Tuesday, 7 September 2010

What do you think?

As I was drafting possible material for my fantasy framework and wondering whether readers might find it offensive, it occurred to me that those of you who visit here might be willing to give some opinions on my attempts at satirical sketches of various stereotypes. I don’t mean opinions on style, readability or that sort of thing, but on whether my perception of what’s stereotypical coincides with yours.

Here’s the background: Joe has created a highly successful virtual world in which avatars interact according to the whims of the people whom they represent. In fact, it’s yet another MMORPG – a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. He sends his avatar, Ross Magee, on a tour round it in a sequence that’s simply intended to set up a scenario for a more detailed look at UK national stereotypes. (By the way, the character Red Loth, who’s cited by name, is Joe’s other avatar and the name is, of course, an anagram of The Lord – well, he did create this particular virtual world, so he’s allowed some hubris.) The extract goes like this:

He translocated to Australasia and flew around Ayers Rock in a thick haze of barbecue smoke, listening to deep discussions about the relative merits of real and virtual lagers and the finer points of alligator wrestling. He travelled through Europe sampling stereotypical attitudes to food, morality, political corruption and foreigners. All the avatars in the Latin countries were dark, brooding creatures who burst into gesticulating life when talking of women, football and either pasta or corridas, but up in Scandinavia, they were nearly all blonde and still, staring out over the fjords and giving each other looks pregnant with acceptance. Every word they typed on the screen was heavy with strange accents and symbolism.

Joe found this herd mentality interesting and spent some time acclimatising in various places. His frequent trips to North America made him wonder whether it had been wise to give residents so much freedom to adapt the in-world environment to suit their own preferences. Each state he visited proclaimed its pride in being part of the USA and yet the differences between them were so extreme that he began to wonder what ‘United’ meant. The south thought the north was populated by effete homosexuals while the north hinted that the residents of the south might have descended not from homo sapiens but from the Neanderthals. The west claimed to be the true representatives of American history, the east celebrated a long European ancestry, but all the disparate religions asserted that Red Loth was American. And, except for a few individuals in Kentucky and Tennessee, every single resident had wonderful teeth.

To the north were the Canadians, who were thought by all to be Americans, but nicer.

Joe was more familiar with the European experience and nowhere did he find more compelling evidence of the comfort of stereotypes. Russian avatars cried a lot, drank a lot, and sang mournful songs. In France, those who bothered to build roads in the cities piled cobblestones across them to save time when the next revolution or strike came round. There was general bewilderment among them at the idea that anyone wanted to be anything other than French. The Germans would pause briefly to smile mirthlessly at this before getting on with doing whatever they were doing very efficiently, and the Dutch, bent over their tulips, a joint dangling from their lips, would look across at their bikes leaning against a windmill and, to the sound of wooden clogs on cobbles and the occasional splash as someone fell into a canal, would simply go on being liberal.

And that’s it so far. So what I wanted to know was – is anyone offended by any of this? Am I being unfair to people in Kentucky or Tennessee? After all, I have no idea what those places are like so I have no real right to characterise them in any way.

More importantly, has anyone any suggestions as to elements I might have missed? All contributions gratefully received (and stolen).


  1. I was watching South Park last night and, as always, admiring their ability to offend and insult everybody! and get away with it. and be funny. :) Last night they were stereotyping Persian guys. Very funny. Golden posts and diamonds and rolex watches...stuff like that.
    So yes, I think you need some Arabs or Persians. Or you can use Azeris if you wish! :) You have my permission. :)

  2. ... hmm, I'm a Canadian...

    'Like Americans but nicer.'

    Yup, that's pretty much how the rest of the world sees us.

  3. Oh, yes... don't forget the 'eh'...

    Apparently, we say that a lot too.

  4. Well, that sho' nuff brightened my day [it's foggy and chill this am in not-quite-in-Londontown]. Nope, us northerners don't think of the suthin folk as Neader-whatevahs, it's just this first cousin thing they've got going down there.
    As to Canadian? Check this vid out:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWQf13B8epw

  5. That's a really interesting conundrum to wrestle with. But I think you'd be okay using stereotypes as long as you make it clear that's what they are, for the purposes of the game.

    My only grumble - would people in Scandinavia necessarily have blond, sporty avatars, or is the whole point of avatars to be something you're not?

    Just a thought, to rattle the bars. :D

  6. Thanks, all, for the input.

    The temptation to include Azeris is strong, Scary, especially since I know so much more about them from your blog, but I’m deliberately confining it to some selected areas, mainly North America and the north/south European split. The main bit will focus on the UK. In the end, there are so many stereotypes that it would be in danger of just becoming a list.

