Exuberant Americans, reserved Englishmen, orderly Germans, fatalistic Russians, unorganised Italians, charming and chic French, impenetrable Japanese, laidback Australians, gregarious and feckless Irish… are these descriptions a valid guide to these nationalities, and are there any such universal national characteristics at all? Do they just stem from personal, subjective experience or are mere ethnic stereotypes.
There may be protests or academic condemnation, aggrieved parties may move courts or complain to the government but the human tendency to seek classify people, situations and other information in existing slots ensure that stereotyping, ethnic or otherwise, will remain a feature of our mental landscapes — and so will such jokes.
The problem arises when such thinking starts to guide action or decision, excluding any other consideration, thus mutating into xenophobia. But equally to blame is a lack of knowledge of other cultures and peoples or misconceptions, and one easy, entertainingly funny, yet useful way, to remedy this is to peruse this series of books, ironically named “The Xenophobe’s Guides”.
Terming its mission to highlight the unique character and behaviour of various nationalities — in a manner that is “almost guaranteed to cure xenophobia” through judicious dose of humour and the irrepressible laughter it engenders, the series was started in 1993 by Anne Taute “as a humorous take on the UK being an island nation and its prevailing attitude being ‘us’ (the British) and ‘foreigners’ (everyone else)”.
The humour is typically British — wittily irreverent, deprecating (self-deprecating when needed) and uproariously hyperbolic at some points, though the writers are not necessarily only British, but, in many cases, hail from the country they seek to profile or have lived there extensively.
Among them is Zhu Song, author of “The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Chinese” (2010), who confesses she dislikes three phrases: “Where are you from?”, “Why, you speak perfect English!”, and “You’re so lucky to be able to speak Chinese!” and responds: “How much time do you have?,” “Why yes, I speak it better than you,” and “That’s because I am Chinese. Fancy that.” She goes on to note the “Chinese expect rusty Mandarin, the English an Asian accent, and the Americans an American one” but “she routinely confounds them all”.
That sets the tone for the series, which presently comprises 32 installments, with all, except three, dealing with a specific nationality (the exceptions are the Scots, the Welsh and the Californians, who differ from the rest of their countrymen in taking “their beliefs so seriously that many lose touch with what doesn’t need to be believed”).
Almost two-thirds deal with Europe, with its entire western and central parts, Scandinavian/Nordic part and some of southern part (Italians and Greeks) covered. Non-European nationalities comprise the Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, while Asia is presently represented by the Chinese, Japanese and the Israelis. One on the Brazilians is expected next year.
The format is more less the same with most of the small-sized books, all less than a 100 pages in length, divided into sections on nationalism and identity (including how they perceive themselves and others, usually neighbours, perceive them), character, attitude and values, manners and etiquette, obsessions, behaviour, sense of humour, leisure and pleasure activities, customs and traditions, the family, health and hygiene, culture, eating and drinking, government and bureaucracy, systems, law, crime and punishment, business, language and ideas, and conversations and gestures.
In the process, there are witty observations aplenty. We learn that “a wise traveller realises that a few happy moments with an American do not translate into a permanent commitment of any kind. Indeed, permanent commitments are what Americans fear the most. This is a nation whose fundamental social relationship is the casual acquaintance” or that for “many English people, pet-owning is the closest they ever get to an emotional relationship with another being”.
Furthermore, for Germans, “a car or a washing machine which breaks down six months after purchase is not a nuisance, it’s a breach of the social contract”, the French “insist that everything is done comme il faut (properly), an expression that applies to addressing an envelope or addressing a teacher, filling in a form or stuffing a duck”, and the Swiss are the only nation to “make the Germans appear inefficient, the French undiplomatic and the Texans poor”.
Nothing is taboo. We learn that among the Swedes, who “indulge in sport for leisure and sex for pleasure, some people treat sex as a sport in order to combine leisure with pleasure, and thus save time and energy”.
But beneath the light-hearted is a serious point — that all cultures have their plus and minus points, have, in their own way, contributed to civilisation, and no one should take themselves too seriously. We need more of these series — anyone keen to profile the Indians?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)