He’s just a stereotype, He drinks his age in pints” – ‘Stereotype’ (The Specials)

This week’s controversy was brought to you by Urban Outfitters. The international hipster organisation sparked fury (the only way to start a fury is apparently by sparking it) with a new line of T-Shirts with slogans like “Irish I Were Drinking” and “Kiss Me, I’m Drunk, Or Irish, Or Whatever.” There is also a range depicting a silhouette of a girl on all fours vomiting under the slogan “Irish Yoga”. (Actually that one’s quite funny)

Or maybe not funny. In America the fury was sufficiently sparked to make it to the table of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs which asked Urban Outfitters to pull the merchandise, suggesting in a letter that “by selling and promoting these items, Urban Outfitters is only fueling stereotypes that many Irish-Americans, as well as the people of Ireland, work so hard to dispel.

Do we work hard to dispel these images? And if the Congressional Committee on Irish Affairs really wanted to represent us in a better light, maybe they should drop the word Ad Hoc from their title. It’s no coincidence that Urban Outfitter’s main shop in Ireland is in Temple Bar in Dublin – a location which boasts a high density of Irish yoga gurus. Many of these are not Irish at all but over from Grimsby on Tracey’s Hen but it’s hard to work out nationality in those circumstances.

Stereotypes by their very nature are crude. Equally one could accuse Urban Outfitters of only employing Twilight lookalikes with translucent skin who don’t walk around the shop, they waft; like wraiths in a Victorian séance. But that wouldn’t be fair at all. I’m sure that if a man with a strong Lix(sh)naw accent shouldered in the door looking for a job saying he was ‘mad for the shkinny jeans’ he would be equally welcome, even if his name wasn’t Paul Galvin.

The recent Euro-crisis saw a surge in national stereotyping. You know the Germans were thinking it even if they didn’t always say it – Typical Greeks. And Greek protestors were not backward about prominently displaying some outdated German stereotypes. The Irish waited nervously on the sidelines hoping that the spotlight wouldn’t turn on us and give news organisations the opportunity to show stock footage of urban horses drinking Guinness in a ghost estate.

Do the finance ministers themselves revert to stereotype at these EU summits? I don’t know because I haven’t been invited to any thus far. The Euro gravy train has not as yet hitched on a luxury carriage for an EU Comedic consultant but given MEP’s proclivity for voting for budget increases for themselves while recommending national austerity, surely it is only a matter of time before I get the call.

My only experience of anything similar to an EU summit was when, while training in my first grown-up job for a global management consultancy, we were all sent to a campus in America for two weeks. We were split into training groups of about 20. With one person from each country in each group, we felt somehow representative. But for some reason we took representing to mean reverting to stereotype.

The English man looked and behaved like Hugh Grant does in every Hugh Grant film. A French guy must have nearly hurt his shoulders such was the amount of shrugging he did during fourteen days of almost non-stop insouciance. On a group project my German colleague Claudia was heard to say: “okay, I think maybe first of all ve needz to take ze logical approach”.

I tried to be a citizen of the world but when the third person said “I suppose you Irish will be down the pub drinking a few Guinness – haha” I was annoyed by this reductive view of our complex and nuanced culture. I complained bitterly to anyone who would listen – over a number of Guinness. Down the pub.

What made it doubly annoying was that the stereotyper was Belgian. I couldn’t think of a single stereotype to reply with. Or at least none that were suitable or current: “Haha – good one I suppose you Belgians will be down the nearest Central African country treating it like a private tuck-shop and enslaving the local rubber tappers.” It’s very out of date and not really a topic for banter. (And we don’t exactly have a high moral ground in this country. The Irish subcontracted their colonising from the British and proved to be particularly enthusiastic when given half the chance.)

As the two weeks in America went on, it seemed the national flag bearing got more pronounced. Wisecracking New Yorker? Check. Morose Finn? But of course.

The pizza de la resistance was Paolo from Milan. At the end of the fortnight, we were arranged in groups and had to do a presentation on what we had learned about how to run good projects. It was supposed to be humorous – or at least as humorous as a multinational can be – that is to say with no humour at all.

So far so dull. Then came Paolo. An impish look in his eye indicated the immaculately dressed Italian was about to go off piste. And right from the start, as if channelling Berlusconi’s national project, he expounded on the lessons he had learned in Management Consultant School.

The key to good project is that you haf always the pawssibility to meet the beauutiful wooman. The office it mast look good you know with decorayshun

Following no fewer than 20 slides containing women wearing bikinis, Paolo was done. The – of course – politically correct Californian facilitator was heard to say “omigod that’s sooooo innnappropriate.

With the company’s Diversity Policy shredded on the floor and having done our countries proud, we all went home.

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