Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Exposing the myth of national character

In Brief

Exposing the myth of national character

Americans are individualistic, aggressive, and competitive. Canadians are relaxed, self-effacing, and agreeable. The English cultivate stiff upper lips. Germans are efficient and hard-working. Italians are warm and excitable. Most people are familiar with such clichés. They are sometimes endorsed, with pride or amused resignation, by natives of the countries themselves. They seem less obnoxious than racial stereotypes. Could they also be more accurate? Do they have a kernel of (undoubtedly crude and oversimplified) truth — differences in average personality traits that are products of culture and history?

Some such stereotypes do have a little truth in them. That women are warmer and men more assertive is widely believed around the world, and personality questionnaires tend to confirm the belief.

But the notion of national character doesn't hold up, according to the authors of a 2005 survey. They showed that this is a myth by comparing generalizations about each country's character type with what we say about people we actually know. The investigators gathered data from 49 national cultures using a questionnaire called the National Character Survey. Sample questions: To what degree is a typical native of your country anxious or relaxed, sociable or solitary, conscientious or easygoing?

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