On intercultural communication and stereotypes, an international conference

 

The speakers based their deliberations on a very interesting and original material, which is always essential in language studies. Typical stereotypes identifying Poles, such as: the conceited Pole (kitczliwy l’ach), a proud Polish girl, a beautiful, proud, yet treacherous Polish girl, who, like all Poles imbibe hatred to the Russians with the mother’s milk, going back to Pushkin’s texts; a modern migrant, competent and adaptive, as seen by the British, a Pole with hypertrophic individualism and low self-esteem, drawn from historical and modern publications were discussed. Russians, on the contrary, stereotypically identified as generally positive types, sociable and welcoming, proud and patriotic, but also lacking tolerance and inclined to alcohol. These and other images in their original stereotypical forms were discussed with reference to respective publications and sociological data.

Dr. Grazyna Mankowska found that, in communication, Polish women were treated as emotional, impulsive and unreliable, whereas men as confident, competent and reliable, and these stereotypes were confirmed by popular conceptions and statistical data. Prof. Mikolaj Timoszuk found that Russian anecdotes are situational and referential (thematically dividing into the Armenian radio, the new Russians and anecdotes about Walka), while stereotypes in them characterized people by nature, financial status and determination in some 10-15 words on every theme. Linguistically these anecdotes were based on different varieties of the Russian language: on specific Russian with reference to Georgians, distorted Russian in word building and on hybrid-Russian. Mr. Andriej A.Potiomkin, Director of the Russian Centre of Science and Culture, gave interesting information on cultural activities of the Centre, such as a Festival of variety music, Poetry Recitals (the Recital of the Poetry of Mickiewicz and Pushkin, which was the 26th event of this kind this year), activities of the Foundation “The Russian World”, a Festival at the University of Warsaw and others. Linguistic and comparative linguistic research was also conducted by the Centre. Dr. Nadzieja Kuptel reported on projects as a methodological form enhancing communicative competence of students-philologists. She focused on projects as a creative activity, considerably based on individual effort, which excludes routinely formed grooves from academic work and, consequently, does away with all stereotypes. Her presentation ended on an optimistic note, as she said that creative work empowers a person and he stops complaining, the more so that “an eager and interested person never complains, he builds a temple instead”. Dr. Joanna Lewinska found that stereotypes appear in scientific English because of the simplified nature of the language in special fields. Prof. M.L.Drazdauskiene reported on stereotypes in education, analysed the historical and contemporary origin of stereotypes and claimed that stereotypes encumber communication and can even preclude it. Stereotypes in education have to be done away with for cultural, economic and administrative reasons and the only means in overcoming stereotypes is knowledge. After reviewing historical national stereotypes, Prof. Janina Makosza-Bogdan generalized by saying that stereotypes reflected the intellectual disposition of a person using them, that national stereotypes generally were negative and, consequently, dangerous as they were likely to give birth to aggression. This idea recurred in discussions and in personal conversations of the participants. Many people tended to believe that the mere public discussion of stereotypes was not really safe and positive. Stereotypes are often offensive and therefore unwelcome to a cultured audience.

It was interesting to be present among the audience at this Conference but it indicated certain deficiencies in the study of stereotypes. What I found missing in the reports and discussions at the Conference was a broader theoretical perspective. However, I personally have not traced any theoretical work on stereotypes (one may consider, though: Helmreich, William B. The things they say behind your back: stereotypes and the myths behind them. – Doubleday & Company Inc., 1982). What is published and what is usually discussed is the negative meaning and nature of stereotypes, their sociological description and statistical data of their spread, and their origin, which may be more or less confirmed. It is true, a broader conception of stereotypes has been known from philosophy (Mary Midgley. The Myths We Live By. – Routledge, 2004/2007) and semiotics (Roland Barthes. Mythologies. – Paladin Grafton Books (Collins Publishing), 1973).

I tend to believe therefore that major linguistic theories (such as descriptive, structural and functional linguistics) do not envisage stereotypes as distinct semantic or structural units in the material and do not assign a place for their identity and function theoretically. This must be because of the theoretical deficiency of sociolinguistics, and of a structurally fixed form of stereotypes the function of which is also as fixed. Stereotypes thus identify with other fixed verbal units and disappear among clichés.