-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — Is it fair to say that the defining social and cultural trait of Mexican people is to endure hardship? Or that Venezuelans all want to look glamorous? We tend to dislike stereotypes because of how they clump people together, how they confine individuals in exclusive groups that can even be offensive.

Yet in a world that is increasingly interconnected and hyper-classified, day-to-day life needs labels to arrange every new division in society. The urge to categorize is so strong that some marketing experts look to identify specific words that strategically identify what people or nations are, or want to be.

Societies, regardless of their origins or history, create culture. The rituals, evolutions, revolutions, failures and dialectics — the essence basically — are translated into symbols that a society carries with it, willingly or not. Governments all over the world know that, and for some decades now have tried to identify and encapsulate that essence to help cement the identity of their individual country, boost its potential and market it.

Day-to-day life needs labels to arrange every new division in society.

The same product can't be marketed using the same tactics to a German or a Frenchman. Each nation has a cultural voice that needs to be heard. One could not readily understand the mind of a Vietnamese without recalling that the country fought a more than 20-year war and was partly occupied by the United States of America. Nowadays, because of cross-cultural currents, the speed of communication, and for simplicity's sake, one needs to recognize a basis of each nation, if only as a first step toward understanding other communities.

Evidently such ideas generate arguments and attacks. The marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille states in his book The Culture Code that there are bound to be uncontrollable flows of new or strange ideas, contradictions and questions. The book cites certain words that signal belonging to a particular place. The French, for example, are identified as thinkers in search of an idea; the English as a people on a permanent quest to become somebody on this Earth.

870 Dutch satirical cartoon of Europe — Source: Wikimedia Commons

The list goes on: Germans are identified as obedient, the Spanish as eternal improvisers, and the Portuguese as lords of commercial exchange. The Americans are associated with the gift of doing things. The Japanese are seen as willing to do whatever it takes to triumph. Australians stand out for their survival instinct. Each of these traits is developed with a broad sense of marketing because, inevitably, you need to show what you are selling.

Rapaille is incidentally to blame if you drink coffee not for the taste of its grains, but the aroma. Because after analyzing the culture around coffee and its consumption, the French author concluded that the sense of smell is more powerful than taste when a consumer tribe approaches the delectable drink. He would not have concluded this had he not walked through and studied the conditions of the coffee universe. That is the value of having specific words to stereotype millions and millions of people.

Defining a nationality this way can even help offset realities that are in fact quite depressing.

Latin Americans also have their specific character traits, or so they say. The Brazilians are resourceful — they always find a way of fixing things. The Argentines are seen as proud. Chileans are prudish, and Colombians are associated with an idea that we've been chasing for the last 200 years: living.

In some cases, defining a nationality this way, for strictly commercial purposes, can even help offset realities that are in fact quite depressing. And if you disagree with what I have written here, go read Rapaille — or maybe talk to a psychologist.


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