Stop Generalizing About Europe

“Oh no, not again,” I thought as I read Martin Varsavsky’s advice for US entrepreneurs in Europe. As is too often the case when Americans describe Europe, it had a number of generalizations that weren’t just a little off, but completely wrong. A few examples:

  • “Most of Europe has the euro as a common currency”
    Only 17 of Europe’s 50 countries use the Euro. Even within the EU there are 10 countries that maintain their own national currency.
  • “Europe is great for an American tech entrepreneur because wealth is better distributed”
    The difference between the Scandinavian countries and, say, Russia is enourmous when it comes to wealth distribution.
  • “More consumers can buy your products and services”
    Certainly depends on whether you’re selling to Swiss or Romanians.
  • “Europeans have ambivalent feelings towards entrepreneurs and being an entrepreneur is not as well regarded”
    Again, totally depends on what country and which social class you’re in.

All of this wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t for the fact that I see these kinds of generalizations all the time. It’s not uncommon for Americans who’ve briefly visited one or two countries in Europe to say, “In Europe they…” or “Europeans are…”. This makes me cringe every time, because it is the equivalent of a European person visiting a city in Mexico and going, “In North America they…” or “North Americans are…” solely based on their experiences in that Mexican city.

Europe is a vast area stretching from Iceland in the West to the Ural Mountains in Russia. It consists of 50 countries with a combined population of 739 million (more than North America). There are a plethora of peoples, cultures, and languages. Very few general obversations can be made about such a large group.

You may say, “Well, this is like the US with its different states.” I would disagree because, while there is certainly a noticable difference between, say, New York City and a rural Mississippian town, the majority of Americans share the same language and at least a minor number of cultural references. From a legal perspective the US is a true federation, whereas Europe consists of independent nations, half of which have entered into a loose union that is currently nowhere near a true federation. Laws vary greatly within Europe. Some Americans seem to think that the laws they come across in one European country will be the same all over Europe, but this is rarely the case – even inside the EU.

Americans have media that cover the entire US and ensure at least some cultural cohesion. You may think that America is divided, but it doesn’t even come close to the division between the nations in Europe who only recently decided that the countless wars between them perhaps weren’t particularly fruitful. Take the United Kingdom, for instance – its history is ripe with long wars against France, Spain, and Germany. Is it any wonder that a majority of British people don’t want to be part of the EU?

For better or for worse, the many different languages spoken in Europe tend to act as natural borders that separate peoples. This is made worse by the fact that a large number of Europeans mainly consume media (and to a lesser extent culture) from their own country or countries nearby. This means that the differences between the countries in Europe can be quite significant. And while this certainly occasionally hinders cross-cultural understanding, it also has its bright sides:

I personally love how I, being in Copenhagen, Denmark, can jump on a plane and just an hour later be in Berlin with its different language and slightly different people. 40 minutes further by plane and I’ll be in Switzerland with its magnificent Alps, a landscape totally different from what I came from. 25 minutes further by plane and I’ll be in Italy, where everything I see and hear around me – the people, the language, the architecture, the landscape, the culture, the food, social interaction, etc. – will be totally different from Denmark. These differences are part of the charm of Europe.

For Europeans reading this, it’s important to note that I believe in European unity. I’m not trying to argue that because we are different, we should remain isolated in our various nations. Quite the opposite: I believe in a strong European union, and I believe that whatever differences we have we can work together – not just for the sake of economic prosperity, but to ensure peace. But regardless of whether or not you believe in more or less European cooperation, it is a fact that the European nations are very different.

In short, just remember this:

Every time you start a sentence with “Europeans are…”, you are about to make a generalization about 739 million people spread across 50 vastly different countries and a large number of different cultures.

Every time you start a sentence with “Europeans are…”, that sentence is most likely going to be wrong.