National Stereotypes – Are they real? Are they useful?

Close your eyes for a moment and think of an example of a national stereotype.  

Is the stereotype you thought of positive or negative? Do you think generalising about whole nations like this is useful or do you think stereotypes always tend to be negative?

The purpose of discussing stereotypes is not to reinforce existing ideas and perceptions but rather to question and challenge them. 

Why do we stereotype?

Stereotypes can be efficient shortcuts in categorising and grouping people. They may even at times reflect certain realities. However, they can also keep people from processing new or unexpected information about individuals.

Studies have shown in cases where there is zero empirical support for certain racial or national stereotypes, those stereotypes continue to be spread and believed. It is even possible for a stereotype to grow and persist in defiance of all evidence.

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Where do national stereotypes come from?

Psychologically, categorizing and grouping the world helps us to understand it. This is an efficient way of thinking. If we define, for example, a group of people with certain characteristics, we don’t have to think about all the individual members of that group.

Stereotypes satisfy our need to understand and predict the world. They can also be a way to feel better about ourselves; we may think our groups are better than other groups. That ‘group’ might be a social class, a school, a team, a country… many different things.


Many countries and cultures will have self-stereotypes of themselves. People are likely to self-stereotype their own group to emphasise their group membership, their similarities with other members of their group, and also their differences from outside groups. Self-stereotypes can be positive or negative and can affect our self evaluations.

For example, the stereotype that women have lower mathematical ability than men can affect women’s and men’s evaluations of their own abilities such that men assess their own ability higher than women performing at the same level and vice versa. 

Here are five positive self-stereotypes for different countries.

  1. USA: ‘Can do attitude’ – We believe in positivity. Work hard and you’ll achieve success.
  2. Germany: ‘Efficiency’ – We’re well-organised. We follow the rules and like structure.
  3. Japan: ‘Saving face’ – We don’t admit mistakes or publicly disagree with superiors.
  4. India: ‘Karma’We’re spiritual people. We accept the good and bad that life brings.
  5. Italy: ‘La Bella figura’ – Beauty, style and public image are very important to us.

Is your country here? If it is, do you agree with the statement about your country?

If not, could you write your own national character description? (Or do you think that is impossible?)

Are you ‘typical’ of someone from your country?
What would you think of as a ‘typical’ Irish person?
The idea of ‘having the craic’  is one of the strongest self-stereotypes that exist in Ireland. You’ll hear it referred to in the video below. Look it up if you’re not sure what it means. 

Remember, the most important and useful purpose of discussing stereotypes is to question, think about and even change our own ideas, and to learn about and understand other people’s ideas of us.

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