WANDERLUST: Generalizations are always false

Originally published in The Mooring Mast September 27, 2013

When you come back home after traveling, all of your friends will ask you the same question: how was it?

You freeze. How to answer? How do you summarize a possibly life-changing trip in a foreign country that lasted weeks, or even months, in just a few sentences?

So you summarize. You shorten, you characterize and you generalize.

“Prague was beautiful,” you say, “but touristy. And London was expensive, and Paris was busy.”

It’s natural to want to generalize the places you visit. It’s our way of making sense of the world.

And after all, “the Berliners were rude” is a much simpler and more succinct answer than “Well, the people on the streets never smiled at each other, and the waiters certainly didn’t work as hard as in America, but I made friends with this one student guy who was really sweet, but my host family was quite nasty to me as well.” If your friends are even still listening after all of that, they’ll be more confused than satisfied by your answer.

So we return to generalizations. But they’re not true. Certainly, some Berliners are rude, just as some Parisians, New Yorkers, South Africans and Pacific Lutheran students are rude.

When I did an internship in Berlin, I worked closely with another intern at the same company who was from Austria. I was always trying to characterize the different nationalities I met, to understand them in relation to each other.

I was constantly spouting off things like, “well, of course you’re against abortion, it’s because you’re Austrian, and Austrians are mostly conservative Catholics,” and complaining about “typisch Deutsch” (typical German) when anyone was rude to me or got on my case about not being punctual or neat enough.

And every time I’d make a statement like that, he would always respond with the intentionally contradictory statement: “Generalizierungen sind immer falsch.” Generalizations are always false.

At first this would annoy me terribly, but as I spent more time in Germany, I had to admit he had a point. When you’re only in a place for a short amount of time, even if you are able to resist projecting your preconceived notions on them and allowing your expectations to cloud your experience, you’re still tempted to take every experience you have as representative of the people in that place.

It does a nation or a city a terrible injustice, however, to base your entire perception on their culture off of one experience. Germany may be the size of Wisconsin, but it is a diverse nation with tons of regional and individual variation.

Next time you’re recounting a trip and are about to summarize by overgeneralizing, I urge you to rethink. Tell an anecdote, tell a story, but don’t let that story define your perception of a nation. It’s not fair to them.

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