People love to say “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but everyone does it anyway. We judge people by their looks, friends by their music tastes, and bands by how many commercials (or lack thereof) they’ve been featured in. It’s human nature. This tendency is magnified when travelling, as we encounter things that we know nothing about. If everyone in your life is American, and then you suddenly meet a German, you’re going to extrapolate the poor guy onto every German in the world, because he’s the only reference point you have.
You’re just one person. You’re never going to know every person in Germany, but judging all 80 million of them off of Johan from summer exchange is like judging all the M&Ms in a 2lb bag by the one green one you pulled out, or by judging 300 million Americans off of Snookie. You’re being a little unfair.
This tendency to extrapolate can come in handy, though. At the very least, it gives you conversation starters once you meet more people from the country.
For instance, a Swiss friend told me years ago about an esoteric Swiss ’90s music artist called DJ BOBO. On a recent trip through Switzerland, I asked every Swiss who would listen if they liked the guy, and it turns out he’s almost a national treasure there. “So you must love DJ BOBO, huh?” is a far better opening line than, “So how does it feel being neutral all the time, huh?” Even if they have never heard of whatever obsession the last foreign national you ran into had, you still have a point of reference.
That said, treat them as an actual person. Use your sporadic knowledge of foreigners past as a starting line with foreigners present, not the finish line. Once you’ve found out which cliche national jokes resonate with him/her, you both have solid conversation options for now, and more ammunition for the next one to come along.
The plot thickens once you start extrapolating locations as well, and judge entire countries based off of the one city you have been to. Great, you went to Paris, but that doesn’t mean you know anything about people from Nantes. Nobody’s blaming you — if the only French city you have been to is Paris, it makes a lot more sense to extrapolate that experience towards Nantes instead of, say, that time you went to Madrid, but you’re still off by about 385 kilometers. Paris is probably the best example of this — every Frenchman I have ever encountered agrees that “Paris is not French” in terms of hospitality and demeanor.
Likewise, Munich is not Berlin. Milan is not Florence. St. Petersburg is not Moscow, Edinburgh is not London, and Barcelona is not Madrid. (Those last two, vehemently so). And these are just the big cities. There’s no amount of days or cities after which you automatically “know” the country, but before you check the whole shebang off your list, try getting out in the countryside. You will get a much better sense of real Irish life out in Cork or Limerick than you will in the carefully manicured pubs in Dublin. The smaller the better. Chances are you don’t live in the downtown area of whatever city you’re from, and you consider yourself a shining example of your country, don’t you? Get out there and meet your foreign counterpart!
The last judgment pitfall to watch out for is the trap of the exotic pretty foreigner. What’s that, the girls/guys are so much prettier in [insert country name here] than where you come from? Cry me a river. You’re used to seeing the eye candy in your neighborhood every day, so it’s stopped being so exciting. Unless you have a penchant for blonds, or darker skin, or crooked teeth, the eye candy elsewhere isn’t intrinsically more attractive. Just like at home, they too come from a long line of ancestors who successfully convinced members of the opposite sex to sleep with them. Thing is, they’re being selected from a drastically different gene pool, and so they are different from anything you’ve seen before. Ask a local. I’ll bet they are just as smitten with your country’s offerings as you are with theirs.
Except for the accent. The playing field sure isn’t level when it comes to pillow talk — try as we might, it’s tough for a born and raised local to mangle syllables quite as seductively as, say, a Brazilian. Yet even that attraction relates back to the simple fact that it’s something different than what you are used to. The grass is always greener on the other side. You’re judging the old by the new, and usually novelty wins that battle.
Don’t get me wrong — please continue ogling the gorgeous specimens walking down that street whose name you can’t pronounce. Just remember to take that grain of salt when you get back to the streets whose names you know by heart.