ACCORDING to Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Truth be told, we all have our roles to be played out in life. A stereotype is a heightening of those roles which concern appropriate modes of behavior, opinion and expression of the human personality. But stereotypes can limit the expression of our personalities as we try to conform to the performance of our roles as defined by society, our families, our communities, colleagues and the accepted norms of behaviour bestowed upon us by our culture. Shakespeare in many of his plays provides examples of stereotypes, both reinforcing them and also critiquing them in the same play. Examples include the stereotypes of women, Jews and Christians in the Merchant of Venice, sexual stereotyping in Anthony and Cleopatra and in Much Ado About Nothing, and of course the male/female stereotyping that we see in Macbeth. In the play Macbeth the male stereotype is associated with violence and the female with weakness, dependency and an inability to deal with violence except to become its victims.
Many psychologists, researchers and social scientists suggest that stereotypes are inaccurate or at best simply exaggerate and highlight certain differences. Stereotypes are often used to aid prejudice, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, hostility, hatred and violence – and to hide corrupt structures of power. Stereotypes are more often than not harmful – but are all stereotypes all wrong?
While it is no secret that people with different backgrounds and countries of origin develop stereotypical images of the manners, habits, languages and motives of each other, it’s important to note that this can, and does, occur among people with very similar backgrounds. Take, for instance, Britons and Americans. Leaders and ordinary citizens of both nations frequently refer to the “special relationship” between two of the world’s oldest friends and democracies, in spite of the two-way stereotypes that persist among Britons and Americans.
How Britons see Americans
The British are often disdainful of Americans on the one hand while blindly admiring them on the other. As much as some know better, the appetite for all things American remains as ravenous now as it was when Elvis wore his blue suede shoes. Supersized and overweight from mountains to guts, as with all ravenous appetites, eventually it provokes troubling indigestion. The British will always feel they are superior as the “mother country” and that the US is just an extension of Britain. After all the British invented the US. The British comedian Stephen Fry once said “It only takes a room full of Americans for the English and Australians to realise how much they have in common”. Whether Brits believe the idea of the American dream or see it as nightmarish patriotism, they do sense the collective self-belief of the average American.
Many Britons say privately, and sometimes in public settings (although that would be uncouth and dropping to the level of the Yankees), that Americans are unwashed, nearly illiterate, undisciplined louts; they lack class, compassion and sensitivity and have no self-awareness. They would also say that Americans don’t understand irony – which is suggesting that they communicate in an unsophisticated way, without nuance or layers in conversation, that everything is taken at face value. For Americans, there is no reading between the lines and no appreciation of the subtleties of the English language.
Furthermore, critical Britons see Americans as unfamiliar with their own social, cultural and even economic roots – and quite ignorant of all things involving the arts. Americans may admire Hollywood, Fifth Avenue and Wall street, these critics insist, but only as centres of glamour and wealth – not as pillars of strong nationhood.
Britons have an easy time picking on Americans because of their respective histories: As a unified state, England is a thousand years old, four times the age of the United States. Moreover, England has a rich history in the arts to which America cannot compare, whether in paintings and sculptures, music, or literature. Finally, the Industrial Revolution, which propelled the entire world into the modern age, began around 1760 in England, but not till several decades later in the United states.
While an American is taught at an early age that the Revolutionary War saw England as a bullying mother country, gratuitously taxing and otherwise abusing subjects in her 13 North American colonies until the subjects could take it no more, a Briton sees it differently. To him the colonists were hooligans and ingrates. Moreover, they ultimately prevailed in the fight for independence only because England no longer considered the cost of war worth it, as its arch enemy was France, not the colonists.
How Americans see Britons
To the extent that Americans are willing to spend time commenting on Britons, their expressed view is anything but flattering. Basically, they see Britons as stuffed-shirt buffoons who traded away greatness for socialism. They regard Britons as rather pathetic folks trapped in an earlier period of history, as displayed in their boring traditions and their commitment to an aristocracy.
Americans do regard some things British, such as their accents and comedy series, as amusing, but view the British form of government every bit as confusing and awkward as many of their sports, including polo, cricket and lawn bowling.
American critics also think of Britain as a second-rate world power, politically, economically and militarily. They admire Churchill and a few other British leaders, but regard the nation as a regional power, certainly not an important geo-political player. To many Americans Britain is a small backwater island, once great, that continues to live in the past. Without the help of the US she would have sunk long ago.
And this particular perspective provides those Americans given to stereotypes a feeling of superiority and, consequently, a licence to sneer from afar.
Why the stereotypes?
Why do stereotypes persist, especially, in the example offered here, among people who have so much in common, including a glorious history marked by joint efforts to save the free world? Part of the answer surely is nationalism – that odd mix of patriotism and vanity that drives people to strike out at “others” for any number of reasons. It is in fact a blessing that relatively few people do in fact embrace nationalism to the point that they feel like striking out at foreign neighbours even those who reside in countries considered adversaries.
Sometimes stereotypes simply are inherited – they get handed down through the generations, and people really have no meaningful ideas about their origins. In the US most people are familiar with the country’s most famous family feud – between the Hatfields and McCoys of West Virginia and Kentucky, which began during the Civil War. Today, very few Americans have even the slightest idea what caused the squabble, which involved multiple killings in a “New Year’s Massacre”, thievery, executions and multiple trials. Stereotypes are similar, we believe those holding them have little or no knowledge about or recollection of their origins.
Bad experiences do sometimes shade people’s thinking, and this is understandable. If people witness or hear of a crime or heinous act committed by someone from a foreign land, it can create a stereotype that has staying power. Indeed, when something happens that disturbs us, we sometimes look for an easy, or comfortable, explanation, because we need to rationalise the event or episode. And perhaps the easiest rationalisation is that the whole thing is the fault of others.
What can – should – we do about it?
First, we should acknowledge the fact that stereotypes exist everywhere, and have for as long as people recognised that there were people living in other places. Americans say "aluminum", Brits say "aluminium". So no matter how intently we both examine each other, we cannot help but see our own characteristics staring back at us as in a mirror. This does not happen when we look at the Spanish, the Arabs or the South Africans, which all remain properly the “other”.
The long and short of it is this: Stereotyping drives people apart and produces nothing good. And if people from two friendly, similar countries, like Great Britain and the United States, can develop stereotypes about each other, then it’s easy to see how stereotypes exist between those in not-so-friendly, different lands.
In the final analysis, stereotypes will always exist. Yet these stereotypes of each other, however inaccurate, bigoted and hurtful they may be, need not divide people in important ways although sometimes they seem to do just that. Nevertheless, we can be sure of one thing that was true in Medieval England, early America, and everywhere else, and remains true: When it comes to things that all of us value – friendships, strong families, security, freedom, a sense of belonging, the love of community – our differences pale next to our similarities. In fact, as humans we are more similar than we are different.
Andy Hickson is an Englishman, professor and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Communication at HELP University, and William G. Borges is an American and a professor in the American degree programme at HELP University.