As Others See Us – Maybe Not

November 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

National character has been sliding out of fashion for a long time.  Here is the Google nGrams chart for the appearance of that phrase in books since 1800.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Except for a brief comeback after World War II (there’s something about the Germans), the direction has been downhill,  perhaps because it sounds so much like ethnic or cultural stereotyping. Or maybe it was because valid research on it was difficult and unrewarding. Whatever. Ordinary people, though, have no difficulty in attributing personal characteristics to entire nations. But as is often true among individuals, people do not always see themselves as other see them. And in some cases, they view themselves and others with ambivalence.

Pew recently asked Europeans what they thought of the EU countries. (The report is here.) Things are not going well economically in the EU, and the three traits Pew asked about have little to do with economic policy; instead they tap into people’s feelings about other nations and nationalities. 

Germany is doing best economically, so it’ s not surprising that the five countries doing worst see Germany as the most arrogant. (The Germans themselves modestly ranked their country as the least arrogant.)  Greece too suffers from discrepant perceptions and self-perception, especially in trustworthiness. All other countries rate Germany as the most trustworthy, but Greeks see Germany as least trustworthy.

Presumably, Europeans have concluded that the profligate public policies of Greece and Italy were, if not a prime cause of the collapse, then at least a drag on recovery. These countries could not be trusted to run their economies with honesty and prudence. The Italians seem willing to concede the point. But Greeks rank themselves as the most trustworthy, though on what basis one can only guess.

In two countries, the survey turned up bi-polar reactions. Poles ranked Germany as both most and least trustworthy. The Economist suspects a generational divide between “older Poles with memories of war and younger ones who admire its reputation for prudence.”  Even more puzzling are the French, who give themselves both the highest and lowest ranking on arrogance.  Two other countries agree on the former; but nobody else thinks the French are least arrogant.

Finally, while six of the eight countries identified Germany as least compassionate, every country saw itself as the most compassionate.  Why Germany?  People may see compassion as the opposite of self-interest, with non-Germans thinking that Germany should be willing to do more for other EU countries even at the expense of its own prosperity. At the same time, people in each country, including Germany, are thinking, “We’re being as generous as we can.”

So there is a remarkable similarity of responses here. Ask “Who is the most trustworthy, most arrogant, and least compassionate?” “Germany.”

Ask “Who is the most compassionate?” “We are.”


siall said...

I find the negative correlation between perceived trustworthiness and compassion the most interesting thing here; what does that say about how compassion is viewed? Are the most duplicitous people the most compassionate? Or do many people suspect the motives of those who seem compassionate, and find self-interest reassuring?

Jay Livingston said...

Siall, The correlation is all about Germanty. It’s perceived as most Trustworthy and least Compassionate. My guess was that both perceptions come mostly from the relative strength of Germany’s economy. Others attribute that to their good moral character, which includes trustworthiness. But the others also fault them for keeping too much of that prosperity to themselves – i.e., they lack compassion. Both traits might also have to do with the perception of Germany as an efficient and rationalized, hence colder and less personal.

(BTW, I got a ton of hits on this post from Facebook, but I have no idea who it was who posted it on their FB page. Any clues?)

mary said...

Sociological Images: Seeing Is Believing