Clichés are the Funniest Things
My friend Leonel, a social psychologist from the University of Lisbon, gave a talk on stereotyping in our laboratory in France a few years ago. He noted that when he mentions that he is from Lisbon, people think of the picture to the right. I laughed because (although this is not the exact picture), the image was funny, and I also laughed because Leonel always makes me laugh. Other people in the room laughed because their image of the Portuguese actually corresponded roughly to the photo. My Portuguese friend Guida, a chemist, always told me that when she says she is Portuguese, people in Clermont-Ferrand start to talk about their cleaning woman, because that is the only other Portuguese person they know; they suspect that maybe she is one too. Or perhaps just her mother. I have met Guida's mother, in Lisbon, and I can attest to the fact that she has never personally operated a broom. Even though I don't emotionally "get" Leonel's example, I suppose I might end up laughing if someone put up a picture of people doing an Eastern European folk dance and said, "I recently met the family of your building custodian, Bruno..." Those of us who grew up in an apartment building in Chicago all knew a Bruno, a custodian from Eastern Europe. We probably thought that his family in the old country looked like a slightly different version of the picture here. And when confronted with it, we would laugh.
Our friend, Barny, in Munich was in a Bavarian cabaret for a long time. You can guess how he was dressed: in Lederhosen and felt hat. He used words that no self-respecting northern German-Hochdeutsch-speaker would ever utter in daily life. That cabaret was for northern Germans. I could understand some of the German, but I couldn’t have understood the clichés very well. The clichés that northern German people have about Bavaria refer to more than just large breasted women serving beer and dancing polkas; they represent in every way what northern Germans think about southern Germans, politically and socially.
The same big laughs are the basis of the success of a French movie called "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis." Here, a southern French postal administrator tries to get transferred to a position in a more desirable town, also in the South, by pretending to have a disability (which gives him an advantage in asking for a transfer). He gets caught in his lie, and as punishment is sent to a town in the north of France. This location strikes fear in the hearts of everyone in the South, including the policeman who stops him for driving too slowly (in order to delay his arrival in the North) on the highway. Even though the difference in temperature is about 8 degrees (Fahrenheit), the wife, who opts not to move with her husband, wraps him in a scarf and an actual down jacket before sending him to what she imagines is the North Pole; a North Pole populated by drunks and depressed, poorly-raised (!) people. The French people in the south of France could laugh at this movie because it shows in a funny way (by a brilliant actor) what they all actually believe. And the people in the North could laugh because it is so ridiculous that the people in the South think the way they do. Big laughs. But can't be translated at all because so much hangs on the specific language use.
I watched the American movie "New in Town" because I had understood that it was an American version of this French film. The film was not very funny, unless you think that accents in Minnesota are funny, which I don't. I also don't have an imagine of the typical person from Miami that I find amusing. But then heard that a true remake would feature someone from New York City being transferred to Texas and I thought this could get much closer to the humor of "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis." A German version of the film has also been planned and I suspect it would be a reformulation of the Bavarian cabaret.
Now what is the difference between this, if there is any, and my utter failure to laugh about how Europeans caricature American frienships, for instance. The image they have is that an American sits down next to you on a bus. Then he or she, without being asked, just regurgitates their whole life, including details about Uncle Clem and his Ponzi scheme that no one would ever discuss in Europe. Then, at the appropriate stop, the person gets off and never sees you again.
In Europe people are generally scandalized by this, so they talk about it, share lots of experiences interpreted in that way, and every gets big laughs. People repeat over and over the claim that Americans say, "how's it going" but do not stop to listen to the answer. (I have a problem with this example, which is that in France people say ça va? also all the time, and do not stop any longer to hear the response. They can claim that it actually means ”hello” but "how's it going?" also means hello). Anyhow, I don't laugh at the "Americans are superficial" thing. Maybe it is because it is imposing a culturally-biased judgment about what it means to make and have friends, which I think of as untenable. Maybe it isn't funny because, since it involves a culturally-based interpretation, I have never even really noticed this happening. The cliche also is based on a link between the perceived superficiality and capitalism.
There is a Gary Larsen cartoon that has two panels. The top panel illustrates "What we say to dogs." In the balloon coming from the man, he is saying "OK Ginger, I have had it with you... Understand, Ginger?.." The bottom panel shows what Ginger hears, which is "blah blah blah, Ginger, blah blah blah, Ginger.." Speaking to my colleagues, I sometimes feel like Ginger. I say something about requirements for graduate students on the university or requirements for their training, and what some people hear is "blah blah blah, American imperialism, blah blah blah, American capitalism." Now I believe that both of those concepts -- imperialism and capitalism -- can be discussed and criticized, so I am happy to have a conversation about them. However, this is not what I am discussing when I am talking about graduate training.