This is a basic backgrounder for Americans, primarily, who might think Europeans do nothing all day but bitch about Americans. Don’t get me wrong—they do love bitching about Americans. But they also like bitching about each other, as well. Bordering countries, especially, have complex caricatures of each other, even when an outsider might think they’re more or less the same. The following is based on my numerous interactions with Europeans, having lived there for 4 years. Here’s a run down:
The French — Disliked by some Spanish (particularly the Catalonians), for being arrogant. One woman from Barcelona told me, “Come on, who really likes the French? Nobody!” The Swiss don’t like the fact that they have contempt for authority and are lazy. The Brits, of course, have the most mixed feelings about the French, though. One half the country hates them, the other half loves them. Those that hate the French tend to like the Americans, and vice versa. In the UK, they’re considered stinky, rude (they never line/queue up like decent people), and a bit yellow, based on their tendency to not fend off invaders like the Nazis.The French, in turn, dislike the British, look down on Belgians for being stupid, and don’t have much to say, in my experience, about Spaniards or Germans (oddly).
The Italians — Most of the stereotypes are positive, but mostly because of the food. Northern Europeans consider them lazy and flaky, and maybe incapable of managing anything right (mostly because of the 50+ governments they’ve had since WW2). One Dutch professor I had dismissed another Italian one, saying, “All the Italians care about are pasta and mamma.”Italians, in turn, don’t have strong feelings about other Europeans, but within Italy, the north-south divide is pretty strong. Northern Italians continuously complain that Southerners are lazy and unproductive, while Southerners complain that Northerners are devoid of culture or joie de vivre.
The Germans — Germans are considered industrious but uptight and humorless, by just about all the other Europeans. They know WW2 is a sore spot for them, so other Europeans will often mercilessly tease them about it. As much as Germany is considered an economic powerhouse, the vast majority of Europeans don’t really want to learn German or study there (or send their kids there to study). The food is considered uninspired, too, and only Berlin has some cachet among younger Europeans for its vibrant underground club scene. The most anti-German sentiments are among the Dutch and Danish, who just hate them from invading their countries too often. When German ask for directions in Holland, they’re usually given directions to the shortest way out of the country, or told “Give us back our bikes!”, a reference to the fact that Germans confiscated Dutch bicycles during WW2.Danes hate it when you pronounce their capital as “ko-pen-HAH-gen”, because this is the German pronunciation. Either pronounce it the English way (with “HAY” instead), or the Danish way, which is literally impossible to put down here.Germans tend to like their Western neighbors far more than they are liked by them, but they look down on their Eastern neighbors, particularly Poles. They, oddly, have some mixed respect for the Czechs, who have resisted German aggression.
The Scandinavians — Widely respected by most other Europeans, because of their high standard of living …and blond hair and blue eyes. However, within Scandinavia there are some persistent stereotypes. The Norwegians, Danes and Finns all think the Swedes are stupid and uptight. Norwegians are considered racist. Danes are considered more blunt than the others, maybe a bit more cranky, and the Finns are oddly introverted, even by Scandinavian standards. Except for the Danes really disliking Germans, and Finns really disliking Russians, they don’t really have anything against other Europeans.
The Belgians — Considered idiots by both the Dutch and the French. Belgians, in turn, consider the Dutch to be a bunch of cranky assholes, and French stuck-up.
The Dutch — The Dutch, like the Scandinavians, have an enviable economy and social order that’s admired by southern European countries. However, they do have a reputation of being self-righteous “know-it-alls” and very similar to their German cousins in terms of their rigidity. But they do not like any comparisons to Germans, and if you remind them that the Dutch national anthem makes a reference to the Dutch being “van Duitse bloed” (from German blood), you might quickly get the silent treatment. The Dutch are also disliked for being the biggest misers in Europe, and because of this they incur the wrath of the tourist industry wherever they travel. The Dutch have been known to stock up on water before they take their campers down to the south of France.The Dutch, in turn, kind of look down on just about everyone. Yes, there’s a bit of a reason for the “know-it-all” smart-ass reputation they have.
