Tonga. Known as the ‘Friendly Islands,’ I had high expectations before sailing into the Vava’u group. While the islands were among the most stunning I’d seen in two years of traveling the South Pacific, the Tongans were reserved, quiet, and … well  unfriendly.

But maybe they’re this way because of their stereotype? Named the Friendly Islands by Captain Cook, perhaps, over the years, their smile muscles have fatigued and they’ve grown tired of fake-laughing at everyone’s bad jokes? Friendliness isn’t enjoyable when it’s expected. (I know—I’ve worked in hospitality before.) Or maybe they’re just unfriendly by my own cultures standards?

Speaking of my culture, if I fit the Aussie cliché, I’d be wearing shorts, thongs (flip-flops), and a Chang Beer T-shirt stretched over a hefty beer gut. With a pint of beer in one hand and a buddy in the other, you’d find me obnoxiously drunk while chanting anthems at the top of my lungs in a completely inappropriate location, like a Buddhist temple.

Typical Australians?

I am not that Australian, and if someone automatically assumed I was, I’d have to smack them upside the head with an empty bottle of Foster’s. Generalizations suck when they come your way.

So where, exactly, is the line between cultural observations and stereotyping? What is gossip and what is bigotry? Is it irresponsible to report a culture as being ‘rude’ or ‘bitchy?’ If it’s wrong to call people ‘smelly’ or ‘cold,’ then is it also wrong to describe a country of 67 million people as ‘friendly’?

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39 Response Comments

  • wandergurl  July 21, 2011 at 5:47 am

    I actually don’t find anything wrong with initially culturally sterotyping. This is because 1) the stereotype exists because in one form or another it is usually true, and b) where it is true, it gives you a way to connect or be prepared to deal with the culture.
    For example the stereotype that all Aussies like to drink. I have yet to find this untrue of any anglo-saxon Aussie I have ever met. If I were to visit Australia and wanted to make friends, I would know that asking them to have drinks after work would likely be accepted, so I would know what to do.
    Of course there’s also negative stereotyping, but I find that if I know what my stereotype is – what they think of me based on my culture – it prepares me so I’m less frustrated when dealing with idiots. It also makes me more accepting, because we all have stereotypes for each other, so if you think I’m this way, I think you’re this way, it’s unavoidable and in a way, it is fair.
    In the end, I don’t mind stereotyping as long as people don’t take it too far, you have to be open and not be blinded by the stereotype to not look past your nose.

    • Torre DeRoche  July 21, 2011 at 6:06 am

      I suppose that’s the key: to see any cultural stereotyping as a rough guide only and not as the final judgement. Those who use it as a final judgement are missing out. I think it’s always important to be open to the fact that some people won’t fit the cliché. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Sasha  August 5, 2011 at 2:00 am

      The Aussie stereotype is an interesting one and one that sometimes makes me shy away from speaking in a strong Aussie accent so I don’t get pidgin holed as a heavy drinker! In fact I’m one of those rare Aussies who doesn’t like to drink and hates the taste of beer, what do you think the comments I get are… “But you’re Aussie, you have too!” (this is from non-Aussies and Aussies). Apparently I must be genetically programed to like the taste of beer, clearly it’s my other ethnic blood that makes me not like it lol.

      • Torre DeRoche  August 5, 2011 at 2:09 am

        Don’t we all have ethnic blood here in Australia? Apart from the Aborigines, we’re all mutts.

  • Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane  July 21, 2011 at 6:06 am

    As the previous commenter said, stereotypes exist because there is a grain of truth in them. However, an intelligent traveler ought to know that stereotypes are, well, stereotypes, and therefore do not necessarily apply to all individuals within a group. Stereotypes can be useful and also very dangerous.

    What I like about living in foreign countries and travel is how it so often shatters stereotypes and preconceived notions we have about a country or a people. We get our images and ideas of other places often innocently, from reading, watching TV, or other people’s stories. Then you get on a plane, and find out how wrong you were 😉

    • Torre DeRoche  July 29, 2011 at 2:22 am

      It’s not the travelers that worry me, it’s those who latch onto stereotypes read or heard from others, and then never get a chance to form an opinion for themselves.

