IT all started quite sublimely. Almost imperceptibly, by tiny allusions, remarks, comparisons. It used to be innocent: "Do not sit like a lazy Indian", "Look at them smoking like Turks", "If you don't behave yourself, a Gypsy will come and take you away."
Even though I hadn't ever seen an Indian, I was deadly convinced he must be enormously lazy, the laziest creature in the world. If I had ever imagined a Turk, he reeked of tobacco and if I ever had to fear anybody, it was certainly a Gypsy with a large burlap bag with the darkest of darkness inside.
Over the years I have been absorbing more and more stereotypes from my elders, from news, books, magazines, etc. I have learned how cold and reserved the British are supposed to be, how politely Japanese people swear (if they ever swear at all), how free in whatever ways people from the Netherlands are, or what you can never ask an American. Armed with all this knowledge I have felt not only prepared to meet someone from abroad in a proper way, but also armed against any danger lurking in a foreign culture.
However, a strange thing has happened. I met an easy-going, plainspoken guy who takes great pleasure in smoking cigars. He prefers American fast-food restaurants and being punctual like a German; he accosts girls in the street in an Italian way, and he also picks quarrels on political issues and is quite wordy with them, like a Frenchman.
He is, quite logically, British. Moreover, he sits around all day and watches other people work, and he finds the most important reasons for his attentiveness, which in our culture we had denigrated as sheer idleness.
This encounter made me re-evaluate my stereotypes. I started to doubt their accuracy even more when I learned what the word 'sloven' means in English - a person who is habitually untidy or careless. I also made up my mind to find out how, actually, the stereotypes had been taking shape and how many of them were still up-to-date.
I came to know Maurice, another guy from the Netherlands and, thanks to him, I realised that Slovaks also had several attributes which I did not find fitting. For example, let's take our very national meal bryndzové halušky. Quite frankly, when is the last time you ate halušky? I know it perfectly well - when I met this guy, probably two years ago, and wanted him to know what the Slovak national meal was.
Secondly, I was a little startled when Maurice asked me about several works of art that had been made during the communist era. Imagine the great memorials with Cyrillic lettering on them, asymmetrical decorations in school canteens made of iron or other cheap, unidentifiable material.
He asked me whether I liked them. Whether I liked the cages á lapin, the rabbit hutch, box-like blocks of flats that embellished every postcard of the time. When I said no, he was perplexed, and so was I. What must the Dutch think of our artistic feeling?
What's more, when I met a girl from France, she was quite astonished about our radio. She asked me whether we understood all the English songs played from dawn to dusk. She must have developed a weird concept of Slovak logic and Slovaks themselves, who do not have to understand the lyrics because they like the music.
So I came to the conclusion that stereotypes are not fair. It is not fair to suppose that no Dutch person would buy you a drink (because Dutch can only 'go Dutch'), that no Slovak would like to be praised (because of their modesty), or that you can let a girl from Moscow carry heavy luggage (because she is as strong as a Russian).
Stereotypes may cause us to overestimate or underrate a person; they may mislead us in our evaluation. To belong to a culture may be a stigma you are born with or it may be, as well, a very easily earned coin. But still, we all are brothers and sisters from Adam and Eve.
This essay was picked as the winner of a recent English-language writing competition in the University/Open category. The competition was run by the knihy.sme.sk site and partnered by the Sme daily and The Slovak Spectator weekly.
The next Meeting of the Cultures column will be on stands in two weeks, Vol. 8 No. 32, August 26-September 1, 2002.