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Lifting the veil on national stereotypes in Central Europe

Brno, Czech Republic – Using stereotypes and judging people according to well-established national clichés is an activity relished by people all around the world on a daily basis, but what’s the situation in Central Europe?

First, it’s important to note that while people appear to have a fairly good grasp of personality differences as regards to age and gender, research indicates they have a largely illusory and misled understanding of differences pertaining to one’s nation and country of origins. Researchers examined stereotypes about the typical personality traits of members from 26 different cultures and found that they were essentially unrelated to assessed mean levels of real personality traits in those countries’ respective populations.

What are the stereotypes people have regarding inhabitants of Central Europe? What do Czechs, Poles or Slovaks think of themselves and how does it relate to their national identity? How accurate are these beliefs? All the answers here, based on the latest breakthroughs in psychological research.

Contrast-thinking: the Slovak-Hungarian dilemma

When it comes to national stereotypes, the comparison of examined ingroups and outgroups reveals a tendency to contrast and differentiate the respective ratings of both groups. Already lost? Let’s give an example: a common stereotype among Slovaks tends to depict Hungarians as generally quite self-centered, assertive and quick-tempered people. In contrast, Slovaks tend to describe a typical Slovak as timid, compliant, more agreeable and pleasant.

This general tendency to contrast and oppose one’s image of its own country to another is called ‘mirroring’, or ‘contrast thinking’, meaning that the real differences are exaggerated.

This perfectly applies to Slovaks and Hungarians – both (historically, geographically) close, but undeniably different from a cultural standpoint – a mechanism that might prompt, for instance, Slovaks to paradoxically judge that Hungarian personality traits are much more different to Slovaks’ than people from more distant – and completely unrelated – regions.

The importance of economic might in national/regional stereotypes

A group of researchers also found that economic wealth prosperity is a potent cue for stereotypical perception of other nations. Common clichés about wealthy countries pertain to a lower level of agreeableness and a higher level of conscientiousness. Moreover, in stereotypical beliefs about rich countries such as Austria or Germany, a low level of openness to fantasy and feelings and high level of openness to values was found.

In other words, people tend to assume that individuals from wealthy countries are conscientious, as if their perceived higher status was a clear evidence of their innate competence – a perfect example of what we call “attributional bias”. This pattern can even be applied at a smaller scale within countries themselves: Czech participants, for instance, see residents of the more affluent region of Bohemia and Prague in accordance with stereotypes of countries with higher GDP – as more conscientious and less agreeable.

Does the climate impact our personality (or our perception)?

Stereotypes are influenced by a wide variety of variables, such as the climate and average temperature, that have no plausible and causal relation to underlying personality traits. Stereotypes of interpersonal warmth, for instance, are closely related to the annual average temperature, which appears to be an effect of what we call “metaphoric thinking”.

In conjunction with the mirroring effect, among other biases, such thinking can lead to absolutely absurd results. Sadly, there hasn’t yet been any study on this climactic bias regarding Central European countries. But to give you an example: Southern Italy is only a few degrees warmer than the North, but stereotypes of Southern Italians tend to portray them predominantly as having a substantially higher interpersonal warmth.

A beer with a fly, illustration of stereotypes in Central Europe

The national stereotypes find their purest expression in so-called international jokes built up around a cliched theme: people of different nationalities, finding themselves in a given situation respond to it in different ways, according to the national character traits ascribed to them.

Although most of the jokes are built upon widely shared stereotypical beliefs about members of big influential countries, let’s consider how Central Europeans respond to a – far from anecdotal – situation where they would be presented with a glass of beer with a fly in it: a Czech would fish out the fly and drink the beer; a Slovak would sadly look at the glass and hopelessly waits for the waiter to notice and rectify his misfortune; a Hungarian would make a scene and demand financial compensation together with a new glass of beer; and finally, the Pole would angrily shout at the waiter while downing the beer along with the fly.

The influence of folklore in modern-day clichés

Another substantial source of national stereotypes in Europe and elsewhere is folklore, which works with schematic representation of heroes, characters and plots with origins that can be traced back throughout several centuries of the country’s history. For example, a common auto-stereotype in Slovak oral tradition portrays Slovaks as poor shepherds or peasants dressed in specific rural clothes and leaning on a wooden stick. This kind of perception actually finds its roots in a pejorative image created by both Czechs and Hungarians, but later reversed and assimilated by Slovaks as their own self-portrait.

