Five European national stereotypes that aren’t (entirely) true

August 21, 2013 at 8:08 am

It is much easier to have an opinion about people if you don’t actually have to meet them before forming that opinion. That’s just being efficient. Like a German.

Most stereotypes have some foundation in truth, but not all. And if you attend a language school for more than 20 minutes, you are going to have a lesson based on national stereotypes. With this in mind, here are some national stereotypes that simply aren’t (entirely) true.

Germany: workaholics

German Flag

You may be surprised to learn that German workers have some of the shortest working hours in Europe. This was exaggerated during the post-2008 economic downturn, when many German workers accepted reduced hours in order to keep their jobs, but even today the average German working week is 35.6 hours (across the workforce, including part time work).  This compares to 40+hour weeks in Greece, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus.

There is also some debate in Germany at the minute about the feasibility of a thirty-hour working week with full pay. Where do we sign up?

That other cliché, socks and sandals, however, are still a fairly common sight on German feet.

The Dutch love sex and drugs

netherlands-flag

Well who doesn’t?

Turns out the Dutch don’t. Or not more than anyone else. Society in the Netherlands is proudly liberal and open about some things that are prohibited and stigmatized elsewhere in the world. But this isn’t due to any kind of hedonistic streak or dedication to earthly pleasures.

Modern Dutch society has its roots in Calvinist principles: hard work, egalitarianism and honesty. Everything in moderation. A major change took place in the Netherlands in the 1960s, when a period of post-colonial introspection led to a major readjustment: colonial and religious politics were out, progressive policies were in. So the country has led the way in recognizing gay marriage, legalizing prostitution and abortion, and its policy on drugs. The logic goes: people do it anyway, so why pretend they don’t?

But look around you in the coffee shops and red light district of Amsterdam. Do you see many locals? Nope, just the guy behind the counter making a fortune selling skunk to tourists.

Accurate figures for drug consumption are impossible to record, for obvious reasons, but figures for teenage pregnancy are publicly available, and the Netherlands has been consistently among the lowest in Europe for decades.

You can’t eat well in Britain

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The UK doesn’t have a culinary tradition like Spain, France or Italy. But that lack of a tradition has made it much more open to foreign influences. As a result, Asian food imported by immigrants from former colonies – particularly India and her neighbours – has become an important part of modern Britain. You can taste flavours in Britain that you won’t find elsewhere in Europe.

But is British food really bad? No, it can be delicious if it is done right. And there are some real treats. Traditional British recipes are now making a comeback at the hands of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver. Puddings, pies and other dishes that favour flavour over complexity are particular favourites.

London’s restaurants have 66 Michelin stars between them in the 2012 Michelin Guide. In Europe, only Paris has more (although, with 118, that is almost twice as many). But watch the many programmes dedicated to food on British TV, check out the booming farmers markets and visit a food fair… Britain’s food culture is rapidly changing for the better.

Italians are corrupt and inefficient

Italian Flag

Turmoil in Italian politics over the last couple of years has seen the country led by a convicted bunga bunga baron and an unelected technocratic government. The jokes wrote themselves when comedian Beppe Grillo became a political force and a serious contender in the elections.

“Typical Italy” said the rest of Europe. Political tragicomedy projects the image of a disorganized, inefficient country. But this image is inaccurate. Even in 2012, as all of this was happening, Italy had the world’s ninth largest economy, larger than Canada or India, and only slightly smaller than Russia. It has a higher industrial output than France, Australia and South Korea.

And this is only half of the picture. A large majority of Italy’s economic output comes from the area north of the Mezzogiorno, where GDP per capita is about 115-125% of EU average. The centre and north of Italy is one of the world’s most productive regions. That doesn’t come from being lazy!

Italian schoolchildren also spend 25% more time in the classroom than their supposedly harder working German counterparts.

The Irish are heavy drinkers

Irish flag

What do you associate with Ireland? Chances are, Guinness is pretty high on the list. “The black stuff” is one of Ireland’s major exports.

Maybe Irish whisky would be on your list too? It’s world class.

And where can you find these tipples? Well, how about your local Irish pub. You know the one. Every town has one, with dark floors, jaunty music and images of the old country plastered across the walls, alongside advertisements for… Guinness and whisky.

When Irish pubs act as unofficial cultural embassies for the country, it is hard to avoid the image of a nation of drunks.

But according to the World Health Organization, Ireland is not even in the world’s top 10 countries by annual per capita alcohol consumption. Your average Irish person consumes less booze per year than their counterparts in South Korea and Portugal, and only a little more than the French.

When it comes to beer consumption, where you might expect Ireland to put in a stronger showing, three European countries drink more beer per person each year: Czech Republic (132 litres), Germany (107 litres) and Austria (106 litres) compared to Ireland’s 104 litres. So the Irish do like to drink, but not as much as you may have thought.

And five clichés that we wanted to include in this article but it turns out they are statistically verified and true:

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