“Europe has what we do not have yet, a sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, a sense, in a word, of tragedy. And we have what they sorely need: a sense of life’s possibilities.”
James Baldwin, American novelist
Snooty French, stiff Brits, shy Finns and humourless Germans: Europeans love their conceptions about their neighbours to be well-defined, if not necessarily true. Even if stereotypes don’t teach us much about who our European neighbours really are, they do teach us a lot about how they are perceived. And sometimes our cliches about the rest of Europe have a story behind them that can reveal something about Europe’s rich history – and occasionally even a grain of truth about the national character. Even if sometimes these complaints land a bit close to the bone, we talk about our fellow Europeans precisely because we are interested in them — after all, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Just remember not to take them (too) seriously…
Lazy, sad and nostalgic?
Sunny weather, beaches, cafés… When many northern Europeans think of their southern cousins like Portugal, they often think of a life of indolence, if not negligence. There’s a reason why the Portuguese word farniente, literally “doing nothing,” has been exported as a concept to so many other countries. But who would blame the Portuguese for making the most of their generous climate, fancy fish dishes and gorgeous port wine and you’ll realise why they don’t see anything wrong with the odd afternoon nap. While the stereotypye is easygoing, though, it is far from happy-go-lucky. The slow and melancholic Fado music contributes to the stereotype of the Portuguese as a sad and reflective people. Their word “saudade” doesn’t translate into English but roughly means “nostalgia” or “homesickness”.
Fiestas, siestas and macho men?
Europe seems to have a clear image of what the Spaniards look like: “a nation high on fiestas, with stunning women who can’t go to the bullfight dressed in miniskirts lest their boyfriends and husbands (who are so macho) have a fit. And then there’s the siestas in the afternoon, and the partying at night” (The Guardian). Elsewhere, Spanish people are said to be as lazy and loud as they are passionate. According to the journalist Carmen Morán, “The sun, the beach, fiesta, noise: these were the goods Spain exchanged abroad, through tourism, to staunch its economic wounds”.
Unhygienic, rude, snobbish strikers?
It is a known fact that all French people – without exception – wear a beret while snootily riding their baguette-laden bicycle. An unromantic image they somehow manage to combine with being the world’s greatest lovers. Who cares if this centuries-old stereotype doesn’t fit the facts? If a Frenchman objects to his portrayal with a shrugging sacrebleu, you can always just ascribe it to his legendary rudeness. Some historians say it was the post-World War 2 international non-alignment policy instituted by De Gaulle that led to this reputation for arrogance. The French, they say, also suffer from poor personal hygiene, and are always on strike – a tradition that’s largely disproved by statistics on the weakness of French trade unions.
Unpunctual but irresistible lads?
The Land of Fire and Ice has a very small population of about 320,000 inhabitants. So many people whose-names-shall-be-kept-secret say that, not only does everyone knows everyone, they’re probably related to them too. Notwithstanding these allegations of incest, Iceland’s women are reckoned to be the world’s most beautiful, and its men the world’s strongest. Other Nordic neighbours say Icelanders can never show up on time and always procrastinate about simple choices like where to go on holiday or what to have for dinner. According to the Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir: “this reluctance to make plans may be exhausting, but it also gives the country a lot of its dynamism. People are flexible and a lot actually gets done at the last minute, which may be one reason why we can recover quickly from economic collapses and natural disasters.” Well said, Alda!
Bad-tempered, drunk redhead Catholics?
Perhaps it’s because of their historical fight for autonomy, from the time of the ancient Celts to the struggle against England and for emancipation as Catholics. For whatever reason, we consider the Irish to be both bad-tempered and deeply religious (even if the number of atheists on the Emerald Isle is in reality growing fast). If not at Church, tradition says the Irishman will be found at the pub binge-drinking Guinness. Oh, and of course, don’t expect to meet a blond Irish as everyone knows they are all ginger. This conception of the Irish most likely comes from the popular 1952 film ‘The Quiet Man’ which starred a fiery Irish redhead and a wide array of other inaccurate Irish stereotypes.
