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.
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.
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.”