This archetypal image of a Slovak incorporates two essential characteristics that came to define his being throughout history. On one side, Slovaks are shepherds – sufferers and passive forces in history who endure all hardships and oppression. On the other – and lesser-known – side, Slovaks are heroes of social resistance, like revolutionary bandits that reclaim their honor and independence against all hardships.

But really, how accurate are national stereotypes?

Martina Hřebíčková and Sylvie Graf from the Czech Academy of Science, along with other researchers, set out to explore the national stereotypes in Central Europe, including in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

But first, how did they go about doing this? To see how accurate these stereotypes were, a team of researchers compared them to survey data on the personality of individuals from those countries – using the so-called NEO-PI-R inventory, a 240-variable measurement ranking based on the Big Five personality model (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism).

Participants were also asked to complete the National Character Survey several times to provide their auto-stereotypes (their beliefs about themselves) and hetero-stereotypes (their beliefs about others).

Regarding national auto-stereotypes, researchers found significant similarities with personality traits of real people living in Central Europe only in Poland, as well as in a lesser extent in the Czech sub-sample of working adults. Polish auto-stereotypes are in line with the observed real-life ratings of Poles as high on neuroticism, low on agreeableness and average on the remaining three variables.


Who’s the better judge, you or I?

Authors of the article explain that there is a clear tendency for spontaneity in Poland when it comes to expressing emotions. They suggest that, in Polish culture, emotional spontaneity is valued higher than a desire to make someone else feel good, thus encouraging an overt display of both bad and good emotions. In Poland, disapproval or irritation could be expressed quite openly, which might shock foreigners and people coming from more ‘agreeable’ cultures.

Although the self-perception matched the reality in Poland and partially in the Czech Republic, researchers found no significant convergence between real people’s ratings and national hetero-stereotypes. Regarding the two Germanic countries – Austria and Germany – hetero-stereotypes about them were even the opposite of their real psychological ratings.

Which brings us to one of the most interesting findings of the study: the outgroup’s perspective does not provide a more accurate view on characteristics of people living in given countries as compared with the ingroup’s perspective.

Czechs, Slovaks & Germans: Who’s who?

When it comes to mirroring or contrast thinking, researchers found the most distinctive evidence in the Slovak example. Slovak participants rated their ingroup stereotype in contrast to how they rated Czech, Austrian, and German outgroup stereotypes. With respect to clichés of the two Germanic countries, Slovak participants saw themselves as higher in warmth, openness to fantasy, openness for feelings and all facets of agreeableness. On the other hand, they perceived typical Germans and Austrians as less neurotic, more assertive and conscientious in comparison with a typical Slovak.

Czech participants, by contrast, mirrored their self-image against Austrian and Slovak outgroup stereotypes. Czech participants ascribed ‘socially undesirable’ characteristics to their ingroup stereotype while ascribing socially desirable traits to the two neighboring countries. A typical Austrian and Slovak was perceived as less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to experience and agreeable than a typical Czech.

Poland’s view on Czech Republic and Slovakia

Again, a similar pattern of results emerges regarding the beliefs of Poles. While Polish participants perceived typical Poles, Czechs and Slovaks similar as regards to their levels of extroversion and conscientiousness, in other characteristics they rated the typical Czech and Slovak in a more socially desirable way – typical Czechs and Slovaks were perceived as less neurotic, more open to experience and more agreeable.

Are these pieces of information signs of insufficient national self-esteem in Central European countries? Or does it indicate that Central Europeans have elevated tolerance towards surrounding countries built upon lower level of nationalism and modest national self-concept?

Stereotypes in Central Europe: Inaccurate yet still consistent?

Hřebíčková and Graf’s conclusion is telling: ‘‘Stereotypical beliefs exaggerate the differences between typical representatives of Central European countries, while their inhabitants are actually similar in most of the examined characteristics’’.

In the end, stereotyping is a relatively minor part of the myth of national identity, which may contain factual observations but more often consists of legends. The purpose of the group identity and stereotyping, as well, it seems, is not to present history in a factual way but to arouse intense awareness of the community’s common fate.

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