  • Sarah  July 21, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Generalizations can be a pretty dangerous territory, especially when talking about humans or cultures…two of the most unique things on this planet. (Minus snowflakes, of course. Because those can ALL be generalized as AWESOME.)

    Even though I try not to generalize cultures, I can’t help but play in to some of the stereotypes about Canadians, especially while living abroad.

    Now, I’d like to write more but I’m a little busy ingesting copious amounts of maple syrup and apologizing for absolutely everything.

    • Torre DeRoche  July 29, 2011 at 2:23 am

      *Laughs while eating Vegemite on toast.*

  • Cherszy  July 21, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Stereotyping is usually one of the biggest barriers to getting to know people genuinely. We all usually have this impression constructed in our heads even before we meet other people. Just because some of them are like that, we always tend to generalize that others who belong to that same group are like that as well, and that’s pretty unhealthy. It’s like we’re not giving people we don’t know yet a chance to show us who they really are. It’s like even before we really know them, we’ve already put up a sticky note on their heads with a definition that we associate with people who are supposedly like them. And that’s dangerous because constant stereotyping can lead to discrimination, which is definitely something we can have less of in this messed up world.

    I’m not a fan of stereotyping myself because I’m an advocate of anti-discrimination. I know how it feels to be on the receiving part of that, and it’s nowhere near exciting. I’ve also witnessed people who got discriminated and stereotyped just because of how they act or dress, and I can tell that it felt painful. Therefore, I don’t believe that it’s right to judge a person based on who he/she is same races with.

    I believe that every person, although similar in race and gender with many others, is unique and deserves a chance to be known for who they really are. I believe that people grow, people change, and people decide who they want to become along the way, and in this process, they always become something more than what meets the eye. They become someone deeper, and it takes real effort and willingness to get a glimpse of that.

    There’s more to a fashion model than good looks and nice clothes. There’s more to a beggar than dirty clothes and an open palm. There’s more to a Chinese guy in Chinatown than chinky eyes and loose shirts. Point is, I think we need to look at, meet, and try to get to know people with an open mind and an open heart, and then we can judge from there. At least, we have given someone a chance to be who they are without the labels. I think that’s fair enough.

    No to stereotyping. No to discrimination. 🙂

    • Torre DeRoche  July 29, 2011 at 2:29 am

      I think most people are happy to perpetuate a positive stereotype about themselves and their country, but when it turns negative it’s not so fun. I don’t mind being stereotyped as a chilled out Aussie, but I’d feel very upset if someone assumed I was racist. That’s the worst Aussie stereotype, and one that I’m ashamed to be associated with: that Australians are racist. Some people are and we do have a problem with it in Australia, but it’s not everyone.

  • Tom  July 21, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Cultural stereotyping tends to be true to an extent – like wandergurl commented, there’s no smoke without fire.

    Living here in South Korea, the overwhelming view among expats seems to be that Koreans are a) extremely racist and b) are efficient but seem to lack common sense. Living here for over two years…yeap, both are true a lot of the time.

    I found Turks to be very direct (no pussy-footing around), but at the same time very friendly. I came to like the blunt-but-for-your-own-good attitude there.

    When I went to Australia, everyone seemed to be very laid-back and always up for a party.

    Where would the fun be without stereotypes – whether it’s getting to confirm them or prove them wrong 🙂

  • Meg  July 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Honestly I think the main reason we have stereotypes is form what we see in the movies and what we hear from other travelers. I try to take it all in one ear and let it go out the other. I want to experience new places without any expectation or judgement. I also don’t want to ever be afraid to travel somewhere because of the bad “reputation” the city or country has. Hey I am from the US, we are all supposed to be fat. I am in great shape and so are ALL the people around me. Sure you can run into people who are overweight…. you can run into people who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but can’t you find that everywhere. I think that’s just summed up and it’s called LIFE. 🙂

  • liv  July 21, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Stereotypes while not always, are often true. Sometimes they become outdated, but the impression still exists. Sometimes that’s capitalized on, as is the case in France, and often several generations later it’s re-embraced by a culture-less new generation. I’d never discount a genuine stereotype. To do such a thing is to stereotype, stereotypes.

