It works both ways. Stereotypes. They are constructed in the same way as they are deconstructed. Some for good. Some for bad.
Take Japanese people for example. I am in Nagoya visiting my son and his family for a couple of weeks, less than a month since the triple whammy disaster of March 11: the largest earthquake ever recorded in their country’s history, a tsunami that washed away entire villages, and a nuclear meltdown that has everyone worried.
As they are going through all this, the world has been amazed by their extraordinary resilience and sense of community. There has been very little if any looting, violence or other anti-social behavior. The American news has tried to analyze this. Commentators have given their opinions. “Oh”, they say, “that’s just the way they are.” Honorable. Well-mannered. By nature. Others have said that there isn’t anything left to loot, and even if there was, the average Japanese citizen doesn’t need another TV. When asking Americans on the street why they think the Japanese are so tolerant, some have said they have to be that way because they all live on a crowded island and if they didn’t know how to get along, they would have killed each other long ago.
Let’s think about this. “That’s just the way they are” signifies something that comes naturally, standard equipment, so to speak. Then how did the Japanese happen to corner the market on this socially advanced DNA? “They don’t need another TV” infers that a person will not steal unless there is a need. So not true. “They live on a crowded island” doesn’t really prove much if you live on an island called Manhattan.
I have to admit that I thought about all those reasons myself – until – I got here and observed a few things. This exemplary national behavior is not hard-wired into the Japanese psyche. No, it doesn’t come naturally.
The Japanese people are continually reminded to treat their fellow man with respect, dignity and kindness. Television is used to broadcast public service announcements all through the day. They are repeated like car commercials are in America. At first I thought it was just on the channel I was watching. No, every station carries the same PSAs over and over and they are not just talking heads telling people how to behave. They are a series of videos depicting every day scenarios and how you should handle things. For example, there’s one with a woman and three small children. At first all you see is one of her hands reaching down to take her little boy’s hand. Then you see her other hand reach behind her daughter’s head to stroke her hair. Lastly you see the mother take hold of her other young son’s hand. You never really see the mother’s face. The video is focused on the action of her hands. I asked my daughter-in-law what it was about. She said in her best English translation that the message is to be careful how you use your hands. You must use them to treat your children kindly. You must never use your hands to hurt them.
Another PSA shows an elderly woman slowly climbing a flight of stairs using her cane to steady herself. A young man sprints up the stairs and passes her up. Then stops. Turns around. The camera shows him thinking for a second. Then he takes a few steps back and gently puts his arm behind the woman’s back and escorts her the rest of the way. I didn’t have to ask my daughter-in-law what that one was about.
This is how it’s done. Good manners and empathic attitudes have to be inculcated by constant reminders. Stereotypical behavior does not just happen. It works both ways, positive and negative. You’re not born a racist. You learn to be one. You’re not born to be humane. You must be taught.
It’s our choice as a culture to perpetuate certain behaviors. We Americans are known as rugged individuals, pulled up by our bootstraps, quick on the draw. “I’ve got mine. You get yours” is ingrained. Sharing is for kindergartners. Kindness can be dismissed as weakness. Playing fair is for suckers. Patience becomes a punching bag for aggression. Generosity is just a form of bribery. Proper manners are the fluff of the elite.
I wonder what would happen if America started running similar PSAs as in Japan. Would a tsunami of national ridicule wash them away?