Thursday 18 October 2018

Did you hear the one about the German comic in the Essex club?

In his new book, RTE Europe Correspondent Tony Connelly examines national stereotypes and finds that many of them really are disconcertingly true

An Irish ambassador tells the tale of waiting at a German airport for the arrival of Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general. As the aircraft taxied to a standstill a ceremonial band struck up a sprightly tune which may, or may not, have been used for marching. "Wonderful, isn't it," the ambassador remarked to his French counterpart. "It makes the hairs on my neck stand up with fear," was the curt reply.

As the Lisbon referendum draws closer, our thoughts on Europe have been reduced to Jesuitical scrums over charters and protocols. But the above anecdote serves as a reminder of the historical Irish posture on Europe: at once good natured, yet remote from the terrible history.

Take a closer look, though, and beneath the polished surface of supposed EU harmony lurk notions about our neighbours. These are often sublimated into fear or admiration.

We assume that the Swedes are peace-loving and tolerant, that the Italians are lovably chaotic and that Germany is just a little too big. And we all know where the thread stops on that one, especially when the Brits enter the debate: when in 1990 cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley described the EU as a "German racket to take over Europe (and) you might as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly", he was simply voicing what his colleagues around the table believed.

It's not just the Germans. In corners of our minds the French are synonymous with gastronomic excess, or with the arrogance that keeps farmers wallowing in subsidies (not to mention 246 regional cheeses). In short, we are still shackled to stereotypes.

I spoke to an executive with Enterprise Ireland based in Germany and she began by saying that the stereotypes were mostly nonsense, but after 20 minutes of reflection frowned that most of them were actually true.

Stereotyping foreigners is centuries old. It can be limited to harmless rivalry but can have genocidal consequences. Stereotypes can be shortlived, misguided or migratory. In John Bull's eyes the Dutch were the original frogs, because they lived on swampy ground. The Germans used to be admired by the British, who saw them as kissing cousins, but that turned to a still unresolved hostility once Kaiser Bill threatened British naval supremacy.

"That's sooo Dutch!" fumed my Belgian camerawoman as she glanced at a table of Dutch diners in Rome. Her follow-up left me in no doubt that some nationalities have very specific disregard for others, and that stereotyping can be both visceral and (I hate to admit it) right on the money. "They ordered the cheapest main courses, didn't have a starter, asked for tap water, divided out the bill between them, then didn't leave a tip!"

I've been covering European affairs for RTE since 2001. Far from the experience reaffirming ideals of harmonious European integration I've found myself increasingly drawn, with a horrified fascination, to what makes foreigners foreign and how different our oddities are from each other.

I interviewed a business woman in Darmstadt who advised Germans on starting up their companies. "They want to know about insurance, about how much money they will make, about the social protections. They hardly ever ask how do we get customers," she said. "We are afraid of everything. It's just in us."

When I started writing a book on stereotypes I suspected I couldn't simply poke fun at foreigners and their foibles. So it became an exploration of how stereotypes have evolved; stumbling through the thorny brambles of history and national rivalry.

Along the way I met Spanish bullfighters, Czech beer manufactures, Italian mammas, Polish plumbers, Hungarian stag party organisers, French waiters and German precision engineers.

There were some straight-up conclusions: the Finns do have a big problem with alcohol; French women, as a matter of fact, do shave their underarm hair; and the Swedes are no less inclined to indulge in naked sauna romps than anyone else.

Other conundrums were even more perplexing. Do the Germans lack a sense of humour, and if so, why? I met a German stand-up comedian, Henning Wehn, who bravely frequents the UK comedy circuit challenging drunken audiences about their anti-German prejudices.

"I was in Billericay (in Essex)," he told me. "My slot was after the break, and when I came out, the entire audience had spent the break cutting up little squares of black tape and sticking them on their upper lip. I said, 'Well thank you, but I hope you haven't forgotten the shoe polish. There's a black man on after me.'"

Throughout I canvassed the views of expats about whether their pre-existing stereotypical notions of their hosts had rung true. Often they had.

"If I have to go to the post office or a government department I worry for weeks about it," moaned Fiona, a Belfast woman who has yet to come to terms with the disorganised Italians. "I remember one clerk -- back when we still had lire -- having to stop and count the number of zeroes he had written because he couldn't remember whether he had written 10 million or one million."

But the most intriguing part of the journey was learning about the stereotypes of eastern and central Europe. Throughout history, western Europe preferred to draw a supercilious veil over the peoples of those lands. Even during the Munich Crisis, Neville Chamberlain described Czechoslovakia as "a faraway land", thereby setting up a justification for appeasement.

By the time the Cold War had been and gone, the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs barely registered on our consciousness beyond murky images of bread queues and Trabants. "Before I went to Budapest my friends all joked that the women were all like shot-putters," one Irish property developer admits. "How wrong they were."

Stereotyping has only been studied by social psychologists since the 1920s, when the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Lippman described stereotypes as "pictures in our heads".

"The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance," wrote Lippman in Public Opinion in 1922. "We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and comb-inations."

Of course some stereotypes have that kernel of truth. French men are historically predisposed to falling in love every 30 minutes (at least according to a Parisian art dealer I interviewed) and the Swedes are the safety conscious obsessives of northern Europe (ear plugs are among the most popular items sold outside rock concerts). But the key is to resist being enslaved to them.

Even Basil Fawlty, who can't stop mentioning the war, gently admonishes the major as he frets about the Germans arriving. "Forgive and forget, Major," he says. Mind you, he can't avoid the all important afterthought: "God knows how, the bastards."

Don't Mention The Wars: A Journey Through European Stereotypes is published by New Island next month. Tony Connelly is RTE's Europe Correspondent.

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