The Difference Between Stereotypes And Cultural Characteristics

I’ll be the first person to admit that when you live abroad it can be pretty difficult to be fair and avoid putting people into one large category. It’s human nature to group people in a way that makes it easier to understand them, identify them, avoid or relate to them. When your world is confusing you’ll try to make sense out of it in one way or another. 

One of the first things that I caught myself doing as I parachuted into Italy was compare everything to my own culture, and figure out how I could fit in. It was especially difficult for me coming from a degree in sociology. People were practically test subjects. Observing cultural characteristics is totally fine, and totally necessary if you ever want to comfortably live somewhere. However, it’s important to avoid stereotypes as much as possible. Stereotypes kind of piss people off, justifiably so. I’ve spent the past five years being stereotyped as, “that probably slutty, stupid American who hates family and love and probably stabbed her teddy bear to death as a child.” Writing a blog about living in Italy can be kind of sticky since I spend a lot of time discussing my experiences, making the occasional cultural and social observations, all while trying not to be too much of an asshole. There is a difference between dialogue, observations, and just being a dick. Even while being conscious of it, it’s kind of difficult to avoid being ethnocentric, though. It happens.  It’s especially rough when I’m away from home, feeling nostalgic, and some crazy lady is screaming at me in the street because MY DOG IS TOO SKINNY, and then twenty old men in the bar are rambling about their hero Berlusconi. It can be really, really, difficult. 

So, how do you observe the world around you without stereotyping? What is a stereotype in the first place? You’d be surprised by how many people don’t know the difference between cultural characteristics and stereotyping. I’ve found that people really love to scream STEREOTYPE anytime you say something about their country or culture that they don’t like. “The number one cited reason for divorce in Italy is the mother in law.” “STEREOTYPE!” Not really, guys, it’s a reported statistic. Kind of embarrassing but totally doesn’t make it a stereotype. “Americans are a relatively religious people.” “BULLSHIT! I’m not! Stop stereotyping!” Not a stereotype, among developed countries, the US is ranked as one of the most religious. Surprised? I’m totally not. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t make it a stereotype, and just because you’ve seen one or two people do it, doesn’t necessarily make something a cultural characteristic, either.


A Stereotype: “Stereotypes are assumptions based on unfounded ideas about a group, not identifying particular characteristics of a group of people.”


  • Culture refers to the “cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, clothing, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.”

Basically, the difference is: Did you see two people do something and then decide it applied to everyone ever or is there some kind of statistical, learned, passed on, or historical evidence to back it up? 

Italian Stereotypes That Make Me Laugh:

  • Students often come to Italy and are impressed with Italians magical abilities to be hospitable. Hospitality is a part of the culture, however, that doesn’t make Italian people particular nice. Newbies come and observe everyone through rose-tinted lenses, “These magical creatures, also known as Italians, are so nice, and warm. Every moment around them is like an embrace from a cookie-scented Keebler elf.”  Riiiiight.
  • The other stereotype is that Italians are aggressive, feisty, and mean. Not really. The form of communication is different in Italy than in the US. Gesturing is a part of their language, and they have different rules for eye contact than we do in the US so they seem threatening and crazy sometimes but they’re really just talking about pie. They fucking love pie. <—–stereotype.
  • Being married to an Italian sounds like this from American girls, “Oh my God! LUCKY! Is he the most romantic person you’ve ever known in your life? That must be dreamy!” Yes, my husband is romantic but I don’t think it’s necessarily because he’s Italian. I have Italian friends who are dating Italian guys who seem to think that “romance” is a public screaming match. There are cultural characteristics of Italian men that Americans see as being “romantic,” though, but that’s for another post.
  • All Italian men cheat! This is another common stereotype, although, this one is unfortunately a little close to a real statistic. Infidelity is statistically high in Italy and depending on the source the stat ranges from 67% to into the 70%. Ouch! But, remember, there are a lot of variables to consider in stats and at the end of the day there are that nice 30% or so that haven’t cheated or at least haven’t admitted it.

American Stereotypes That Make Me Laugh And/Or Cry:

  • Culture in the US is relatively abrupt and direct. This has landed us in the hot-seat worldwide. I can’t tell you guys how many times I’ve heard, “You’re very polite for an American. You’re really nice for an American.”
  • The famous line from my then-boyfriend (now husband F), “I thought you’d be way easier like all of the other American sluts.” Wow. Yes, my friends, Italians often see us as rabid assholes, frothing at our entitled mouths. When we’re not being the biggest jerks the world has ever seen we’re humping things. Everything. We’re sex-crazed monsters whose loins are constantly aching for “it,” and when we want it (which is always) we demand it with no apologies. “You there, Guido, take off your pants and give it to me, little furry man-toy.” 
  • We’re also some of the ugliest people in the world, supposedly. “You’re people all look like basketball players that ended up on the street. Who wears sweats in public!?” If we take regional culture into consideration and our focus on productivity and comfort over style, there’s some truth that we’re not an overall fashion-conscious people, HOWEVER, New Yorker Mother Fuckers!
  • Americans are all obsessed with guns and hate black people. Due to the recent events in Ferguson, my hate-mail has grown exponentially. It’s a result of Italians directly relating the situation in Ferguson with ALL AMERICANS. This is really sad but given the strong presence of the KKK, the recent shootings of unarmed black people, the disproportionate number of black men in jail for petty crimes, and the long, LONG narrative of race-targeted crimes in the US, it’s a stereotype that I can’t really argue against as well as I wish I could. I would say that we have a large emphasis on being PC in the US so we might use less inflammatory language than other countries without the same slave-trade history but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Are all Americans racist? No! Not at all. A little traumatic anecdote about my family and racism: When I was four I said the “N” word in front of my mom (I had no idea what it meant, or where I’d heard it) and my mom slapped me so hard I fell flat on my ass (What a jerk). Then she explained to me that everyone, from every color is exactly the same, that the “N” word was an evil word, and that no daughter of hers would ever speak that way. Racism isn’t something that is tolerated in my family or in my friend groups. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for everyone. I would also like to point out that Italy is struggling with its own racism right now (the growth of neo-fascim and neo-nazi’s in Europe is scary). So world, all of you, GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER. Ain’t nobody got time for racism.

