Can Stereotypes Be Helpful?

By Edie Mueller


In May my daughter Ariadne married her long-time partner Tina. Our rabbi agreed to perform the ceremony even though Tina is Catholic, a good fit into our family: my husband was raised Catholic, as was my brother’s wife.

Over these long years I’ve noticed differences between Jews and those within our family who were raised Catholic, and though it may be politically incorrect to talk about them, an open conversation about the usefulness of stereotypes might be interesting–yet I’m nervous about even putting this into words. Why not ignore the differences? Well, in seeing the differences, we might find easier understandings and explications of why we are so unalike in such fundamental ways, like dinner conversation.

Interfaith marriage

Growing up, the conversations at my family (mother, father, older sister, younger brother) dinner table were monopolized by whoever yelled loudest. And everyone yelled at the same time–a bit of bedlam as well as an amazing intimacy: we blurted out whatever we were feeling, hurtful or not. Yet I wanted to marry into my husband’s family where at dinner one person spoke and everyone listened. What a marvel! I know my sister-in-law Diane’s family had equally well-mannered dinners–even now I’m struck by the quiet reserve of her parents. Quite the opposite of my mother, who likes to befriend everyone, including the toll collector on the Mass Pike when we go to the airport. I’ve inherited the gene: Once when complimented on my necklace I started telling a stranger about the necklace and where I bought it several summers ago, somewhere in Maine, and the artist and how much I paid for it. My nephew Steven said, “You know, Aunt E., you can just say ‘Thank you.'” Steven, the product of a Catholic and a Jew, cut right to the chase. No story.

Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, to tell stories. The Bible, the Talmud, the jokes–all filled with stories. If you ask a question, the rabbi will say, “I’ll tell you a story? ” But, on the other hand, my long-time Irish-Catholic friend Ann is a wonderful writer and storyteller, and the Irish have a long and rich written legacy. Ah, a stereotype that contradicts another stereotype!

Yet there are other ways that Tina, Diane and my husband Guntram are so similar to each other and unlike me: they like to tell jokes. Not the Jewish kind, with a bitter bent, but innocent ones, charming. And constant puns. The three of them share a lightness of being that is a total mystery to me. Guntram wakes up in a good mood every day. Not just sometimes, but every time! And my daughter has told me how well Tina cajoles her out of her moodiness. Diane is eternally patient with my brother, and kind to everyone, and even through the chemotherapy and years of coping with her son and the leukemia that ravaged him (he’s fine now), I never heard her lose her quiet patience. Her calm was part of the glue that held the family together.

Though there was all that yelling and emotional angst when I was growing up, there was also intimacy, and it is that gift that I have brought into my mixed-heritage family: we always cuddled, and said “I love you” a lot. In fact, I think that one of the hardest adjustments Tina had to make to our family was the way we get into bed together, either in the morning when we wake up on a weekend, or at night if we want to watch TV together. At first, Tina could not even walk into our bedroom. She’d watch from the doorway. It took about a year for her to feel comfortable enough to join us on the family bed.

When my father-in-law was dying, I learned my husband had never told his father he loved him. Of course they both knew, and I knew his family loved me, and I love them, but I was used to the words: in my growing-up family we yelled a lot, but we also said the words I love you a lot. We were loud and affectionate. One of my favorite memories is sitting on my father’s lap while watching “Lassie” on television, and all of us having our TV dinners on TV trays, together.

There seem to be cultural differences between Catholics and Jews. What do these differences mean? How important are they? Do they have any usefulness? We’re taught that stereotyping is not a good thing; it merely lumps individuals, with individual idiosyncrasies, into an amorphous whole. Yet, in certain instances, they can be helpful; this is one of them.

Seeing our differences as stereotypes–the Jew being loud, moody and demonstrative, the Catholic being quieter, calmer and less demonstrative–helps me put these relationships in broader perspective. Where I am usually louder and more assertive, I try to be less demonstrative with Tina and Diane. Instead of being nervous that I’m going to hurt their feelings, I can be considerate of them without the trepidation. Instead of being unsure in response to Tina’s quietness, I understand the moment as a cultural difference.

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe. I do know that I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or step on toes, or make them feel unwelcome. I love Tina and Diane dearly. Still, I sometimes worry that I’ve done the wrong thing, or hurt feelings and not known it. Often my daughter will let me know, as my brother lets me know if I’ve hurt his wife’s feelings.

My sister-in-law has been part of our family for 35 years and still this tentativeness is mixed in with the love. I think this will be the case with Tina, as well. But knowing that this is not personal, or negative, makes me a little more comfortable. Accepting that our differences might be cultural and stereotypical, not personal, gives me the opportunity to learn about other cultures and help us all be one big happy family, less tentative, keep the lines of communication open and the love flowing and growing.


About Edie Mueller

Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.