18 August 2009
I'm fond of stereotypes. There are many books that I can and do judge by their covers, preferring to risk missing an occasional gem if I can avoid reading tons of dross. There is enough truth in stereotypes, except for perhaps the most scurrilous ones, to make for efficiency, if not one hundred percent accuracy, in forming a first impression. Stereotyping also has the added attraction of promoting apoplexy amongst politically correct multiculturalists and diversity-mongers—come to think of it, that may be its best and highest use. Of course, attributing a group's characteristic to a unit human can be dangerous and error-prone.
Vacationing in Old Orchard Beach a couple of weeks ago, we had the opportunity to do some serious stereotyping. So many Old Orchard Beach tourists are Quebecois that Canadian dollars are accepted as readily as U. S. dollars, and signs in French are ubiquitous. Locals are resigned to their status as the Quebec Riviera. The Canadian dollars have to be earned by putting up with the often loud, pushy, jockeying-for-position, cutting-in-line Quebecois: they are a fact of Maine life, like black flies and leg-achingly-cold Atlantic waters.
Last year an oncoming trio of French-Canadian teenage boys forced my wife Cheryl off the sidewalk; this year a pair of French-Canadian teenage girls did the same. Twice one morning she greeted a French-Canadian man in our B&B's shared kitchen with a "good morning" and received in reply silence, nothing, even in French, no acknowledgment whatsoever.
It was incredibly easy for us to generate independently the commonly-held stereotype that the Quebecois are rude and arrogant. I suspect our brains are wired to grossly generalize on the basis of wholly insufficient data, like the cat who once sits on a hot stove, and thereafter will not sit on any stove.
We did have other encounters: relaxed, polite conversations with a Montreal motorcyclist who asked us if we knew of a place he could stay, and with a young Quebec family at our B&B whom we advised about the next leg of their trip to New York City. Yet the stereotype isn't that French-Canadians are gracious and charming. Survival-oriented, we zero in on the negative, what's potentially harmful to us.
We knew clearly, and had evidence, that the stereotype did not fit all French-Canadians. We tried to analyze and narrow it down. Is it just teenagers? Is it a class phenomenon? Economic? Cultural? Just people who come to Old Orchard Beach? My pet theory is that you have to be obnoxious in order to speak French with the correct nasality. All our speculation was ultimately fruitless. The most charitable conclusion we could draw was that if you're dealing with middle-aged men, teenagers, or French-Canadians, don't be surprised by aggressive, antisocial behavior.