Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Quaintness, Rudeness, and Bad Food

by Joyce McGreevy on June 5, 2017

An urban view of the Grand Canal, Dublin counters cultural stereotypes of Ireland as “quaint” and “rural.” (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Beyond quaintness and cottages: This, too, is Ireland.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Travel Guide to Cultural Stereotypes

“Do people in Ireland talk normal?” the 13-year-old girl asked me. “You know, do they say things like cowabunga?” As cultural stereotypes go, this was one of the more intriguing. I’d never thought of cowabunga as a barometer of normality.

Cowabunga is a bundle of cultural stereotypes. Considered surfer slang, it’s a word no real surfer would utter. But actors playing surfers on Gidget, a popular ‘60s TV show, used it frequently. In the ‘90s, animated series like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons resurrected cowabunga.

A sign in Lahinch, Co. Clare shows that despite cultural stereotypes, surfing is popular in Ireland. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

In Co. Clare, Ireland, surf’s up, but stereotypes are out. 
© Joyce McGreevy

It began in 1953 as cowa-bonga, a phony Native American word used by a phony Native American character called Chief Thunderthud on The Howdy Doody Show. Not that anyone would have said Native American then.

Today, we’re more PC, yet cultural stereotypes persist. Here are a few I’ve encountered.

Jollity On Demand

“People are so unfriendly there.” This is one I hear a lot about Eastern Europe. Sometimes even from people who have been there.

A statue of Tsar Samuil in Sofia, Bulgaria embodies cultural stereotypes tourists often have about so-called unfriendly Eastern Europeans. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

If this is your image of Eastern Europeans, you’re missing out royally.
© Joyce McGreevy

There are entire threads on travel forums devoted to the question of whether people in Eastern European countries are friendly. How does this alleged lack of friendliness manifest? Do Bulgarians spit in your soup, Croatians curse your birthplace, Montenegrins shove you aside to cut in line?

None of the above. No, the Big Problem, say many first-time, short-stay visitors, is that Eastern Europeans don’t smile enough.

A smiling woman in Sofia, Bulgaria counters cultural stereotypes about so-called unfriendly Eastern Europeans. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A smile is not a commodity, but a response. Take the time to engage, listen, and learn. 
© Joyce McGreevy (in Sofia, Bulgaria)

Let me see if I understand.  We blitz through countries that for over 2,000 years have been invaded and occupied by everyone from the Goths to the Venetians to the Ottomans to the Soviets, yet we’re surprised if the locals fail to greet us with instant warmth?

A smiling group of people in Sofia, Bulgaria counter cultural stereotypes about so-called unfriendly Eastern Europeans. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Oh, those “unfriendly” Europeans!
© Joyce McGreevy

What if we decided to see what we could learn by practicing patience and respect for cultural differences?  What if that which we hastened to label “unfriendliness” was simply reserve?

As I talk with people in their home countries, there often comes a moment when the conversation shifts from a basic exchange of information into genuine connection. Those moments are why we travel.

Such moments don’t come instantaneously.

But what about instances of undeniable, cannot-believe-they-said-that rudeness?

Let me ask you: Have you ever encountered rudeness in your own country? And if so, did you extrapolate from said rudeness that everyone in your country must be rude? (Except you of course.) I’m guessing not.

Oh, I see: Wherever we go, whoever we meet, we’re complex individuals interacting with other complex individuals.

alt tk

Good things happen when we remember we’re all in the human race together.
© Joyce McGreevy (in Copenhagen, Denmark)

Dishing the Dirt

Food stereotypes make me do a slow boil. According to food stereotypes, Chicagoans are obsessed with deep-dish pizza, the Nordic diet consists solely of pickled fish, Tuscan food is overindulgent, and Irish cuisine is a contradiction in terms.

A sign advertising tacos in Copenhagen counters cultural stereotypes about dining in Denmark. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

From tacos to traditional Nordic…
© Joyce McGreevy

A sandwich and beer in Aarhus inspire a writer to dispel cultural stereotypes about Danish cuisine. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

food is deliciously diverse in Denmark!
© Joyce McGreevy

Only it’s just not true.