  • Lorna - the roamantics  July 22, 2011 at 10:26 am

    great conversation starter torre!!! this is the stuff of my anthropology courses at berkeley…years worth! and my ethnographic film classes and doc film career. my research in thailand dealt with the production (and identified the producers) of a whole image of an ethnic minority group. and still- the line is extremely blurry, even for those of us whose work it is to do this- represent others. there is an australian filmmaker named dennis o’rourke- know his work? who pushes buttons BIG TIME in this manner. i highly recommend checking out a film called CUNNAMULLA about that town in australia. he chose the biggest freaks (or used his subjects freakiest moments) to represent an entire town on film and the residents of course hated it. it’s funny how when the stereotype is positive, it’s more politically correct and acceptable, but the same broad stereotyping in a negative fashion would be appalling. great post- love it!

  • Dru  July 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Interesting discussion. I find it is largely OUR problem, not theirs and it is OUR interaction with people that cause us to think in a certain manner. It is OUR approach, not theirs. We are bound by what we learn and if it differs we think of it as wrong or bad or peg it to a certain people or culture. While there are certain things that different cultures have that we as people coming to visit must respect and understand, overall my experiences are quite different than the stereotyping that I have read here and on the Nomad4ever Blog on stereotyping. Genuine interest in a people and culture brings trust and warmth which will shatter every stereotype out there! If I am to judge a people it is more a reflection on myself since there are more fingers pointing back at me than at them!

  • Leif  July 23, 2011 at 5:04 am

    “I’d have to smack them upside the head with an empty bottle of Foster’s. ” hahaha. You are such a stereotypical, hill top hood listening, shrimp on the barbie eating, foster drinking Australian. lol. I think as long as stereotyping is done in fun, and out of love than there’s nothing wrong with it.

  • Faith  July 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I read Almost French! I loved the story with the maggoty cheese.

    Anyhow! I generally don’t take stereotypes too seriously. I do end up reading them when I’m planning on going to a new place, and I joke about them, but I never go someplace expecting people to actually be that way–I take them more as a comfort. Going some place new and knowing nothing about how the culture will be can be scary–having some stereotype, that is usually an exaggeration of how things really are, can be a comforting way of making things less scary before getting there. Of course, once there, things are different and I’m so busy marveling at all of that that I forget these people are supposed to be… drunks, friendly, or mean.

    • Sid Vic  July 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm

      Stereotyping, to me, is a survival skill gone wrong. I see nothing wrong with getting a general feel for a culture so you know how to be respectful among that environment and handle yourself accordingly. it’s not ignorant, it’s smart and tactful. But stereotyping is such a subjective thing because the only person it involves is the person doing the stereotyping! I’m sure the French woman doesn’t go around saying she’s bitchy. I agree 100% with the comments that say that ultimately, how you perceive a culture is YOUR problem, nobody elses.

      Reading the comments, I see a lot of people covered what i was going to say already! So maybe i’ll just leave it at that 🙂

  • Kelsey  July 26, 2011 at 5:58 am

    This is a great post. I was guilty of stereotyping Koreans when I lived there, and though I still feel that some of it is true, I think that it made me more aware of how my words can be read.

    Also, as someone with a French boyfriend as well, I have begun to get really, really tired of having people ask retardedly stereotyped and even bigoted questions about him, his culture, and our relationship.

  • Anthony  July 27, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I love this subject! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if the 2 (or more) parties are doing it as a joke, you know a playful bit of banter. Like my American mate who says I have no emotions because I’m English haha, it’s all in the name of fun.

    I just don’t like it when it goes a bit silly and sways towards nastiness and ignorance. Like a friend of mine who “hates the French.” I cringe every time.