The Brits are said to be very polite, proper and sophisticated with an unhealthy tendency to be snobbish, unemotional and class-obsessed – only casting off his stiff outer shell when drinking large amounts of alcohol, which is frequently. According to The Guardian, “the European image of the Brit – either pukingly drunk football fan or snooty City gent, both living off past imperial glories, sullenly resenting being in Europe rather than ruling the world – is itself a cliché.” Add to that plenty of rain, bad food, double-decker buses and the red telephone boxes which are still common attractions, if only for tourists, and you’ll have the full picture of a stereotypical England. Not to mention the regional stereotypes about the Scots and the Welsh…
Ruddy, wealthy, but enlightened?
Most stereotypes about the Norwegians come from their Scandinavian neighbours – mostly the Danes and the Swedes. For a fellow Scandinavian, the Norwegian is a bit backwards – a rustic, patriotic and unsophisticated fish-eater with lamentable manners and muddy boots. More recently that image has been supplemented with a grudging acknowledgement of the vast Norwegian wealth from crude oil. Elsewhere in Europe, people take a different view of the Norwegian, judging him to be wealthy, enlightened and rational, if rather boring.
Tall slender boring blonds?
They are said to be tall, slender, and gorgeous with blond hair and blue eyes. They are also regarded as progressive, feminist and liberal, with good social welfare. In particular people note the country’s strong commitment to gender equality: the country where women can easily have a career alongside children. So far so good, but familiarity breeds contempt and nearer neighbours tend to note the Swedes’ problem with alcohol. In Sweden you have to be 20 years old to buy liquor, for example – older than the limit of 16 in Denmark – with the result that many young Swedes travel to Denmark to buy alcohol – which they then proceed to consume rather too quickly. Scandinavians would also say that the Swedes are somewhat arrogant, unfriendly, boring, depressed and a little racist.
Depressed, withdrawn drinkers?
“Don’t exaggerate” – a motto which grasps the essence of the Finnish psyche. Rarely one to waste a word with unnecessary small talk, the Finn might be taken as rude, introverted and emotionless. In fact, to the outsider, someone speaking Finnish sounds like they swear all the time, or like they are sad and depressed. Unburdened from the duties of conversation, their stereotype confines them to drinking vodka, living in the woods, hitting themselves with birch branches in the sauna and hunting bears. Others believe that the Finns live in their parents’ basement, listen to black metal and entertain themselves with online role-playing games all day.
Trusting but reserved environmentalists?
Danes don’t have many stereotypes, perhaps because the tiny nation is too often confused with the rest of Scandinavia: to have a stereotype you must first have an identity, after all. The Danes are said to have a great quality of life, and to be helpful, punctual and trusting. While perhaps a little reserved at first, the Danes are seen as open-minded, easygoing and easily humoured. Elsewhere, however, the Danes themselves describe themselves as complaining constantly about everything, especially the weather. And just like their Scandinavian neighbours, they are said to be heavy drinkers.
Liberal, greedy, gay, stoned cyclists?
A lasting image about the Dutch is that they are all tall, blond and blue-eyed and that the typical Dutch shed keeps at least a dozen bikes. Not entirely true, but not without reason either: the country boasts more bicycles than people. A liberal Dutch drug policy on cannabis means the Dutch are also believed to be stoned all the time. The Netherlands was also the first country in the world to allow gay marriage in 2001 – so Amsterdam is sometimes regarded as the unofficial gay capital of Europe, and half the Dutch population assumed to be gay. The Dutch are also perceived as attached to their money – splitting the bill is called ‘going Dutch’, for a reason which can be confirmed by anyone who went on a date with a Dutchman and ended up having to pay half.
Government-less chip and beer lovers?
The Belgians are the butt of a great number of jokes and clichés, especially from France and the Netherlands, with whom they share common languages. The Belgians are said to eat chips, mussels, chocolate and waffles at every meal, have beer running through their veins and only read comic books. The country’s political system is also portrayed as a complex mess, mainly because of the constant fight between Dutch and French-speaking Flanders and Wallonia. Belgians even have stereotypes about each other: Dutch speakers consider the Walloons as lazy, monolingual football fans, while the other way round, Flems are viewed as austere and stiff.