Tuscany is where I learned how to transform leftovers into frugal feasts. Today’s Nordic menus are wildly diverse.  Deep dish? Pull-eeze. Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods offer a world tour of culinary traditions.

When Things Change, But Stereotypes Persist

As for Ireland, oh what a drubbing it once took from critics. “The drama of Irish cuisine is not that it is bad. It’s that the Irish believe it is very good.”  So sneered the authors of a French travel guide in 1964.

Good Things Café & Cookery School in Skibbereen, Co. Cork counters cultural stereotypes about dining in Ireland. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Good Things Café & Cookery School typifies today’s Irish cuisine: organic and artfully prepared.
© Joyce McGreevy (in Skibbereen, Co. Cork)

Today, Irish chefs and home cooks are transforming organic resources, artisanal traditions, and creative innovation into superb everyday dining experiences.

But outdated cultural stereotypes stick like burned rice.

People enjoying home cooking in Galway counter cultural stereotypes about Irish cuisine. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Despite the stereotypes, Corned Beef & Cabbage was never popular in Ireland.
Try homemade pâté, fresh-baked breads, and local cheeses. 
© Joyce McGreevy

The Quaintness Stereotype

One of the most entrenched stereotypes is the idea that whatever country “we” are from is always ahead of the curve, while “those other” countries struggle to catch up.

When I was living in Ireland, some American friends would say, “You don’t have electricity there, right?” I hasten to add this was in the 1980s, not the 1880s.

“That’s right,” I’d chirp. “We line the airport runways with candles and flap our auld arms for takeoff.”

People at a digital archiving class in Clifden counter cultural stereotypes about Ireland, a leader in technology. (Image © Brendan “Speedie” Smith)

In Clifden, Ireland, neighbors gather to digitize, tag, and annotate images of days gone by.
© Brendan “Speedie” Smith

In fact, my first job in Ireland is what introduced me to technology. Back in the ‘70s, many a Galway University graduate worked by computer. The Irish have always been early adapters and innovators of technology, which plays a critical role in the economy.

Students in a coding and app making class in Galway counter cultural stereotypes about Ireland, a leader in technology. (Image © Brendan “Speedie” Smith)

In Ireland, app-making and coding are part of primary (elementary) school curricula.
© Brendan “Speedie” Smith

Likewise, texting was commonplace in Europe and Asia long before it caught on in the U.S. As Scott Campbell, professor of telecommunications at the University of Michigan explained in a 2012 CNN interview, texting was slow to take off in America because differing networks did not work well together in the early days of mobile communication.”

A woman using a smartphone in Sofia, Bulgaria counters cultural stereotypes about Eastern Europeans and technology. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

As of 2017, 97% of Bulgarians use cellphones, compared to 95% of Americans.
© Joyce McGreevy

An End to Cultural Stereotypes
So how do we put an end to cultural stereotypes? In fairness to the cowabunga girl, she didn’t make pronouncements, she asked questions. More important, she listened to the answers.

So that’s 1 and 2 right there.

She came away knowing that the Irish do a great many wonderful things with language—things that win Nobel prizes for literature and that change laws to ensure equal rights for all. It just so happens that saying cowabunga and sure n’ begorrah aren’t among then.

A sign in Lahinch, Ireland advocating for equal rights dispels cultural stereotypes tourists often have about traditional societies. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

When we stereotype cultures—whether positively or negatively—we miss what’s real.
© Joyce McGreevy (in Ireland)

I came away learning that 13-year-old girls who dare to ask imaginative questions deserve thoughtful answers.

Step 3 is to question our own assumptions. Once when a friend ranted about “loud Americans in their loud clothing,” I couldn’t resist pointing out that by the speaker’s own criteria, soft-spoken Americans who blended in were powerless to balance the cultural stereotype—they existed, but by definition, you’d never know it.

That’s the thing about cultural stereotypes. We can always find evidence to support them—but if we look past our first impressions and give each other a chance, maybe we can move beyond them.

Explore the Computer and Communications Museum of Ireland here

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