I first came to Europe in 1985 and spent a few days in Innsbruck (Austria), a sunny city 168 kilometres from Salzburg and lies on a high mountain plateau with green alpine meadows and secluded groves. The classic 1964 movie ‘Sound of Music’, which is based on the memoir of Maria Von Trapp starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, made Salzburg famous; and more than 300,000 cine fans come to this place every year to walk into the footsteps of the Von Trapp family.
Last month, after nearly 35 years, I visited Austria again but, this time, I didn’t see rolling hills and didn’t find its inhabitants cold and rigid. Contrary to my subconscious oversimplified image of Austrians, I experienced their friendliness and warmth. They are distinctly different from the Germans in terms of cultures and behaviours though they share the same language. However, it’s true that Vienna is bursting with classical music and schnitzel, and I joined the bandwagon by attending a Vivaldi concert and had a plate of the latter.
The more I travel to different European countries, the more I want to learn their diverse cultures and people and get rid of my stereotypes.
Stereotype is a set idea or opinion that we have about someone or something, which often focuses on the differences between groups rather than their similarities. It causes over-reaction to information that confirms such a stereotype and under-reaction to the one that contradicts it. Psychology research and essays reveal that stereotyping is one way to feel good about ourselves, i.e. we (our group – where we belong) are better than them (the outsiders – those who are not in our group).
Stereotypes have positive and negative impact on the individual’s relationships and professional life. Positive stereotypes, which are favourable beliefs about people from a particular group, can hasten interpersonal and intergroup relations. One of my friends prefers to hire Polish tradespeople because they are known to be hardworking and trustworthy. When I was living in Australia, I heard these same stereotypes from employers of AbC (Asian-born Aussies). These positive stereotypes contribute to and perpetuate systemic differences in privileges and outcomes. Negative stereotypes, on the other hand, such as the rigid Germans and flamboyant Italians, have negative emotional and interpersonal effects (sometimes financial consequences). A lot has been written about severe negative impact of stereotyping of immigrants from developing countries and people of colour.
Jacqui Hutchison and Douglas Martin (Evolutionary Perspectives on Social Psychology pp 291-301), on their research on ‘The Evolution of Stereotypes’ have stated “Stereotypes are template-like cognitive representations whereby membership in a social group is associated with the possession of certain attributes (e.g., scientists are geeky, Scottish people are miserly, women like the color pink)”. According to them, “stereotypes have the capacity to influence how cultural information evolves and how changes in the cultural environment have, in turn, influenced the content of stereotypes”. (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-12697-5_23 seen 01/08/19).
Everyone is vulnerable to stereotype either as the doer/enforcer or the target/victim. How can we avoid stereotyping? Well, we should do the thinking and analysing as individuals, i.e ourselves, and stay away from generalisations; e.g. Luxembourgers are rich and French are snub. Though the majority of people in one social, cultural or national group may have something in common, it does not mean that all of them are the same — this message should be repeated at home and at school. At work, interaction between all employees from different backgrounds and a clear directive from management on fair treatment of every worker can prevent and stamp out negative stereotyping.