Car lovers and humourless hardworkers?
Contrary to popular belief, not all German men wander around in Lederhosen (leather trousers), and nor do they speak a harsh and unromantic language. But this popular image remains in Europeans’ mind. According to The Guardian, the Germans are regarded as hard workers who love their cars more than anything, efficient and disciplined, but also stiff and humourless. The German Journalist Rainer Erlinger agrees: “Of course, Angela Merkel is a bit more stiff and formal than Silvio Berlusconi but it could be the other way around with Mario Monti. Seemingly, Germans don’t think it is a laughing matter when it comes to their politicians – at least not outside of satirical programmes or carnival. If the Germans do have a sense of humour perhaps it has to be clearly noted in the calendar.”
Humourless hardworkers in Lederhosen?
Europeans often represent the Austrians dressed either in a “Dirndl” or in a “Lederhose”. Tourists can discover those traditional clothes at summer beerfests or on special occasions, though natives do take them off occasionally. Europeans would depict the Austrians as rather fair-haired, serious, standoffish, hardworking and lacking any sense of humour. They might add that most Austrians are into winter sports and pretty well off financially. Another important aspect of the Austrian soul is the priority given to domestic life. The Austrians love to build, repair, extend, maintain, refurbish or modernise their houses and spend hours in garden centres.
Punctual, reserved individualists?
Unsurprisingly for a nation slap in the middle of Europe, there are many stereotypes about the Swiss. A common one depicts the Swiss as reserved, a place where starting a conversation with a stranger would raise eyebrows. Another widely shared stereotype depicts the Swiss as obsessed with punctuality. This obsession has something to do with watchmaking – a traditional Swiss industry. But it is also the large industry in managing other people’s money via banking and offshore funds, which leads their neighbours to think of them as frugal people. Last, some consider the Swiss to be individualists who don’t like getting involved in other people’s problems – as their common saying states, “Dirty laundry should be washed within the family“…
Football addicts and talkative fashionistas?
According to The Guardian, the Italians are seen as chatterboxes, and bad listeners interested only in the sound of their own voices. It is also said that they are good-looking, fashion-crazy football addicts who never pay tax. Other common associations include the incredible coffee culture, or the love of pizza and pasta, with spaghetti being treated as a near sacred object. The model Italian endlessly repeats “mamma mia!” or “va fan culo!” and lives under the thumb of his beloved Mamma. Another stereotype sees Italian men as dark-haired, olive-skinned plumbers who spend the working day jumping on turtles, eating mushrooms, and saving princesses…
Pretty women and absinthe drinkers?
The best-known image for this small country is the Skoda – the well known brand of highly reliable Soviet cars. Czechia is also famous for being the homeland of crystal and Art Nouveau style. When it comes to Czech characteristics, Europeans tend to think that Czech women are very beautiful and men all have a moustache. They think that the Czechs love beers and absinthe. They eat dumplings and use their mobile phone a lot. Others consider Czechia a nation of artists, not least given its many famous writers.
Bad-tempered heavy drinkers?
The most common trope about Slovaks is to get confused about European history, and believe they’re still part of Czechoslovakia. Another stereotype is that they are bad-tempered and easily offended. Their humor is said to be dark and sadistic, if slow-witted and dumb. They are also seen as sexist and unfriendly to strangers. Slovak people are also often stereotyped as heavy drinkers: Borovicka and Slivovica being just two common local drinks.
Hard-drinking Catholic zealots?
One of the most significant stereotypes about Poland relates to its staunch Catholic zealotry. But according to Adam Leszczynski, a Polish journalist, the Poles are not deep down bothered by what the Church says. If they don’t find solace in religion, they may find it in alcohol: the Poles are also often portrayed as hard drinkers. If it is true that on average the Poles drink 13.3 litres of alcohol per citizens per year and are de facto drinking slightly more than Germans (12.8 litres), they however drink almost the same as the English (13.4 litres), and less than the Irish (14.4 litres).
Russian, backward villagers?