    Welcome, Anon. I can’t remember where I got the ‘like Americans, but nicer’ but I hadn’t heard of the ‘eh’ before. I wonder how widespread that perception is. I did wonder about dropping in some ‘Vive le Quebec libre’ element but that might be a bit precious.

    DL, the UK certainly saw you coming – tube strike, crap weather – never mind, you’ll be in Scotland soon, then you’ll really find out about weather. I like the first cousin idea much better than mine so thank you, I’ll steal it. (I did warn you.) By the way, the video stuck after about 20 seconds. I’ll keep trying it.

    Fiona, good point about the avatars, and you’re right, people choose the most astonishing ones which can’t possibly resemble them (or vice versa). That’s one of the themes I play with in the stories themselves, but this is just to stress the parallels between this particular virtuality and reality.

  7. Sounds like you've nailed it so well this could be a travel log, ;)

  8. You'll have to try much harder if you want to insult Aussies.

    Fun stereotypes!

    Ayer's Rock is a trifle too large to be enveloped in BBQ smoke, but I guess it's a virtual world so anything goes. The politically correct name btw is Uluru, which personally I never use because I loathe political correctness.

    We wrestle crocodiles. Alligators are for wimpy Americans.

  9. Marley, the problem with it being a travelogue is that tourists eager to see the 'typical' natives I'm identifying wouldn't find any. Better just to stay at home and buy the book.

    Gary, your last sentence confirms (delightfully) the stereotype. I knew the Uluru name but the gag wouldn't work if I used it. (I know, I know - it doesn't work anyway but I'm trying.)

  10. Hi Bill! Interesting post that has me thinking about stereotypes. If you want to conduct a little social research, go to SecondLife.com and get yourself an avatar. You might visit the various representations of world unions there and draw some different (or reinforce the same) conclusions. Just don't dwell in that world too long for it may detract from your writing time! :-))

  11. Hi Kelly. I know why you're suggesting a trip to Second Life and I take your point about how it can eat up time. In fact, that's where these stories that I'm stringing together came from. I joined a few years ago and got an avatar to do some other research. It was fascinating and it generated plenty of ideas and material as well as new friendships. I didn't do any specific work on world unions though so it might indeed be useful to revisit and check them out. Thanks for the suggestion.

  12. From observation, the Canadian "eh" is pronounced to rhyme with "hey" or "hay", and used in the same context as "right?" , "ken?" or "innit?" in the UK - except maybe in a nicer way, eh?

  13. Thank God it's not like 'like', as in:

    'And he's like "Duh" and I'm like "No way" so she like sees him and she's like "Loser' and he's like "Dyke".'

    I don't like that.

  14. I love the international comments about North Americans. Having written extensively about the Western U.S., I feel that the true American spirit resides here. You'll find few "duhs" and "no ways" in the Rocky Mountain and high plains states (with the exception of big cities such as Denver). Just a lot of hard working ranchers, farmers and ordinary folks struggling to survive in the current "economy". . .

  15. Yes Jean, I realise that the stuff I've written bears little relation to the reality of these various countries and regions. The intention precisely is to show up the absurdity of stereotypes.

  16. I know, Bill, and you made me smile. (I wasn't on my soapbox) :)

  17. I didn't know you had one, Jean.

  18. The problem with your stereotype of the Dutch is that you combined two stereotypes.
    There's the city-type: smoking pot all the time, being over-liberal about drugs, sexuality, prostitution etc. Crossing town on their old bikes. I would add: being smug, rude and arrogant know-it-alls.
    And there's the stereotype of the countryside old fashioned Dutchman: wearing clogs, bending over their tulips, proud of their cows, drinking milk and eating cheese all the time, riding tractors. Cycling against the wind.
    I think it works better it's more convincing if you choose for one the stereotypes. The other ones you described, the Russian, French and German, are more about attitude and life-style, so the combination with the city stereotype might work better.

    the Dutch, bent over their tulips, a joint dangling from their lips, would look across at their bikes leaning against a windmill and, to the sound of wooden clogs on cobbles and the occasional splash as someone fell into a canal, would simply go on being liberal.

  19. Thanks Anneke. I deliberately piled it on thick with the Dutch and I bow, of course, to you and your inside knowledge on them. I'll start rewriting on the train on the way home on Monday. (But then I'll have to pause again because the two new Brilliant books have gone into production so there'll be edits to handle and proofs to read - which is the part of the whole process I really like because it means new books will be appearing.)

    Thanks to all for your comments.