So I’m flipping through the channels last night and paused on a program that was discussing a new etiquette book for Americans who travel overseas, a book designed to help Americans be better accepted abroad. Now I know that it’s a heart warming self-conception of ours that we are beloved the world over and that everyone everywhere admires and respects us. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case; for half a century, Americans abroad have been termed “Ugly Americans” and not because of our appearance. We tend to be louder, brasher, more aggressive, less respectful than other cultures, even when by our own cultural standards we are being meek or modest. The stereotypical description of the “Ugly American” is that we are “overbearing to people of different cultures, oblivious to nuance, unsophisticated in politics and arrogant in temperament” (from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46304-2004Jul13.html). As with all stereotypes, there are exceptions, and as with all stereotypes, we tend to think of ourselves as that exception. Indeed, you may be the poster person for the Un-Ugly American, but we didn’t get this reputation based on any one person’s behavior, right? A whole group of folks for a whole lot of decades have contributed to this view of us, and it looks like the government is trying to get us all to cooperate in shifting that view in a more positive direction.
I was in Paris eight years ago, and while everyone was pleasant to me and I never felt anyone was rude, I do realize that I probably walked a lot farther than necessary after asking directions or paid just a little bit more than other tourists or locals, etc. After all, according to the program I saw last night, only 17% of French people surveyed gave Americans a positive evaluation. Granted, this is all post- 9/11 and the freedom fries thing, so France may not be a good example. As much as I love the U. K., I do know that Americans can stand out like a sore thumb over there; we seem arrogant and loud and a bit obnoxious, even when we are just hanging out. Anyone who’s seen the Fawlty Towers episode in which the “American” comes to stay has a pretty good idea of how we come across: demeaning, demanding, and derisive. We can look at a castle that has stood for centuries longer than our country has existed as the U. S. and declare it “cute” or a village as “quaint.” We stomp around proclaiming ourselves “World Champions” in games in which only we participate (the World Series, the Super Bowl), and we have been known to treat cultures and peoples like exhibits at Epcot. We mean to be enthusiastic and complimentary, but . . . well, that’s just not how it comes across. And let’s not even get into what non-European countries think of us. Sigh.
Cultures and countries other than our own tend to be polite, particularly to individual and small group travelers, so maybe this is all news to you. They may resent our “Ugly Americanness” but depending on their profession, they may be dependent on the tourist dollars we spend. This is not peculiar to other countries: I lived in a tourist area here in the States for many years, and we really hated the tourists, but that’s where our bread and butter came from, so . . . it didn’t show. But the State Department is sufficiently dismayed by our global reputation to be considering issuing a copy of the etiquette guide to Americans to be distributed with passports. I don’t think that’s a bad idea. We’ve tended to be isolated in our country, and our strong sense of patriotism and pride in our country does sometimes come across wrong to other cultures; we can seem that we feel that we are superior to others, even if we don’t consciously think this to be the case. We hold our way of life, our culture, and our traditions so dear that we can easily forget that other people around the world feel the same about their own lives, cultures, and traditions.
Here’re the tips that are being publicized for Americans abroad:
• Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller. (In many countries, any form of boasting is considered very rude. Talking about wealth, power or status – corporate or personal – can create resentment.)
• Listen at least as much as you talk. (By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you’re visiting about themselves and their way of life.)
• Save the lectures for your kids. (Whatever your subject of discussion, let it be a discussion not a lecture. Justified or not, the US is seen as imposing its will on the world.)
• Think a little locally. (Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. What we call “soccer” is football everywhere else. And it’s the most popular sport on the planet.)
• Slow down. (We talk fast, eat fast, move fast, live fast. Many cultures do not.)
• Speak lower and slower. (A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.)
• Your religion is your religion and not necessarily theirs. (Religion is usually considered deeply personal, not a subject for public discussions.)
• If you talk politics, talk – don’t argue. (Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking US politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)
Following are some tips for business travelers that might be extremely useful to vacationing Americans, too:
From CareerJournal | Teaching Americans How to Behave Abroad
Now, I’ve never personally had a bad experience overseas, but we have thick skins, we Americans, and we may be silently checked or otherwise judged an “Ugly American” without our even realizing it—that is a part of the definition, after all: being “oblivious to nuance” and being arrogant and not listening as much as we talk; they can’t possibly think anything is wrong with ME, I’m an American, after all. So as our government tries to combat anti-American sentiment abroad, we the citizens who travel abroad are being asked to reign it in, be a bit more open to our host country and its people, and to consider that there may be something worthwhile about that country other than the photo op. We’re to be ambassadors of sorts, and I think it a privilege to rise to the occasion.
For an interesting study of the popularity of the U. S. in terms of country (not tourism, though both are linked, of course): http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?PageID=824
For further tips for the international American traveler: http://www.independenttraveler.com/resources/article.cfm?AID=308&category=13