People, places, culture: misleading assumptions

Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people whereby we attribute a defined set of characteristics to this group. These classifications can be positive or negative, such as when various nationalities are stereotyped as friendly or unfriendly, according to Changing Minds, the site on all aspects of how “we change what others think.”

It is easier to create stereotypes when there is a clearly visible and consistent attribute that can easily be recognized. People from stereotyped groups can find this very disturbing as they experience an apprehension (stereotype threat) of being treated unfairly.

We change our stereotypes infrequently. Even in the face of disconfirming evidence, we often cling to our obviously-wrong beliefs. Stereotypes create walls, cause misunderstandings and lost opportunities. Even worse, stereotypes can lead to prejudicial and discriminatory behavior.

Two common stereotypes of Russia: Bears and Vodka

There are some common stereotypes about different countries that could be easily found on the Web.

For example, many people tend to think that everybody loves to drink vodka in Russia. However, contrary to popular imagination, most Russians do not guzzle vodka every day. As it was noted in the article Russian Stereotypes: Don’t Fall for Them, by Svetlana, Russians, like citizens of any other country, have jobs to hold and family commitments to meet. This would be very difficult to do if they quaffed vodka day in and day out. While Russia is known for its vodka just like Japan is known for its “sake” and Germany for its beer, the majority of Russians do not get drunk on vodka on a regular basis.

One more common belief is that Russia is always cold and everyone wears fur coats. While it’s true that Russia is one of the coldest countries on earth, it is also a huge nation with a large variety of temperatures. In fact, the summers are as warm as Florida in some places and Russia’s southern beaches draw many visitors. As for fur coats, they are popular, but one can hardly claim that all Russians wear them. The idea that all Russians wear fur coats is just as inaccurate as the notion that all English people wear rain coats or that all Americans wear sport jeans and tennis shoes.

Probably the most widespread stereotype is that all Arabs and Middle Eastern people are Muslims and all Muslims are militant terrorists in disguise. In his essay, Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image, Scott J. Simon argues that of all the ethnic groups portrayed in Hollywood films, “Arab culture has been the most misunderstood and supplied with the worst stereotypes.” A report titled “100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim stereotyping” by Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, director of media relations for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, specifies what some in the Arab American community call “the three B syndrome”: “Arabs in TV and movies are portrayed as either bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires” in reference to being portrayed as terrorists, women as sex objects, or as wealthy oilmen.

Loving parents, not terrorists

In fact, Muslims, as all the other people, do not support terrorism. They are the ones who suffer the most from the bomb attacks in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the Arabic culture is so much more than belly dancing. One could recall the names of many famous Islamic poets and writers, like Omar Khayyám and Rumi. And since the Middle East is reach in oil, there are many billionaires there. But it is far not everyone. The U.S., Japan and China are top 3 countries with the most millionaire households.

As for Africa, some people used to refer to  it as “the Dark Continent,” while some other people think Africa is a single country.

“We tend to think of Africa as a single monolithic country, instead of 53 very different nations,” says former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa James Joseph.

Africa is so diverse. Even though Africa has a merged culture, with the traditions shared by many, there are specific cultural features in every African country. Moreover, although determining the number of languages spoken in Africa can be complex mostly because it can be difficult to determine whether two languages are distinct or simply dialects, or different forms of the same language. Eventhough many agree that the the number of languages spoken in Africa is  around 2,000, the most widely spoken languages are English and French. It is also important to strictly note the difference between a language and a dialect.

Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon

Africa is so much more than just wild animals and safaris. One should only glance at the capital of Cameroon to realize how wrong stereotypes can be.

The most common stereotype about China is that all Chinese know kungfu. And anything to do with China is “ancient” and “mysterious.”  It is true that Chinese culture has a 5000-year history. But it doesn’t mean that it is so old-fashioned. In fact, Chinese teenagers, for example, are not different from the ones in the West. They enjoy doing the same things and listening to the same music. Obviously, kungfu is just a small part of Chinese culture. People in China fly with the help of planes only.

There is one more stereotype to be paid attention to. Some people think that all Americans believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that Americans all supported Bush’s war. Although governments represent the people, it does not always mean that people are happy with the governments’ decisions and responsible for it. Gallup Polls updated September 14, 2007 stated, “since the summer of 2005, opponents of the war have tended to outnumber supporters. A majority of Americans believe the war was a mistake.”

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