Xenophobe's Guides

My recent visit to England made me feel like knowing more about its culture and the mentality of its average people. While looking for some handy guide to the English, I remembered that I stumbled upon a hilarious series called Xenophobe's Guides at one bookstore in Reykjavik when I visited it last summer. Guides to the following 30 nations have appeared so far:

Before buying the guides to the English and some other major European nations for the sake of comparison, I first bought the guide to the Japanese to make sure that the series is reliable, and found that the descriptions there are accurate, though some of them are rather shallow because of the page limitation. Here are some excerpts from this book:

The Japanese

  • The Japanese way of dealing with something they find unacceptable is by not talking about it.
  • Because of all the indecisiveness, the Japanese are trained from an early age to read each other's minds in order to ensure some progress.
  • "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down."
  • In Japanese society, everybody owes somebody, and everybody is owed by somebody else.
  • The Japanese do not criticize each other, or anyone else, even in trying circumstances.
  • When a Japanese is intoxicated, he (and, increasingly, she) can be his true self.
  • In Japan everybody wants to be different from everybody else in exactly the same way.
  • Only by making fools of themselves can the Japanese feel truly comfortable with each other and able to laugh.

Once I started reading the guide to the English, I couldn't stop reading the other guides I bought together. Here are excerpts from the guides to the English, the French, the German, the Italians, the Spanish and the Russians:

The English

  • The admired way to behave in almost all situations is to display a languid indifference.
  • The capacity to greet life's vicissitudes with a cheerful calm is an essential ingredient of Englishness.
  • The English ideal will be reached when everyone in English is living alone, on their own individual island.
  • To the rest of the world the entire English race is eccentric. To the English themselves, the concept of eccentricity is a useful way of coping with the problem of anti-social behaviour in one of their own kind.
  • Supplication, gratitude and most important of all, apology are central to English social intercourse.
  • In English eyes one may be pardoned for all manner of social sins if one is able to laugh about them.
  • In England, brains are optional but a sense of humour is compulsory.
  • Without the conversational topic of the weather, no two English people would ever get to know each other.

The French

  • It is the passion for matters of the intellect that makes the French natural philosophers. They worship ideas and those who generate them.
  • What makes French snobbery easier to accept is that it is based on good taste.
  • When the French are rude, it is because they consider that the occasion demands it.
  • They approach verbal humour with the same subtlety they bring to love-making, but with a bigger laugh at the end.
  • The French are not afraid of normal body odours, which they regard as natural.
  • There is neither the time nor place for the mediocre in the lives of the French.
  • It is as though having to work is incompatible with the notion that the French have discovered the secret of the good life.
  • To the French there is little point in living unless one is obsessed.

The Germans

  • Contrary to popular belief, the Germans don't know everything, they just know everything better.
  • The Germans long to be understood and liked by others, yet secretly take pride that this can never be.
  • It is axiomatic in Germany that everything needs sorting before you can achieve anything.
  • Perfectionism is a prime German characteristic that benefits their auto industry, but can be a trial at parties.
  • Fitting in is a virtue, standing out an offence.
  • The accidental and unplanned is something no German likes or feels comfortable with.
  • No self-respecting German has confidence in anyone but an expert.
  • The Germans take their humour very seriously. It is not a joking matter.

The Italians

  • Italians know how important it is to act the part, and look the part as well.
  • If they are not sorry, they feel they don't need to say anything, and if they are sorry, they can say it in the confessional.
  • Italians grow up knowing that they have to be economical with the truth.
  • Losing face is considered far worse than being found out.
  • As they also have great respect for the role they are playing, they prefer not to ruin the effect with levity.
  • Italian enthusiasm knows no bounds when it comes to arranging a meal.
  • All Italians are individually perfect, but all Italians know that other Italians are imperfect.
  • Italy's laws would be perfect without the Italians, who pay little attention to most of them.

The Russians

  • Scratch a Russian, and you will find a romantic. Russian romanticism is invincible, insuperable, unsinkable and unreasoning.
  • Drinking prowess is a matter of pride. To drink a lot without getting really drunk is the secret wish of every Russian.
  • Never, ever ask a Russian how things are - that is, unless you are truly interested in whether or not his bowels moved this morning.
  • Russians are unsurpassed in the masochistic skill of being able to laugh at oneself.
  • Sometimes it is difficult to rid oneself of the impression that Russians are very good at creating problems, and then heroically overcoming them.
  • The grown-ups used to be avid readers on buses and trams but, since the advent of the capitalist market, the number of readers has visibly shrunk, and the majority of readers would rather sit (or stand), quietly giving their tired brains a chance to relax.
  • Every Russian knows that you are nobody without your dacha, a summer house with a little garden attached.
  • There isn't anyone who doesn't have an original plan for saving Russia from incompetent rulers.

The Spanish

  • Self-reliance results in a reluctance to sacrifice any part of their own interests to the common good.
  • The words "please" and "thank you" exist, but are seldom put to use.
  • The Spanish are never in a hurry to finish anything, whatever they are telling you may take an hour or two, or three.
  • The Spanish never go to bed at night if they can possibly help it, as they might be missing out on something more exciting than sleep.
  • Noise does not affect the Spanish, who seem to thrive on it, and any excuse to make even more is, apparently, most welcome.
  • The Spanish sense of urgency, or rather the total lack of it, affects everyone's eating habits.
  • The Spanish do not drink to release their inhibitions because they have none.
  • The Spanish take little heed of any rules or regulations - they are not enjoyable.

I'm fully aware that generalizations can be dangerous, but on the other hand, according to my experience, about 80% of people in a few nations I know very well behave according to these generalizations or stereotypes. These guides have only confirmed what I already felt about these six European nations, but having read these guides, I've understood clearly why I've always felt comfortable with Russians, then with Germans (and admire the English), though not in every aspect. Some national characters also seem to be able to explain why some nations have achieved accomplishments in certain areas, while other wouldn't be able to. What is more interesting is how these national characters were formed, to which these guides can't answer.

I can't resist the temptation of continuing to read the rest of the series, but I'll allow myself to read one at a time as a present to myself for finishing one task at work. I'd also like to see the following additions to the series.

  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Arabs
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Argentinians
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Brazilians
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Hong Kongers
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Hungarians
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Indians
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Iranians
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Jews
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Koreans
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Lithuanians
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Maltese
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Mexicans
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Romanis
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Taiwanese
  • Xenophobe's Guide to the Turks

If you are planning a trip to some country and/or are just curious about some nation, I highly recommend you this series. Each guide follows the same template, is very cheap, has only 100 pages (I could finish each guide in about one hour), and is written with a lot of humor. They are also available as ebooks, for example, at Kobo Books.