  • flipnomad  July 28, 2011 at 5:06 am

    i love what you’ve shared here… i am guilty of stereotyping as much as i hate it… its like an automatic response to everything i see… although im trying to make a conscious effort of seeing things as is and not generalize the entire nation about one experience…

  • byaheng barok  July 28, 2011 at 5:35 am

    raising my hand up! i am guilty of stereotyping people during my travels. i even blogged about that experience: http://www.byahengbarok.com/2011/05/03/on-india-single-parenthood-and-my-lying/
    later on, i realized that it was so prejudiced of me to think that way. i only blogged about the people of india in their provinces, and didn’t even consider the ones who live a more modern lifestyle. i decided to be more conscious of what i write from now on.

  • Grace  July 29, 2011 at 4:04 am

    I’ve actually experienced being stereotyped myself so I think this really happens. Although I do think that everybody stereotypes. I have to admit that I also catch myself boxing people up. I think its more of a reflex action that results from judging that may even be mixed in with other peoples opinions. But the beauty of being a traveler is that we find ways to get over our initial “perceptions” in order to keep an open mind. Plus we also challenge ourselves to discover people and their cultures.

  • BlackChickOnTour  July 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Love this post. I’m an American expat now living in Saudi Arabia. We (the expats from “western” nations) stereotype the “natives” all the time. And, when I lived in Sweden, the expats I hung out with there, stereotyped the natives all the time. This usually occurs during bitch sessions. What I don’t think some people get is that we’re foreigners when we travel, the people in the places we go to visit are not zoo animals, there for our amusement. That means, they too have stereotypes about us. I’m American, Black, and Female. I seem to hit the “stereotyped” slot which ever way I go. And, depending on where I’m at, I monitor my behavior. For example, in the Middle East (and other places I’m sure) it’s not cool for a female to be overly friendly and chatty to men, especially the taxi drivers. Why, because we’re stereotyped as being loose, easy women. I had a friend, on the camp I live on, smile and wave to a man (from the Middle East/Asia region) and he followed her around for a week. She had to contact security. And, even as I type this, I’m stereotyping male taxi drives in the Middle East. The thing with stereotypes is that they’re general, often hurtful, and sometimes there’s a ring of truth.

    So, I like to call myself an equal opportunity racist. I just hate everybody, that includes Black people!! LOL JK! But, seriously, I typically don’t like someone until I’ve determined, they’re good peeps, regardless of where they come from.

    • Torre DeRoche  August 2, 2011 at 11:41 pm

      Hating everyone is a great way to avoid stereotyping. Everyone is a selfish asshole—that’s my life philosophy.

  • Torre DeRoche  August 2, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    So many great comments here, lots of interesting points being made. Thanks for everyone’s thoughts!!

  • Lauren  August 3, 2011 at 4:41 am

    Sometimes it’s fun to see of some of those common stereotypes are true when traveling and just embrace them, not take them too seriously. Although it was funny once when we where in Byron Bay and an Aussie said ‘Konichiwa’ to my boyfriend assuming that he was a Japanese tourist. He’s Australian of Chinese/ Hong Kong parents, hasn’t ever been to China, or Japan for that matter!

    • Torre DeRoche  August 3, 2011 at 5:02 am

      That’s funny and somehow kind of sweet despite the ignorance. Phil should’ve replied with “Guten tag!”

  • Jeremy Branham  August 3, 2011 at 4:47 am

    I believe this goes far beyond traveling. We have these own stereotypes on our backyard! The events of Norway, the California and Arizona immigration issues, European struggles with multiculturalism – this isn’t just about travel but where we live. I think travel actually dispels some of these stereotypes or at least creates positive ones.

    Last week, these events inspired me to write my most controversial post ever “Is immigration a bigger threat to the world than terrorism?” Many people were caught off guard by the title but the content generated a lot of discussion. Frankly, many people around the world see these as big issues. However, I was intrigued by this post because I would argue that travel does the opposite – helps broaden our perspectives of other people rather than stereotype.