Stereotypes about Lithuania originate more from a lack of knowledge about the country than on actual reputation. The most widespread stereotype would be that for some (ignorant) Europeans, Lithuania is part of Russia. Those people sometimes tend to think that Lithuanians don’t have their own language and have never created or invented anything, which is not surprising, because Lithuania, in the view of many, did not exist before the USSR miraculously fell apart. Then, according to some Lithuanians, among the first questions they get from foreigners is the funny “Do you have televisions in Lithuania?“, “How many people live in your village?”, “Do you have a horse?” or even the amazing “Can you teach me how to say something in Polish?“.
Six toes, fish eaters?
Europeans in general do not differentiate Latvia much from its Baltic neighbours, and they consequently don’t have any particular stereotype for Latvians. But the Estonians do! And this is all the more surprising: Estonians have a joke about Latvians where they are said to have… 6 toes! They see Latvians as suffering from bad roads, eating a lot of fish, but ultimately as close cousins.
Sexy inventers with advanced medical system?
Estonian women are said to be particularly beautiful with light blond hair and their economy is said to be the most advanced among the Baltics. The Latvians and the Lithuanians depict Estonians as slow, but determined and rational. They are said to be particularly successful in business and especially in the IT sector. The Latvians are sometimes jealous about their advanced social and medical system, as well as leisure infrastructure such as an extensive network of spas. In this respect, they are sometimes perceived as half-Baltic, half-Scandinavian.
Unemotional Soviet potatoes lovers?
Maybe because of its name, or the fact that it is geographically and culturally close to it, Belarus is mostly associated in stereotypes with Russia. Europeans then tend to assume that Belarusians are profoundly cold, unemotional and unfriendly. They are also noted for permanently glorifying their previous guerilla war against the Nazis: but Europeans also often think that the country is filled with Soviet-era buildings. As Belarus is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe, Europeans tend to see Belarusians as prisoners without freedom or entertainment, with only an endless supply potatoes to cheer up their confinement.
Russian-speaking, radioactive poor people?
Ukraine is a country with outstanding history and traditions, but if you haven’t been there, you’re unlikely to know that. Since the Chernobyl disaster, many people unfairly regard Ukrainian vegetables and fruits as dangerous to eat. It is also said that Ukrainians don’t like foreigners, are gloomy and are always quarreling with each other. A common perception is thinking that they have snow all the year round. Europeans regard women in Ukraine are beautiful but as crafty. Last, it is said that Ukrainians are in love with salo – cured slabs of pork fat. Vodka is also a popular spirit for celebrations and welcoming guests, but some Ukrainians prefer horilka.
Wine drinkers who are beautiful but poor?
The stereotype of Moldovans is that they are beautiful, with fair skin and dark hair (although many people also have fair hair too). It is also said that they are poor (often true), Moldovan women are often stereotyped as sex trafficking victims, as they try to escape from desperate situations with illusions of becoming a dancer, waitress or cleaning girl in a western country. In other cases, parents who work overseas lead to a perception that all the country’s children are being raised by their grandparents. Moldova is also depicted as a hospitable nation bring people together with delicious wine, dances and banquets.
Roma and vampires speaking Russian?
For many foreigners, Romania is the equivalent of a series of common misconceptions. The first common picture associated with Romania is considering the country as the land of vampires. There are no vampires in Transylvania. Also, there’s nothing creepy about it and people living there don’t have that funny accent you’ve heard in Hollywood films. Another common misperception is thinking that Romanian speak Russian. Romanian is however a Romance language. People were forced to learn Russian during communism but this was not the case since 1990. Than Europeans tend to think that all Romanian are Roma people. But Roma people make up only 2.5% of Romania’s over 22 million people. A surprising number of people seem to think Romanians are the minority. Which is not to say that Roma are not Romanians. And last, a common stereotype is confusing Bucharest, Romania’s capital city, with Budapest which is actually Hungary’s. This is something that many people get wrong.
Bad-mannered goulash eaters?
