Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thoughts On: Generalizing

So generalizing has a pretty bad reputation, one that may not be entirely undeserved but one that is getting worse and worse as our society becomes ever more PC. I mean generalizing is just one step up from stereotyping, and from there it's a straight shot to racism! Slippery slope and all that. So it will come as no surprise that, when in a conversation with a friend of mine the other day I happened to make a comment about people in Dublin based on my personal experience after living there for five years, my friend jumped down my throat. You can't generalize! I know loads of people that are not like that! Just because you met people that were like that doesn't mean that they all are! I want to take a moment to defend generalizing, because I'm getting very very sick of having to repeat "yes, I know not everyone is the exact same person".

At this point another little insight into the Italian mentality that I have often described before: I only get verbally smacked if I generalize about other countries or cultures. In the same breath, my friend went on a tirade on how shitty Italians are. They're cheap! They're rude! They never pay you back if they borrow money! They're obsessed with looks! All the girls are anorexic! Why? Because there's this one girl in my gym that is there from morning till night! You know a generous Italian? It must mean that they want favors from you later on. I know Irish people that are generous, that means that they're not cheap at all, at least not as cheap as Italians! You get the idea. Putting this amusing hypocrisy in demonizing generalizing aside, on to my defense.

Life is variable. This is the first lesson of science and statistical analysis and it is just as applicable to people and cultures and customs. Of course if you make a comment like "Irish people are boozers" it does not mean that they all are. It does not mean that they all get hammered every weekend to the point of getting in trouble and/or forgetting where they were and what they did and/or waking up in a strange place with their shoes on the wrong feet. It does not even mean that all Irish people approve of such behavior or would ever allow themselves to get sloppy when they have a drink with friends, if they even drink at all. It is not about thinking that all Irish people are the same, and it certainly is not about meeting an Irish person and automatically assuming that he or she is an unreliable alcoholic - that is where you fall into the trap of stereotyping and down the slippery slope towards racism. However, I submit that it is still in the spirit of discussion of commenting on or comparing cultures that you are allowed to make such a statement, not in the spirit of prejudging someone, but in comparing what is socially acceptable.

I know extremely sloppy drunks that are Irish and I know some that are Italian. I also know people from both countries that don't drink. However, I feel more justified in my previous statement based on what is socially acceptable in either country and what is not. Take these two examples from my life there:

1. I was sitting in a pub with about 10 of my classmates having a beer. A friend walked in and sighed over how desperately she needed a drink. She then went on to say "lads, I haven't had a drink in a week." The table gasped. Why the hell not? Were you sick? Not a single drink?! You poor soul, let me buy you one!

2. I had been up all night writing my thesis and I was exhausted. I was in the common room with a classmate and I mentioned that I was so tired that I could have easily laid down on one of the desks in the common room and fallen asleep. She said "well go ahead, don't worry, if anyone comes in they'll just think you're drunk". I was perplexed. I asked: "are you telling me that it is more socially acceptable to sleep on a desk in a common room because I'm drunk than it is socially acceptable for me to be sleeping there because I was working all night?" Apparently, the answer is yes.

I know that both of those examples come from college and therefore my generalization might only apply to Irish students, but enough drunken nights with my friends' parents tell me that it can extend to the older generation as well. Anyway, my point is that in Italy, getting so drunk that you fall asleep in public in the middle of the day is NOT socially acceptable. In college a friend might laugh about it, but you will be teased incessantly and may people will lose respect for you. If you get sloppy one night you usually spend the next day apologizing profusely to everyone you were with, not proud of how much crap you got up to. Getting hammered with your parents is almost unheard of. It's not that no Italian has ever done any of this, it is that culturally speaking this behavior is outside of the norm, it is the exception, whereas in Ireland getting drunk with your parents is nothing to be surprised about.

And now in typical Italian fashion I have to follow up with a pejorative generalization about Italians, lest I be deemed a naive sucker. One thing that Italians are is jealous. Not necessarily in the boyfriend-girlfriend sense (although there is plenty of that as well), but in the jealous of each other sense. Example: I recently got back from Brazil (which I'm sure you're all sick of hearing about), but I went during a period in which most people don't take a vacation. I also came back with a bit of a tan, it being a tropical country. One day I forgot to moisturize and I was peeling a bit on one arm, and one of my friends said to me "I hope you peel and completely lose all the tan you got over these two weeks!" In other countries that would be considered a terrible thing to say, hateful at worst, rude at best. Here, on the other hand, such a comment is perfectly normal and what I expected her to say, because Italians are jealous people. Sure she was half joking and didn't really mean it, but it would have been inconceivable for me to get offended by such a comment. It is a  culturally acceptable comment to make, which is why I feel justified in saying that "Italians are a jealous people", even though my friend was probably not all that jealous in this case - demonstrated by the fact that she made the comment, it's the ones that say nothing and look at you funny that you want to watch out for.

So that's my two cents on the potential value of generalizing. What do you think? Are you also a generalizer of sorts in the fashion that I described, or do you think that it has absolutely no place in a discussion on cultural differences?

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