Jun 11, 2011

Clichés are the Funniest Things

My friend Leonel, a social psychologist from the University of Lisbon, gave a talk on stereotyping in our laboratory a few years ago.  He noted that when he mentions that he is from Lisbon, people think of the picture to the right.  I laughed because (although this is not the exact picture), the image was funny, and I also laughed because Leonel has a great sense of humor and he always makes me laugh.  Other people in the room laughed because their image of the Portuguese actually corresponds roughly to this photo.  My friend Guida, a chemist, says that when she says she is Portuguese, people in our town start to talk about their cleaning woman, because that is the only other Portuguese person they know; they suspect that maybe she is one too.  Or perhaps just her mother.  I have met Guida's mother, in Lisbon, and I can attest to the fact that she has never personally operated a broom.  Even though I don't emotionally "get" Leonel's example, I suppose I might end up laughing if someone put up a picture of people doing an Eastern European folk dance and said, "I recently met the family of your building custodian, Bruno..."  Those of us who grew up in an apartment building in Chicago all knew a Bruno, a custodian from Eastern Europe.  We probably thought that his family in the old country looked like a slightly different version of the picture on the right.  And when confronted with it, we would laugh.

Our friend, Barny, in Munich was in a Bavarian cabaret for a long time.  You can guess how he was dressed: in Lederhosen and felt hat.  He used words that no self-respecting northern German-Hochdeutsch-speaker would ever utter in daily life.  That cabaret was for northern Germans.  I might have been able to understand the German, but I wouldn't have understood the clichés very well.  The clichés referred to more than just large breasted women serving beer and dancing polkas; they represented in every way what northern Germans think about southern Germans, politically and socially.  Big laughs were had by all.  

The same big laughs are the basis of the success of a French movie called "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis."  Here, a southern French postal administrator tries to get a transfer to a position in a more desirable town by pretending to be handicapped.  He gets caught and as punishment is sent to a town in the north of France.  This location strikes fear  in the hearts of everyone, including the policeman who stops him for driving too slowly (in order to delay his arrival in the North) on the highway.  Even though the difference in temperature is about 8 degrees (Fahrenheit), the wife, who opts not to move with her husband, wraps him in a scarf and an actual down jacket before sending him to what she imagines is the North Pole, though North Pole populated by drunks and depressed, poorly-raised (!) people.  The French people in the south of France could laugh at this movie because it shows in a funny way (by a brilliant actor) what they all think.  And the people in the north could laugh because it is so ridiculous that the people in the south think the way they do.  Big laughs.  But can't be translated at all because so much hangs on the specific language use.

I watched the American movie "New in Town" because I had understood that it was an American version of this French film.  The film was not very funny, unless you think that accents in Minnesota are funny, which I don't.  I also don't have an imagine of the typical person from Miami that I find amusing.  But now I hear that the remake will concern someone from New York City being transferred to Texas and I think this will get much closer to the humor of "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis."  A German version of this film is also planned and I suspect it is a reformulation of the Bavarian cabaret.

Now what is the difference between this, if there is any, and my utter failure to laugh about how Europeans caricature American frienships, for instance.  The image they have is that an American sits down next to you on a bus.  Then he or she, without being asked, just regurgitates their whole life, including details about Uncle Clem that no one would ever discuss in Europe.  Then, at the appropriate stop, the person gets off and never sees you again.  In Europe people are scandalized by this, so they talk about it, share lots of experiences interpreted in that way, and every gets big laughs.  People repeat over and over the claim that Americans say, "how's it going" but do not want to know the answer.  (I have a problem with this example, which is that in France people say ça va? also all the time, and do not stop any longer to hear the response.  They could claim it means, hello, but so does "how's it going").  Anyhow, I don't laugh at the "Americans are superficial" thing.  Maybe it is because it is imposing a culturally-biased judgment about what it means to make and have friends, which I think of as untenable.  Maybe it isn't funny because, since it involves a culturally-based interpretation, I have never even really noticed this happening.  Or maybe, like the visceral hatred of American capitalism, I don't have a funny image like that photograph of "Leonel" up there.

There is a Gary Larsen cartoon that has two panels.  The top panel illustrates "What we say to dogs."  In the balloon coming from the man, he is saying "OK Ginger, I have had it with you... Understand, Ginger?.."  The bottom panel shows what Ginger hears, which is "blah blah blah, Ginger, blah blah blah, Ginger.."  Speaking to my colleagues, I sometimes feel like Ginger.  I say something about requirements for graduate students on the university or requirements for their training, and what some people hear is "blah blah blah, American imperialism, blah blah blah, American capitalism."  Now I believe that both of those concepts -- imperialism and capitolism -- can be discussed and criticized, so I am happy to have a conversation about them.  However, this is not what I am discussing in my consideration of graduate training.  So I am a living cliché.  But I didn't sign on, like Barny did, to be in the cabaret.  I can't anticipate the laughs.  And in fact, I don't understand why there are any.  

So, maybe that's the difference?

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