Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The S-word

All good little children are warned against using the S-word. In my lectures about cultural diversity and understanding, I like to discuss the other S-word*.


You would think as a purveyor of all things tolerance-oriented that I would eschew stereotypes. But I actually think they’re pretty useful devices to help us reflect on our own culture and the different cultures around us. And, if we’re being really honest, stereotypes are almost always born from some (at least small) grain of truth. But admitting that can be uncomfortable as it requires us to acknowledge the less-than-perfect in ourselves and in others.

I have lived with the stereotype of many things, some I have embraced and some I have rejected. But there’s a little bit of reality in many of the things used to stereotype. But we tend to focus mostly on the negative when talking about stereotypes.

In a lecture last week I was discussing stereotypes, and I always use Americans as the example for debate**. I stood at the board, pen at the ready, and asked the class (of all Norwegian students) to tell me about Americans. The list was about the same as what I usually hear.


Yeah, true enough.


Sure, sometimes.


I agree.


Likely the case.

“Lovers of peace!”

Okay…wait… huh?

Never in ten years of doing this exercise had that particular gem dropped from anyone’s lips. Most often it is along the lines of ‘war-mongering’ (I’ll spare your delicate eyes some of the other choice comments).

After I recovered from the shock of what I had just heard, I asked the student to tell me more. He explained that it seemed like the US really wanted to work with other countries for the betterment of the world, and it also seemed, in his opinion, that the US was trying to right some of the overly-aggressive (and warhead-led) charges of the past decade***.

Well, I’ll be.

This warms the cockles of my heart as, when teaching stereotypes, I always prepare myself for the negatives, and this gentlemen reminded me that the best thing about stereotypes is that they can change, and sometimes even for the better.
* No, not socialism, for all the Republicans out there. Just to clarify.
** As I have previously mentioned, it’s always safer to let others laugh at you in a potentially uncomfortable classroom situation than it is to dare to laugh at anyone else.

*** If you don’t agree with this fellow’s assessment, that’s fine. It’s not about consensus – it’s his opinion.


  1. Oh, this warms the cockles of my little heart, too. Seriously. In the past years, both when I lived in New York and in the time we have spent here, I have never heard this at all.

    And when I was traveling a bit in the early 2000s, one of the most frequent traveling tips I heard was "Don't tell anyone you are American. People won't like it." And often it was true.

    But just in the in the past year, that has changed a good bit.

    It's been great to have conversations discussing the US instead of defending...

  2. Also, just for the record, I never hid nor denied my American-ness.

  3. That is too funny! As someone who has sat in on one of your lectures, I remember some of the other choice words - a few of which were screeched out by an unsuspecting woman sitting beside me. I don't think she realized she had one sitting just next to her when she hollered, 'Fake!'

    Elizabeth are you sure you weren't one of those Americans with a Canadian flag sewed to her backpack? ;-)

  4. EL--Swear I never was. I considered myself an American ambassador on a mission to show that not all of us were the bad sort. Seriously. Also, if I were going to sew another flag onto my backpack, it wouldn't be Canadian as I have never quite gotten the hang of "aboot" so I would have been outed immediately.

  5. Man--I wish you had been one of my college professors! I once took a children's lit. class where I wrote paper arguing that the Askeladen series of Norwegian folk tales spoke to a culture of hearty-souled, practically minded problem solvers. I got a C on that paper--a C! Not because it was poorly written, or poorly argued, but because that stereotypically uptight New England intellectual of a professor of mine was offended by my use of stereotypes to argue my point. Pfft!

    I have yet to come across anyone in my small circle willing to sing America's praises as benevolent spreader of peace and good will, but I too get a little warm and fuzzy inside to hear your story. I wonder--was that guy, by any chance, on the Nobel Peace Prize committee?

  6. Wow, is Thorbjørn Jagland in your class? :-)

    Fun post! I remember an excellent communication class I took at San Francisco State U some years back in which we had a similar discussion. The student group was so diverse we were able to offer stereotypes of, maybe, six different cultures just within our class. It got especially interesting when we moved on to gender stereotypes. Like you said, sometimes these things can be hard to hear but how can we break stereotypes if we don't talk about them?