I was recently sent a link to a YouTube video parodying the “art” of speaking French. As a current resident of the land of wine and cheese, and student of the language, I found it absolutely hilarious. I have experienced first-hand how handy it is to have a healthy appreciation of wine in this country, not to mention how invaluable is mastering the art of the “er”, the “haw” and a host of other guttural sounds that are used to fill pauses or signal agreement. Other tips provided in the clip, such as inserting an “oh la la” and/or various swear words at the appropriate point in the sentence… or simply ignoring the person who’s talking… are all brilliant and very relevant methods for appearing to be French, even when one is not.
On watching, I thought I appreciated this clip simply because I live here and have experienced at length the cultural patterns being parodied. So I was greatly surprised when, a few days later, I received a link sending up things New Yorkers say… and found myself chortling with equal gusto! Complete with references to bagels, The New York Times, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooklyn, schmucks… and whether the city is loved or hated by its residents at a given moment of the day… it seemed no stereotype was left out. I have never lived there and only visited twice, but it was still funny!
Fast forward to the next day and I was out at a bar with an American friend. The lady in question did not have a television growing up, does not know the first thing about American pop culture and has lived in a variety of countries from Spain to India and beyond. Intelligent, well travelled and interesting, she was forced to battle a volley of assumptions about her Americanism fired at her by a Swedish guy we met, simply because she was armed with an accent. Suddenly stereotypes similar to the ones I had been laughing at just the day before seemed unwelcome and not the slightest bit funny.
And so I got to asking myself… Why are stereotypes so hilariously funny some times and downright offensive at others?
For me, quite simply, it is all context and delivery dependent. Stereotypes are based on observations of cultural peculiarities, often by outsiders, that become simplified into generalisations. When delivered indirectly and in a light-hearted manner, they can be a fun way to make light of ourselves, to recognise that people from all over the world are different, and to laugh at both our own cultural quirks and those of others.
The harm in stereotypes occurs when people forget that they are just generalisations. That, whilst there is often an underlying element of truth relevant to a certain percentage of the population, not every person from a particular culture conforms to the stereotype. Stereotypes can become highly offensive when they are used to form assumptions and judgments about a culture and its people, especially on first meeting… nobody likes to be put into a box as a “certain type” of person before they have had a chance to show their own character.
So when you next see a clip sending up Australian cultural stereotypes or read a joke about riding kangaroos to work, feel free to have a laugh… but be sure that when you cross paths with an Aussie, you don’t immediately assume he/she is regularly down at the beach, wearing “thongs”, guzzling beer & throwing another “shrimp” on the barbie! Oh, wait… is that really all just stereotype???