Friday, January 23, 2009

Stereotypes R Us?

As a philosophy professor, I have been to my share of conferences. One revelation: stereotypes exist. The bearded academic, droning on about inscrutable problems of interest only to other like-minded types is, alas, real. There might even be something about our look. Taking a break from one conference, I was wandering through a shopping area near Boston’s Prudential tower. The thick post-Christmas crowd was shoulder to shoulder. Suddenly, a stranger approached, asking matter-of-factly: “where is the philosophy meeting?” How had he picked me out? No sign was tattooed on my forehead. I wasn’t wearing my conference name tag. Was it the blue blazer, lack of tie, khaki pants? Whatever it was, I had the stereotype look.

Stereotypical I
Here in France, one stereotype is the bored, lackadaisical, couldn’t-care-less civil servant. Our first day introduced us to just such a type. We wandered into the local tourist bureau. The person behind the desk made no effort to greet us. She seemed kind of bothered and annoyed. After all, we were distracting her from some computer-centered activity. When we mentioned how we would be in the village for 5 months, this professional booster could only reply “Not much to do around here.” At least, this was an honest answer. No hucksterism for her. No snake oil salesperson she. Since not much goes on in winter, well, that’s what she would tell us.

The previous evening, having arrived too late for grocery shopping, we headed for a local restaurant. This one was more typical than stereotypical. The place is small, maybe 10 tables. The staff is small, a husband and his wife. The husband greets folks, takes orders. The wife works the kitchen. This house specialty is Breton food. The stock entree from Brittany is a ‘galette,’ a kind of large buckwheat crepe folded over a variety of fillings. The accompanying drink is a typically “cidre,” which has nothing to do with what Americans call cider. Since we find the stuff undrinkable, we went for the more usual accompaniment in the rest of France, wine. The owner had made no effort to get us to order the more expensive bottle rather than the pitcher. Nor did he point us to a wine list. The choices were simple: red, rosé, white. The bottle was from a local, organic vineyard. Whereas U.S. restaurants typically provide large glasses into which bottles can be quickly emptied (with a server immediately asking if another is desired), this place had simple and small glasses. The wine could then be savored and stretched out over a relaxed meal. The husband/wife team, the relaxed atmosphere, no hard or even soft sell for extras, allowing guests to linger, these are all ‘typical’ of restaurants hereabouts. The treatment of clients is modeled, not on the restaurant being a business, but on receiving people at home.

Stereotypical II
What does one do in a small (2600 inhabitants) village where “not much to do here” is the rule? Well, the locals occupy themselves somehow and the only option is to join in. Announcements were spread around town about a “Loto” night at the local meeting hall. Not quite knowing what this was, we figured what the heck, it’s the only game in town. It turned out to be a French version of Bingo to support the local association of retired people. Florida or France, a room full of retirees, (some long-retired) playing Bingo has a familiar and predictable feel to it.
But the stereotype associated with this outing had to do with the perception of Americans. We introduced ourselves. The immediate response from a neighbor: “But you aren’t OBESE!” Somehow, most likely tv and newspaper stories about the growing girth of Americans, he simply assumed that all of us would be on the larger side.
Lessons to be learned here: news stories from far away can be misleading. Some statistically true claim should not be taken as universally true. In addition, as plain common sense would indicate, although stereotypes exist, there (1) are always exceptions, and (2) hardly anyone is a pure stereotype. At least I hope I am not just a blue blazered, khaki pants-wearing egghead fond of technical arguments about abstruse subjects.

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