Stereotypes: thank them or curse them?

Updated: Sep 23

It’s a nice June evening, the balcony door is open, letting fresh air into the room, and I breathe it in with pleasure: my studies are close to the finish for today. The softness of the evening is suddenly interrupted – it’s the explosion of people’s emotions, a multitude of victorious shouts coming from everywhere. “Aha! Italy must have scored a goal! Who are they playing with in this Euro cup, I wonder?” I love this nation’s passion towards supporting their team and how strongly they celebrate every goal. After all Italians are fiercely passionate about football… Wait a minute. Isn’t it just a stereotype?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word stereotype? In most cases we start to remember some typical cultural beliefs – France is about wine and baguette, Italy - pasta and pizza or think of negative images given to some social groups – blonds are not very intelligent or women are weaker and more emotional than men.

First introduced in 1922, the word stereotype has been used for both positive and negative misconceptions, however today we mostly perceive stereotypes as negative generalizations about certain groups of people.

Nowadays we are inclined to fight stereotyping, that is why one of the most valuable skills of the 21 century is critical thinking meant to keep us from this phenomenon due to its high influence on us. This way of thinking is usually seen as offensive judgmental attitudes especially if we speak of intercultural communication.

Seeing stereotyping in a negative way myself, I have stepped on the same rake when I started living in Italy. Although my perception of Italian culture was not based on pizza and pasta, I realized that a lot of other aspects of my knowledge were quite far away from the truth.

Who has not heard that Italians are loud, emotional, and talkative? After 5 months of living among them I can definitely say that their emotionality might be justified. However, the question is whether this emotionality can be judged. While some people might be annoyed by it, I find it beautiful and appreciate their passion.

At the same time, five out of five of my Italian neighbours are closed and calm. Within 5 months of seeing them silently cooking or having their morning espressos, I realized that even such a strong stereotype we believe might be misleading.

Coming back to the Italians’ love for football: How strong is it? Yes, they enjoy football but what I’ve learned is that they can easily choose to catch up with their favourite series above rather than watching the game and just check on the score to engage in a morning conversation with their colleagues at work.

Moreover, when my classmate mentioned pasta among main Italian culture’s attributes, our Italian classmate not only got offended by such words but started to defend Italian culture until I had to save the day by taking the focus away to more cultural types of food such as lasagne.

The exchange experience made me see how much stereotypes affect our lives. Almost every person I met was starting a conversation by checking if a certain stereotype was true or not. Were they honestly interested in learning the truth or just trying to find topics for keeping a small talk? It does not matter because it proved to be an amazing ice breaker

This got me thinking about how much talking about stereotypes might help us learn the truth about any aspect we are interested in. It does not mean we have to believe these stereotypes or start thinking in stereotypes but how often do we get the chance to learn the truth?

Being Russian myself, getting offended by a lot of misconceptions and condemnation I feel shocked by how misled and culturally unaware I was and still am! However, realizing it makes me stronger in a way that it gives me a power to break the stereotypes and learn the truth.

And yet, stereotypical thinking might still scare me, realizing its meaning works for me as a reminder that every aspect of our lives might be misjudged – being born in a poor or a rich family, being a good or a bad student, having 100 posts per week on social media or posting none - the aspects are unlimited.

It leads me to the conclusion that it is not about the concept of stereotypes being seen as negative – it’s about our own way of their comprehension – getting offended or telling the truth, judging someone, or trying to see the real picture. Stereotypes are not bad; they exist to build the connection between us. They are our communication boosters.

So next time someone asks me if bears really walk on the roads of Moscow I will see that as an icebreaker and desire to find out the truth.

By Anastasia Iarovaia

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