Studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, and traveling throughout Europe taught me about independence, other cultures, and perceptions of one culture by another. Stereotyping a country or its people is common and something that I encountered frequently while abroad. My accent gives two clues as to where I’m from: the United States, and if one is familiar with regional dialects within the U.S., they can tell that I’m from the South.
Overcoming the “Southerner” Stereotypes with my American Friends
When people think of the American South their perceptions are usually limited to one of two viewpoints. The first thought is of debutantes, huge plantations, and overly kind manners (think Gone With The Wind if you will). The second, less romanticized ideas about the South include thick accents, little to no education, strict conservatism, and a history of racism. If one has never visited the South, it might be easy to make these assumptions due to portrayals on television and infamous people who are from the South (I’m looking at you, Honey Boo Boo).
Since I am from the South, I have always been familiar with these stereotypes and have confronted them frequently. Encountering people from the United States and other countries as well who viewed the South in this negative way made me think about what is being published and produced to make people see Southerners in this light. I was determined to go abroad and show everyone that people from the South didn’t have to fit the undesirable stereotypes and could be intelligent, fun, unique people.
When I arrived at the Apex International Hotel for orientation, I knew not even one person. I was anxious to make friends, so when I got on the elevator and saw three girls my age I asked, “So where are y’all sitting?” Not exactly the smooth lead-in I imagined, but somehow it worked and this was the beginning of my nine-girl abroad squad. However, upon meeting each of the nine girls who would become my friends over the next four months, I realized that they all had one thing in common; unlike me, they were from the North (of the U.S.). The three girls I met in the elevator were all from Maine. By strange coincidence, six of the nine girls had a connection to Maine and all but one other girl were from the North.
As someone who has always lived in the South, who has a lot of Southern pride, and whose friends are primarily from the South, being surrounded by people from another area of the country was something I had never dealt with before. Of course people immediately pointed out my accent, and I felt a little uncomfortable at first. But as I got to know these nine girls, I learned a lot about the North and in turn from me they learned a lot about the South. I was so proud when, at the end of our trip, they all agreed that I convinced them not all people from the South fit their stereotyped image. This interaction was beneficial to me; I realized I had been a positive ambassador for the South, and my friends broadened my view of people from other regions.
Experiencing Stereotyping Made Me More Aware of When I Did it Too
Though I expected other students from the U.S. to stereotype Southerners, I didn’t know what to expect when telling people from other countries that I was from the South. My roommates, who were English and Scottish, had never heard of Arkansas, except for its one-line mention in a song. My reaction when meeting foreigners who asked where I was from was always to say, “I’m from Arkansas, which is near Texas.” Everyone knows Texas, apparently, so they could somewhat visualize where I lived. However, this comparison quickly grew into a stereotyped guessing contest as I was asked, “Do you do rodeos?” and other equally hilarious/slightly offensive questions. Being asked these things made me aware of the questions I was asking of Scottish people and how my own stereotyping was being perceived.
I am guilty of stereotyping too, and I caught myself doing this with Scots. I wasn’t sure how many tartan kilts I would see, how many bagpipes I would hear, or what were the major political and social viewpoints of Scottish natives. I wasn’t too surprised, however, to see that most people don’t wear tartan on a regular basis and the only bagpipes I ever heard were on the touristy Royal Mile and at special occasions. I learned that not all Scots feel the same about their politics, which I discovered when I visited with a Member of Scottish Parliament who voted for the Referendum to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom.
I had heard that Scots, like Southerners, were extremely friendly, and this could not have been more true. Time after time people went out of their way to give me directions, lend a hand, and simply smile at me. My ideas about Scotland before I arrived were both proven and disproven, and I learned a lot about its culture and its friendly people.
I was determined to go abroad and show everyone that people from the South didn’t have to fit the undesirable stereotypes.
Stereotyping is everywhere, and fighting against it is necessary. Going abroad taught me to have an open mind about the people I was meeting and the culture in which I was immersed. The world is full of diverse people, and I really enjoyed getting to meet people from all over. I am glad I had the opportunity while abroad to talk to others and learn that the stereotypes we believe about each other are not always correct. By opening ourselves up we can learn so much about individuals, countries, and the world, and I am grateful that my time abroad gave me the opportunity to do that.
Laura Bonds is a History student at Rhodes College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2015.