They’re all the Same to Me

I was sitting at a party some years ago and another guest told me, because my accent had brought up the fact that I was American, that her brother was a chef in a French restaurant … in Hollywood. “We have visited twice.  It is amazing: America is just like the movies,” she said.  She went on to describe her niece’s American birthday party, with hired clowns and magicians around a swimming pool.  While I did a pretty good job of looking interested, I was feeling some surprise because, at the time, “Million Dollar Baby” was all the rage in France.  I was born in Missouri, and while we moved away when I was still a baby, I have been back often enough to know that southern Missouri (the Ozarks) is nothing like L.A. and that the clown thing was definitely not happening in that film.

Here is another way that the perception of sameness has expressed itself:

American Woman 1 (moving to South Carolina): “I just enrolled my kids in school.  They start back at school in the middle of August.”

American Woman 2 (moving to Wisconsin): “I have to enroll my kids on-line.  I don’t know when they start back though.”

French Woman: “But now you do.  The middle of August!

American Woman 1: “No, actually, there is no relationship between schools in South Carolina and schools in Wisconsin.”

Something common to all people, one psychological process on which clichés and their easy use are based, is called the “perception of homogeneity of the outgroup.”  Put more informally this is “they all look the same to me.”  And it extends to “they are all the same to me.”  Thinking "they are all the same" helps us to stereotype and discriminate with abandon.  It is a thought that allows soldiers leaving for war to move ahead with a single purpose.  There are all sorts of different psychological mechanisms that are responsible for perceived homogeneity, from the motivational, to the experiential, to the attentional.

But there is also a social process that can further contribute to it, and that is a sort of self-stereotyping discussion (referred to in the last post) that could seem innocent, but is in fact very complicated.  In France self-stereotyping takes the form, ça ne se fait pas en France.  Things aren’t done that way in France.  Because in my work I often make suggestions that no one has ever heard before, and certainly no one has ever thought of as open to discussion from an ideological standpoint, I often hear ça ne se fait pas directed at me and my ideas.  And then, no one in the room objects to the assertion, which appears to mean that everyone agrees that things just aren’t done that way. 

Americans saying “this isn’t done in the US”, I have learned, might be living in a bubble.  In my French town of Clermont-Ferrand, the other Americans (who I got to know in around 2002-2003, as I mentioned) were largely from states that I have never lived in (I have lived in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maryland, New York (City) and Indiana).  They also largely did not come from the states that my immediate family lives in.  My relatives (just counting first cousins and aunts) live in Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, Florida, and Kansas.  But the people in my friend group in France were from Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.  In other words, from the South and from New England.  

In conversation, we could not agree on ça ne se fait pas aux US very often.  Every time I assert a generalization in a group of Americans, I got all sorts of objections and qualifications.  Apparently I know nothing about the South, and so my friend Clarrette told me things, and we screamed with laughter, and planned for me go to Jackson (Mississippi) with her some time so that we could go out.  Those blues clubs in Jackson are not like the ones in Chicago.  She’ll have to come to Chicago, too.

This meltingpotness – whether it is true, what it means  – has gotten good and bad reviews over the years in every academic literature.  My point is that there is objective heterogeneity sitting right next to the psychological fact of perceived  homogeneity (which is subjective). Objective heterogeneity can be measured, and, failing that, it can be approximated (imperfectly) by a number of social, historical, and political features of a country.  Knowing this, people can do a better job about choosing how and where to extend their clichés.

As a simplistic example, Germany is a confederation of states and France is a Republic.  So some things should be more homogeneous in France than in Germany, and the republican model intends this to be so.  In Sweden there is a National Education system, and so we should be able to make more accurate generalizations about schooling in Sweden than about schooling in the U.S. where school systems are not centralized.  This is why, in the example above, one cannot know the date on which children start the school year in Wisconsin by finding out when they go back to school in South Carolina.  Kids living in one city of a particular state may not even start school at the same time as kids living in another city of the same state.

I think that the social and political institutions that affect objective heterogeneity also reveal themselves in language.  If you do not speak a language, then it sounds very homogeneous to you.  I do not speak any Scandinavian languages, and so they can sound like a bunch of long vowels to my ear; just one step away from a person speaking English in Minnesota.  I do not think I can distinguish Norwegian from Sweden, even though I try (apologies to my mom who spoke Norwegian and my brother who speaks Swedish ... but they know about my ignorance in this matter). 

But I can tell Toulouse from Lille in a second.  People who don’t speak French appear to either think it is uniformly gorgeous language or else they make obnoxious nasal noises when they parody it.  Neither is correct. There is obvious variability.  A hundred years ago there was much more: a minority of French people even spoke French in its current form.  Now most people can and do speak French in the say way, even if there are very clear accents (and some patois).  But the variability is still less than in Germany.  I once went with my late father-in-law from Munich into a bakery in the Allgäu (also southern Germany).   Somehow or other we bought bread.  When we left, I told him that I didn't understand a thing.  He laughed a little and said, "Common, I didn't either!"  I knew what that felt like: I once flew from Paris to Atlanta sitting next to a man from North Carolina.  He told me stories for about seven hours, and I didn't understand a thing he said.   I'll bet I missed out on some good stories.

In this (admittedly naive) description of why there just are differences in objective variability across countries, I might be raining on your parade.  People actually like clichés to some degree.  So that raises the question of who are clichés actually intended for and how they make people feel.  That makes me think of the fantastic French movie, Bienvenu chez les Ch'tis and a supposedly similar American film called New in Town.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 3:56 AM JUN 10, 2011