The Swiss — Considered extremely rigid, even by the Germans. Blunt to the point of being rude, the Swiss probably have the least likely reputation for being characterized as “friendly” or “warm”. Note that there is a big cultural divide between French-speaking Swiss, and the German-speaking Swiss. The former are almost exactly like the French, except having a blander cuisine and more respect for authority, the latter being more like the Germans except even more stiff, rigid and cranky. However, everyone knows Switzerland “works” so the fact that foreigners comprise 20% of the population (mostly from EU member states) should make this clear.Note that the German-speaking Swiss also speak their own variant of German, which sounds very strange if you’ve only been exposed to standard “hoch-Deutsch”.
The Spaniards — Honestly, very little antagonism against the Spanish or by the Spanish. No one really seems to dislike them, and they don’t seem to really dislike anyone else. (Yes, some Spaniards near the border to France don’t like the French very much) Not entirely sure why. However, God forbid you speak Spanish with a Latin American accent — there is still a lot of snobbery among Spaniards towards Latin Americans. Spaniards consider themselves white and European, and would be deeply insulted if you suggested they were Latin American of any kind.
The Greeks — Only nominally considered European by other Europeans, but the Greeks fiercely identify as European. Naturally, this is a huge irritant to Greeks.
The Poles — Not much seems to register about Poland and the Poles except that they’re quiet. They are a relatively big country (40 million people) so the supposed scare of being overrun by Eastern Europeans when a bunch of Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2005 focused in on the Poles. The Germans really don’t like Poles, and among Germany’s 9 neighbors, are disliked the most. Poland is considered a country of car thieves by the Germans. Really, the relationship between Germany and Poland is similar to that of the United States and Mexico, and often for many of the same reasons (differences in income, history of war, different languages, etc.).Poles really shore up their hatred for their eastern & southern neighbors, primarily Russia and Ukraine, although they don’t like Czechs, Slovaks or Lithuanians either. Oddly, they don’t really mind the Germans, and probably still fear them a bit — you never, ever hear jokes about Germans in Poland.
The Czechs — Considered a relatively bright spot of Eastern Europe by Western Europeans, but I think primarily because Prague is such a gorgeous city and a popular tourist destination. Czechs are a bit like Germans, though — a bit rude, blunt, and cold. Poles don’t have much good to say about them.
The Austrians — Considered a mix of the best & worst aspects of Germany and the Balkans, Austrians are considered laid-back but very nationalistic and racist. They’re said to be the birthplace of Hitler, but never came around to being fully apologetic about the Holocaust (unlike Germany). Neutral feelings from most ofWestern Europe, negative feelings from Germans (who consider them backwards, and not always the representing the best image of German-speaking people) and admired by Eastern Europeans (a throwback to the Hapsburgs).
The British – About half of the British would be really angry at being called European, so that should provide an apt starting point. The main beef with the Brits is that they’re considered the lapdog of the U.S., and are anti-European because the U.S. tells them to be so. They are considered polite, but maybe a bit two-faced (hence “Janus Britain”) and snobby. The Scots and Welsh are tolerated and liked, inasmuch as that no one really knows too much about them outside the UK, but the English are those that bear the brunt of negative sentiments among other Europeans. After all, London is in England.
The English also have a poor reputation in tourist traps, such as Amsterdam and Ibiza, for being loud-mouthed, obnoxious drunks.
The English, in turn, really seem to hate everyone. This is because it’s pretty hard to find an Englishman that has even, at best, neutral opinions about other Europeans (or Americans, or other nationalities). Europe is full of English expats, and the longer they live abroad, the more they seem to hate their host country. And yet they never seem to want to move home.
The Irish — A very small country, despite its exaggerated importance in Americans’ minds (just over 3 million) but considered polite and humble. They nominally dislike the English, but I have yet to meet an Irishman who really loathes the English. The sentiments towards the Irish and by the Irish seem to be positive, overall.
I personally don’t know much about how the Portuguese, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and others are perceived, or how they perceive others, but if you have something to add, please do so in the comments below.
I’ll leave you with this poster I saw in an Italian office years ago, that helps sum it up in some ways:
- the mechanics are German
- the chefs are French
- the police are British
- the lovers are Italian
- and everything is organized by the Swiss.
- the mechanics are French
- the police are German
- the chefs are British
- the lovers are Swiss
- and everything is organized by the Italians.
Update: Here’s my follow-up after this post got an avalanche of traffic and comments.
Another update: Here’s a related post on what Americans think about Europeans.
And another: 20 ways to slice up Europe.