Ugh. Now I’m depressed and I need a cocktail. Anyhow, what are some other stereotypes that you guys have experienced in your own countries or abroad? What am I leaving out? Has stereotypes had an impact on your life as an expat? 

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share with friends or enemies. Throw my bad language at them. That’ll teach ’em!

For More On Stereotypes And Culture: Psychology Today

What Else Is Going On Outside Of Surviving: We Won Stuff, Guys! Best 10 Websites For Expats

Things That Everyone Needs To Be Happy: My Shop Of Badassery

24 thoughts on “The Difference Between Stereotypes And Cultural Characteristics

  1. people always assume that if you are American, you are bad in geography. they all think you should know every capital in Europe, but when you ask them back hey, what is the capital of Kansas or South Dakota they won’t have an idea….and this is just one example…..

      • very true. but i have met a lot of ignorant europeans too….i wish people would just realize there will always be certain types of people in every country in the world, it is just how it is.

    • Can I say that South Dakota or Kansas are not countries, hence it is normal for people not to know their state capitals? Washington is the capital, and if you do not know that you might be considered as ignorant in geography, but I wouldn’t expect people to know the various state capitals, It’s like asking what’s the capital of Toscana.. it’s ok not to know them, as long as you know Rome is the capital of Italy. To give a fairer comparison, an Italian might not know what is the capital of Bangladesh/Paraguay/… (far from Europe and less known), just like an American might not know the capital of Poland/Portugal/…or other European countries.

      • yes, i think it is reasonable to assume you won’t know all the geographical info about countries that are an ocean away…but a lot of europeans seem to think it is common knowledge. this is where i was going with them stereotyping, but like you said, often somebody from eu would not know much about Bangladesh or something.

    • As a former teacher (social studies at the high school level-US History, World History and Government) I can honestly say there is probably a lot of truth to that. I was amazed at how bad my students were in geography and not just world geography but an inability to identify the 50 states. We do not emphasize social studies enough in our educational system, and our geography skills are pathetic! I made it a requirement that everyone of my students could correctly identify all 50 states on a map before passing my class.

    • Uh… Excuse me… ethnocentrism! It’s interesting to see you equate knowing the capital of a country in Europe to knowing the capital of a US state… I find that to actually reinforce so many stereotypes about American ignorance

  2. I was totally stereotyped as a slut. Contrast of American girls jumping in bed at the drop of a hat to the Italian girl who better have a public engagement before she would allow, at best intimate touching. That was in the late 60’s 70’s. Looks like things have not changed much.

    • Beg to differ……. In northern Italy it is common that an Iraluan girl would have 2 or 3 boyfriends (sex experiences) before settling down to a permanent relationship.

  3. Great post! And I hear ya about the American stereotypes – get that a lot here. PS. you’re so fat and rich😉

    I had an interview recently for a Californian-Latvian magazine (in Latvian and only published in America which is why I agreed to do it!). One of the questions was ‘Did I think that helped to erase stereotypes of Latvians or helped to spread more?’ – what a difficult question! Personally, I think I helped to raise awareness of Latvians as most people had never heard of them before😉

    • Thanks love! Yeah, actually, I’ve heard, “You’re too skin to be American” more times than I can count. What will I do with this big ass and ALL THAT CASH!?

      In my case you’re spot on, I’d never read much about Latvia or Latvians before I started following you. You should be knighted or at least have a statue created in your honor.

  4. Let’s just say that too many Americans may be “proud” of those stereotypes and have no problem perpetuating them abroad. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as better than everyone else and then maybe some of those negative views of Americans will fade away.

    • I agree. The “Americans are number 1” myth really comes out abroad. I’ve seen some pretty horrifying examples of this ethnocentric attitude. For example, an American woman telling a waitress in Italy how to cook Italian food. It really doesn’t help the bad stereotypes.

  5. Very well written post!
    One of the worst stereotypes that you keep hearing all over Europe is that Americans are warmongers. All the Americans I’ve met were very peaceful and tolerant!
    As regards Italians (including me), I’ve never understood why people think we are particularly “fond” of Irish people…I don’t now why!
    Sorry for my bad english!

  6. A friend of mine did her year abroad in Freiburg and had loads of Germans tell her that all English girls are easy/sluts. Not a stereotype I’d ever heard about the English before!

    I was told the other day that a lot of Americans don’t know what a fortnight is. Is this true??

    • I actually think it’s a fair assumption that not many Americans from the US know what is a fortnight. I studied lit in college which is probably the only reason I know.

  7. Just wanted to say I enjoy your blog–it sometimes makes me laugh out loud. I’ve lived in Italy for a few short-term stints (3-6 months) and would love to return for a longer stay. Also, at some point you (generally) described sex with an Italian man and it REALLY made me want to return.😉

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