Listmania has taken over the internet, it seems. Do you ever find yourself clicking on goofy links for things like "10 Reasons Your Cat Thinks You're Dumb?" and then start thinking, "wow, the fact that I clicked on these links must be one of those reasons!" In the expat blogging world, these lists reign supreme too. Since I am particularly interested in Germany, I often find myself clicking on links for things like "5 Things Germans Always Do" or "Things That All Germans Like," and so on.
When I first lived here, I lapped these things up like spilled horchata. I initially thought they'd be a great way to learn about how society operates in Germany. I read that it's hard to make friends with Germans, they're unfriendly/unsmiling, they get thoroughly ticked off if you jaywalk, everything runs on time and perfectly here, and they're the masters of sorting recycling and properly disposing of trash. (In my own experience, I found that these situations varied so widely that there's no way I could call them traits of all Germans.)
In the two years of living here, I've started to look at these lists with a more discerning eye. First of all, for whatever reason, I feel like a fool for being pulled into articles written like lists. I don't know why they exert such a psychological pull. Why is a list of something more interesting to read than an essay? Has my brain been ruined by Google* and the frenetic, distracting siren call of the internet? Am I too lazy or lacking in concentration to read something that includes paragraphs instead of bullets or numbers?
Beyond just the format issues, these lists can reduce a whole country of people into a bulleted list of cliches. Maybe current lists are more advanced than creating the lame idea that all Germans wear lederhosen and drink beer all the time, but they can still perpetuate the idea that everyone in a country is exactly like X, Y, and Z. That is hardly accurate.
It is important to realize that these lists are just the person's opinion. Duh, of course, you're probably thinking. However, can you honestly say that you've never been swayed by an article online? If you don't have a lot of experience with a group of people or a situation, but the few exposures you've had line up with what's written in the article, don't you start to think, hmm...it's interesting that other people noticed this too. I wonder if that really is a thing for Group X or Y?
Even though I already knew that these just-for-funsies lists aren't always accurate (duh), I really started to think about them more critically after the German as a Foreign Language classes we took. The wonderful thing about those classes are that one can learn so much about the cultures of people throughout the world since we complete exercises where we talk about things in our home countries. They are also an opportunity to discuss stereotypes.
One thing that really struck me during these exercises was when I was talking about my experiences an Indian student would say, "no, that's not what people do in the United States." I would turn around and raise an eyebrow at him. Considering that I am an American citizen, I grew up there, and have spent several decades living there, I was a little confused why he would know what Americans do and don't do. He didn't say it in a nasty way and I wasn't angry at him; I was legitimately curious why he felt the way that he did and we had a respectful dialog with the class. I learned that he was there a short time for school and has watched many American movies so he felt that he had a good handle on American culture.
I turned it around on him. "Do you dance really well, like they do in Bollywood movies?" No, he doesn't dance at all. I said, "well, after watching those movies, couldn't one think that all Indian people like to sing and dance all the time and they're all really good at it?" He acknowledged that movies and tv don't paint an entirely accurate picture of what life is truly like in a country.
This experience really resonated with me and highlighted the importance about thinking critically about one sees and reads. What an expat blogger writer believes about a culture is not necessarily always correct. Anecdotal evidence does not necessarily a truth make. We all have personal bias and merely putting it into text on the internet doesn't magically transform an opinion into an irrefutable fact.
On the flip side, just because someone makes generalizations and pops it on a click-inducing list doesn't mean that it couldn't be a trend with a group of people, either. The most important realizations that I gathered from this are: to take things with a grain of salt; form your own opinion after looking for the good and diversity of experience in others; and if need be, research things on your own, using appropriate sources.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go read an interesting article about the 10 Really Cute Things That Cats Do and 5 Foods that All Germans Eat.
*True story: I tried to read the author's book about how the internet is changing our brains and adversely affecting our ability to concentrate. I couldn't finish the book because I was too distracted. D'oh.