Stereotypes related to Hungary are always peculiar – and in part relate to their supposedly pushy and intrusive behaviour. A phrase often heard in central Europe goes: “If a Hungarian passes through a revolving door right after you he will come out before you”. People from this country will, they say, won’t always pay too much attention to good manners and unwritten rules. Another stereotype depicts Hungarians as self-centered, uncooperative, and contrary. Hungarians are also said to adore their own language: They know it is hard for foreigners to learn, but they appreciate if you try. Try to pronounce Hungarian names correctly. Hungarians are also said to complain a lot and are rather pessimistic when expressing an opinion. Last and most obviously, Hungarians are said to eat goulash all the time.
Bilingual and introverted?
Slovenia is often perceived as the first Balkan country to integrate the Western way of life and consumer society, and is now considered a mix of many European nations and cultures. In the common stereotypes, Slovenes are described as somewhat jealous, complaining, cold and melancholic – but also romantic, disciplined and honest. They’re known as polyglots – most people speak at least 1 or 2 foreign languages – and like to stay in the same home from the time they marry till they die. That might explain why they put great effort in making their house and surroundings beautiful, with flowers on windows and painted walls.
Talkative, loud and quarrelsome patriots?
Croatia is often perceived as a talkative and friendly nation, but also loud, rude and sometimes quarrelsome – perhaps thanks to their history where they often seemed behind modern trends. Following Croatians’ fight for independence in 1991, other nations think of them as extremely patriotic if not nationalistic.
Workshy superstitious womanisers?
Serbs are seen as having little or no motivation to work in order to improve their living conditions, or lacking in organisational skill or business sense. Those with memories of the Balkan conflict may view them as warlike, while Serbian men are also often painted as womanisers. According to one Serbian blogger, the mentality of Serbian men makes them cheat on their girlfriends or wives — though that’s hardly unheard of elsewhere – and as being superstitious.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnians often see themselves as tall, blond hillbillies. Others caricature them as as people that diligently leave their shoes outside the door of an apartment chock-full of artificial flowers and twee framed prints of waterfalls. Trendy women dye their hair Kool-Aid red while men constantly wear Adidas tracksuit bottoms. Bosnians are considered by Europeans as White Muslims, who love Americans and Turks. In reality, forty percent of the country’s population is Muslim – more Muslims live in Paris than in the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Paprika lovers and heavy smokers?
The more unfair Albanian stereotypes, often formed after mass emigration in the 1980s and ’90s, portray the citizens as poor thieves. For their direct Balkan neighbors, Albanians are regarded as patriotic, obsessed with sports (especially football), and lovers of dancing. They are said to know more about Italy than Italians themselves, but to dislike Greeks and Serbians. They are said to be traditional and familiy-oriented, to start smoking at an early age, to eat paprika every day and drink a lot of tea. Last, most of them consider themselves Muslims, while disparaging other Muslim countries.
Macho, misogynistic goat cheese eaters?
Bulgarian women have a reputation for good looks: not so their menfolk, who are seen as built like a truck, aggressively macho, possessive, and as sensitive as a brick. Bulgarians are also said to survive on a diet of tomatoes, cucumber and goats’ cheese.
Greeks’ worst enemy?
The main stereotyping of this small country comes from its neighbour Greece. But Greek worries over supposed Macedonian expansionism seem overblown, given its tiny army seems unlikely to make Athens flinch.
Hairy gay gossipers?
Leaving aside the many stereotypes of the profligate Greek generated by the euro crisis, many see the people of this nation as hairy, loud and carefree, happy just to smoke and gossip all day. They also have a gay reputation, thanks to the works of Plato and the goings-on in gay-friendly destinations like Mykonos – while the more family-oriented are seen as mummy’s boys.
Patriarchal and obsessed with Mercedes?
Many tropes about Turkey date back to the Ottoman era, and a fascination with the majority-Muslim empire on Europe’s doorstep. Today, Turkish people are depicted as having big families, primitive and collectivist, and with Turkish women obliged to obey husbands. Subsisting only on a diet of kebabs, the stereotypical Turk has an eye for business, but his only obsession is to save enough to buy a good German BMW or Mercedes.
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