    • Torre DeRoche  August 3, 2011 at 5:10 am

      A very provocative post title, I can see why it triggered discussion.

      Travel certainly broadens perspectives, but what about those who never go overseas, who only listen to the impressions of others through word of mouth, or memoirs? And what is our responsibility as writers to report what we experience, while being cautious not to perpetuate a stereotype? Not sure there’s an answer to this, but it’s something I give a lot of thought to.

      • Jeremy Branham  August 3, 2011 at 5:22 am

        After reading your comment, I couldn’t help but reply. Here’s a link to the post so you can read.


        However, I wanted to address your comment here. Here’s tip #5 on how travel can help immigration and multiculturalism:

        5. Share your travel experiences – While we can’t all be UN ambassadors or government leaders, our shared experiences have the opportunity to touch the lives of each person we tell. If our stories change one person whose life then changes another and so on, then one-by-one we can make a real difference in the lives of people as we bridge the culture gap around the world.

        That’s exactly what our travel experiences are about. Even if others can’t travel, we must share what we have learned with them so they can see people in a different light as well.

        • Torre DeRoche  August 3, 2011 at 5:48 am

          Nice, Jeremy. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Sasha  August 5, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Great insightful post! I’ve had this same debate with a few of my friends on numerous occasions, they’re American so we often discuss the Aussie stereotype of American’s and the American stereotype of Aussies. Interestingly enough non of us really fit into the stereotype box with a neat little bow on top, that being said I’ve met some that have. One thing we all agreed on is it’s so hard not to stereotype, there are just so many people it’s hard to fathom everyone’s individuality. Also I think particularly when travelling and meeting new people all the time you don’t have the luxury to spend enough time with most people to see past the stereotype. I think when stereotyping is truly bad is when you use a stereotype as an excuse not to take the time to get to know someone purely because of their nationality.

    • Torre DeRoche  August 5, 2011 at 2:14 am

      You’re absolutely right: using a stereotype as an excuse to avoid someone is a tragedy. I actually know some people like this, but they’re from an older generation. In the modern world, it’s seriously unhip to be bigoted, and those driving around town with “Go back to your own country, we’re full!” stickers on their cars, are also likely to be sporting mullets and other crimes that should’ve been left behind in the 80s. That attitude is outdated and it will soon be extinct (I hope).

  • Amanda  September 1, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    I’m of the opinion that all stereotypes – whether good are bad – contain some gain of truth. I mean, the generalization had to start somewhere, right? For this reason, I’m not completely against stereotypes. But I think it’s also important to RECOGNIZE the stereotypes, and be aware that there are ALWAYS exceptions. The stereotypes are fine, as long as you do a bit of detective work on your own so that you can build upon them.

    • Jenna  November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      I read this post a while ago and had to return after finishing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He spends several great chapters (which of his chapters *aren’t* great?) discussing how behavior varies across regions and how we’re products of centuries of cultural heritage (one of the chapters is called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes”).

      And yes, some people don’t fit the mold and some end up modifying their behavior. In tandem with what commentators say above, generalizations work as a rough starting point only. But what brought me back to comment now is that, in many circles, it’s becoming taboo to even talk about them, and that’s why Gladwell’s book provokes.

      Personally, I lament the diminishing differences between cultures! Globalization is leading so many to modify their behavior, to educate their children differently, to eat differently, to entertain themselves differently. I’m all for personal growth and transformation … except when it leads to mass conformity. Will there come a time when we look around the globe at our shared cultural references and long for some good ol’ creative friction? Living in a United Europe, I’m already beginning to feel nostalgia. (Yes, melodrama is my friend.)

      So while it’s still available to us, I’m going to plant myself firmly in the corner of calling a spade a spade. I’ll be good and say they “tend to” X or “from my observation seem to” Y, but please throw me in a river if you ever catch me saying the entire deck of cards is of the same suit.

  • Tyrone Blackman  April 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    It is totally unacceptable to make generalizations based on the culture of anyone. Not only are they never acccurate,………..*Sorry, gotta go. My fried Chicken and Watermelon are ready.

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