The stereotypical image of the conscientious, tradition-bound Swiss has been exposed as a myth in a recent international survey of 49 cultures.
Hot-blooded Italians, cold Germans, unassuming Canadians, welcoming Indians... The list of stereotypes is long, sometimes offensive and almost always wrong.
Stereotypes come into existence, and survive, through a combination of history, political discourse, culturally determined jokes, and of course, the media, which reinforces the image of a "typical" national type.
But rarely do stereotypes stand up to scrutiny, a fact confirmed by a survey published in the prestigious scientific journal, Science, last October.
Instead of being especially punctual, persevering, reliable, introverted and tradition-bound, the Swiss turned out to be rather more open-minded than one might have assumed.
Indeed, the survey - conducted in Switzerland by psychology professors Willibald Ruch (Zurich University) and Jérôme Rossier (Lausanne University) – found the Swiss to be remarkably open to new experiences.
Top marks for openness
Not only were they more "open" than the other nationalities which participated in the survey; they actually scored the top mark in this respect.
"The study has provoked a lot of discussion," explains Ruch. "That's partly because it was published by a prestigious periodical like Science, which does not normally devote much space to psychology.
"And it's partly because we have all reflected on issues of this kind at one time or another or have had to re-consider the image we have of Americans, Germans, Swiss or other nationalities. It is something that affects people in the way they relate to the world."
Ruch says an individual's personal experience of other nationalities tends to be limited. "A 20-year-old Swiss is likely to know 1000 or so other Swiss people, but as little as 20 Germans and just two or three Americans.
"Nevertheless, he will feel he has a good idea of what people from these other countries are like. From a scientific point of view, it is interesting to try and find out whether these stereotypes – which are ultimately prejudices – match up to reality, to the extent that it can be measured objectively."
The study found that only very rarely do stereotypes correspond to reality. And, as noted earlier, history, the media and jokes inform the stereotypes, as does (limited) personal experience.
War films invariably portray Germans as cold and nasty, jokes tell of slow-witted Bernese, and one's memory of a helpful Milanese couple during a weekend in that city might give one the impression that the Milanese are kind and caring.
For their research project, the psychologists used questionnaires to gather information on the five principal aspects of human personality: emotional stability, intro/extroversion, openness to new experience, courtesy and conscientiousness. These are universal aspects of human nature, common to all cultures.
"As a first stage we asked the participants to describe themselves and two people they know well, one aged over 40, the other of secondary school age, ", explains Ruch.
The issue of national characteristics was not introduced until later, when the participants were "asked to describe a 'typical' Swiss, rather than an actual person".
The need for stereotypes
Psychologically speaking, stereotypes meet a human need. "We need to exert some control over the world around us," says Ruch. "Stereotypes help us to know what to expect, what to avoid, and how we should behave."
However, there is a danger that our stereotypes may become fossilised; that is never reviewed or updated, especially in situations of which we have no direct experience. What is more, people tend to cultivate stereotypes by avoiding experiences which might contradict them.
"Take the issue of hostility towards foreigners: it is strongest in situations where foreigners are non-existent. People who are in daily contact with immigrants do not have such prejudices," notes Ruch.
When applied to ethnic groups, stereotypes have all too often degenerated into prejudices (the French do not wash), and been used as an excuse for discrimination and persecution (consider the Nazis' "justifications" for murdering Jews).
The need to distinguish ourselves from others, even neighbours, is intimately bound up with the image that we have of themselves. Switzerland is often seen as a nation of reliable, independent and hard-working people, for instance.
But, according to Ruch, "the study reveals that the Swiss deviate from the international average in only one respect: they are particularly open to new experiences. And yet, when asked about stereotypes, the participants in the survey said conscientiousness was the principal characteristic of Swiss people."
Apart from this openness to new experience, the inhabitants of German-speaking Switzerland are not very different from Germans and Austrians; nor are the people of French-speaking Switzerland very different from the French.
In four aspects out of the five, however, the results show differences between the inhabitants of the German- and French-speaking parts of Switzerland.
The German-speaking Swiss are more open to new experience and more conscientious than their French-speaking counterparts, while the latter are more emotionally changeable and more extrovert. Where courtesy is concerned, the two groups recorded the same results (slightly above the international average).
swissinfo, Doris Lucini
The Swiss part of the international study was conducted by psychology professors Willibald Ruch (Zurich University) and Jérôme Rossier (Lausanne University).
According to stereotype, the average Swiss is introverted, conservative and conscientious.
The survey of personality traits finds the Swiss to be more open to new experience than other nationalities, more extrovert than the average, but only slightly more conscientious.
Eighty-five scientists from all parts of the world took part in a research project conducted by the National Institute on Aging, Baltimore, US.
The researchers measured the extent to which stereotypes correspond to "objective" personality traits in 49 different cultures.
The results, published in the Science review on October 7, 2005, showed that in the vast majority of cases personality traits and national stereotypes do not coincide. The only exceptions were Poland, Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.