A little cross-cultural stereotyping

Swiss cultural stereotypes

You would think that cultural stereotyping would be a problem for a multi-cultural church. And you would be wrong.

The truth is, we kind of like doing it. And we do it a lot.

I’ve been wondering why a church that is as racially and ethnically diverse as any in the world does so well at being the church, and I don’t yet have anything like a definitive answer, but I am a little intrigued by how many assumptions we make about each other and how much fun it (usually) is.

Just to give a definition to what I’m talking about, stereotyping occurs when we make generalizations about groups or classes of people: Fire fighters, for example, are courageous. Everyone knows that. Blonds, on the other hand, are less intelligent than the rest of the population. Everyone seems to know that too. Italians, meanwhile, are loud. Or great lovers, if you ask them.

Fun, right? And mostly it is, until the generalization begins to feel uncomfortable. My blog post soon after my arrival about how the Swiss are überpünktlich (over punctual) might have been a bit too soon. They are, but maybe I should have waited a while before commenting about it.

How American of me.

I’ve never been so self-conscious about being American, and mostly I’m self-conscious because I fit the stereotype of Americans so well. I’m very friendly and outgoing when I meet someone new, for example, which tends to make the Swiss feel cautious and suspicious. I know now that they see me as superficial and disingenuous, although secretly they would like to be more like me.

And then there’s my Dutch connection. My grandparents were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the U.S. at least a hundred years ago. I have Dutch features and a Dutch name, I look like someone from a Frans Hals (or Adriaen Brouwer) painting, even though I am a thoroughly assimilated U.S. citizen.

Still, I see myself in the Dutch. I am tall and sturdy (I was taught to say “big boned”). I love tulips and that cheese with an unpronounceable name (never say “goo-dah” to the Dutch). I own a pair of wooden shoes, and like most Dutch I own an impressive bicycle (designed, I’m sure, by leading scientists and made of space-age materials) that never leaves the shed.

And I haven’t even gotten to the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, South Africans, Germans, British, Swiss, and a host of others – how others see them, and (more scary) how they see me.

We do this regularly and often, this game of stereotyping, and mostly I think it’s harmless fun. We seem to learn about each other by making jokes and teasing each other. We seem to know, at least I hope we do, that it’s all in good fun, that there are many exceptions to the “rules,” and that most generalizations are also exaggerations.

And then there are times when I think maybe we have gone too far, that we have had a laugh at the expense of another, that our humor has become hurtful. But those times seem few and far between.

Mostly – I would say miraculously – we get along.

(Photo: We might call that a cultural stereotype, but a positive one. )


About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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