By Katie Ford
Stereotypes are such a funny thing. They occupy space in our minds as if they were a true representation of whatever that “thing” is, and it’s often difficult for us to reexamine our opinions once we’ve adopted a stereotype as truth. When we travel, these stereotypes become all-important maps that determine how we interact with other people and other cultures. When we experience another culture, country, or group of people through the attitude of a stereotype, we’re not really doing justice to the experience that’s before us, and often we’re left with an empty feeling about the thing we’ve experience, and we often leave a “bad taste” in the mouths of those we’ve interacted with. So many times these experiences color the way in which we regard these countries, people, or cultures in the future, and how we relate them to friends and family at home, which only serves to perpetuate these stereotypes that we’ve unfairly established.
The example of French culture comes to mind when I consider the problem of stereotypes as they relate to traveling, although of course it isn’t the only example. Often those who haven’t experienced French culture have quite negative opinions of French culture and people before ever stepping foot in the country. The French are often viewed as cold, entitled, and unforgiving. All of these judgments do a great disservice to the French culture, but more importantly, to the French people. Many Americans believe it will be impossible to travel in France without speaking French because of how nasty the French are to non-French speakers. I’ve even been told by people that the French pretend not to speak English, even when they do, because they hate non-French speakers so much. I found this to be completely absurd, as my somewhat lengthy experiences with French people and culture reflect a completely opposite reaction to English speakers. Even in the infamously intolerant city of Paris I’ve had excellent conversations with waiters and other Parisians in tourist areas, speaking in both English and French, many times in English because these conversations provided my conversation partner with an opportunity to practice English. I’ve been told that the French are entitled because they expect that everyone who visits France to speak French. My response? Well, yes. And they should. When someone visits my home country, I typically expect that they at least make the effort to speak in English, and I’m sure many of you feel the same way. Why should the French be expected to speak my language in their country?
I appreciate that it is likely impossible for a traveler to learn the language of every country they visit- I certainly can’t. It is, however, important to make an effort to greet people in their own language, and be polite, especially when communicating in your native language. Appreciate that this person is making a sacrifice for your comfort while you’re visiting their home, and act accordingly. You’ll be surprised how quickly those “French assholes” turn into kind and generous people once you actually attempt to adapt to their culture while in their country. Presuming that natives of any country that you visit will be able to cater to your needs is inconsiderate at best and straight up rude in its extreme forms. Stereotypes like these can be extremely harmful to cross-cultural understanding and acceptance of other cultures that you’ll encounter while traveling, and they’re totally unnecessary barriers. If you are willing and able to approach a new culture with an open mind and open heart, you’re much more likely to have a fantastic experience, and you’re much more likely to learn about that culture as well as your own. Travelers are in a unique diplomatic position, as they’re on the cultural “front line”, and they serve as ambassadors of their own country and culture. How will you take that responsibility and transform it into something beautiful?
And when you can’t figure out what the signs say, miming always works too 😉