On a diet of beef and beer? That’s what they think

Ooh la la?

One of my favourite activities to do with my French teenaged students is a stereotypes exercise. I ask them for the stereotypes they have heard (or possibly believe themselves) about Brits and Americans… and I hear some amazing answers.

Apparently, Brits eat jelly all the time. Did you know this? I didn’t. I haven’t eaten jelly since the age when every good party involved pass-the-parcel. Jelly shots, I suppose, are the closest most students come to eating this brightly-coloured sickly-sweet gelatin product. I guess this stereotype stems from the lack of jelly in France, so for them it has transformed into a mystery eaten only by those crazy people across the water. After all, if we have jelly, why don’t we eat it all the time? I mean, come on, it wobbles!

There are, in fact, more food-based stereotypes than I have space for here. ‘Pudding’ inevitably tops the list, though the teens seem unsure when I ask them what it is. Tea and beer is all we drink, morning and night. ‘Fish and chips’ is fair enough, but it is roast beef that provides the food-based pejorative nickname for us: ‘les rosbifs’. As one of Britain’s relatively high population of vegetarians, I find this nickname slightly hilarious, but at least it does refer to a traditional part of British cuisine, albeit one in which decreasing numbers of the population are participating: the roast dinner.

When it comes to personality, however, the answers are all over the board. “Uptight” says one. “Eccentric” says another. Simply “crazy”. Some try to reference the unique British humour but can’t put a finger on why it is so distinct. I can see why they are confused. Images of Brits range from the top-hat sporting, stiff-upper-lip ‘gentleman’ (a word that is, incidentally, often preserved in the French language, along with ‘le businessman’) to the punk scene, recent youth riots, and of course the pinnacle of our national representation: reality TV shows. Throw ‘red hair’, ‘royalists’ and Harry Potter into the mix and I’m surprised any French people ever visit the UK; we’re frankly a wild, restrained, constantly drunk, possibly magical and bizarre-looking people.

Americans come out far worse in this exercise, however. In every class, the first stereotype has been ‘fat’. Some variation of ‘uneducated’ follows, along with a nod to their patriotism and ignorance of the outside world. Yet students soon find themselves in a quandary: how could all Americans be fat when the films they watch from the US feature stick-thin Hollywood stars? They know the names of the best universities in the US and most are fans of Obama as an intelligent leader and an inspiration to their own country, which has yet to vote a non-white candidate into office. Reality television and even the most farcical of pointless US films wing their way over to France and do nothing to bolster America’s reputation, and neither does the fact that almost none of my students have ever met an American or travelled to the country.

You may scoff at these stereotypes found among the French youth, but let’s turn the tables for a moment. Most of the kids I work with have never eaten frogs, horse or snails, and those that have insist that it was an experimental, one-off experience. Yes, French people hold their bread and cheese in high regard, but poor students exist here too and do not turn their noses up at a packet of supermarket-brand, pre-grated mild cheese; the only difference being that it’s never cheddar. Strikes are common but many French people laugh at them and find them simply self-indulgent and frustrating to everyone else. I’ve yet to see a beret worn seriously, and people seem bemused when I explain the onions-round-the-neck thing. Another Bubble columnist accurately pointed out that our image of the French as romantic is outdated and unfortunately completely erroneous.

As for personality, the whole class exercise is geared towards realising that it is futile to attempt to classify an entire population in a few general terms. My French friends aren’t proud, rude English-haters dragging along toy poodles any more than I’m a beef-chomping beer-guzzler, or Angelina Jolie (for example) is obese, racist and ignorant of the world beyond the borders of America. Stereotypes are just that: generalisations based on a warped, distant perspective of a country. When they are applied to me, I tend to laugh them off, briefly explain that British beef has an unfortunate link with dying from brain disease, and move on with my life.

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