Creative Destruction

May 21, 2006

The Ugly American

Filed under: Navel Gazing,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 11:19 am

The Sydney Morning Herald has a brief on-line article about a new guide being prepared by the State Dept. in cooperation with U.S. industry (whatever that means) to try to improve the image of Americans abroad. It seems we’re not much liked (duh!) when we find ourselves within foreign cultures and act the same abrasive ways we act among ourselves in the U.S. The syndrome has been called The Ugly American for years already, although it was apparent intended more charitably in the novel of the same name.

I find it ironic that people need to be told things, by the government no less, that should be common sense on just about any grade school playground. Yet in my travels, I’ve witnessed many of the things addressed by the admonitions the Herald lists. Here are a few with my comments.

Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller.

I’ve always thought it best to keep a small footprint and go relatively unnoticed when outside of my comfort zones. My alertness level also goes up.

Listen at least as much as you talk.

I’m probably as vain and love the sound of my own voice as the next person. But I learned in college that listening was a much more powerful behavior than talking, and not just because I learned more. People respond better if given room in conversation to express themselves.

Save the lectures for your kids.

Way too often I’ve overheard Americans begin a conversation with “The problem with your country is ….” The implication is that we Americans got it right and everyone else should be like us. How insulting.

Think a little locally.

What’s the point of travelling if you don’t experience any local culture? I’ve known Americans who go abroad and eat exclusively at American fast food franchises (generally not hard to find) and speak only in English within their own group or family. How boring.

Speak lower and slower.

This is probably the hallmark of the American traveller (other than garb). We’re loud sons of bitches, especially the Texas variety. In our dominant culture we’re exhorted to live large. Many others find that sort of behavior excessively rude.

If you talk politics, talk — don’t argue.

Conversational styles differ among people, to be sure. Although we don’t normally think of it this way, generosity ought to be the underlying sentiment. Argument works in some context, but even there, it’s worthwhile to yield ground generously.



  1. I think the last one is next to impossible at the moment. We can barely get through a press conference without it devolving into bickering. Perhaps this is a product of our self-obsessed society. We are far more concerned about our own opinions than we are anyone else’s. Taking the time to listen to and process another person’s opinion would mean waiting to present our own. It is almost viewed as if we are giving up precious ground on a battlefield.

    In my second to last semester in college, I actually got scolded for stating that I would prefer to listen to a person’s opinions and then make my decision after I weighed those opinions against others. The instructor considered it insulting to not adopt the opinions presented without question. Of course, since this was a liberal arts college anything viewed remotely conservative was inherently the “wrong” opinion and anything liberal was inherently “right.”

    Comment by toysoldier — May 21, 2006 @ 11:46 am | Reply

  2. Way too often I’ve overheard Americans begin a conversation with “The problem with your country is ….”

    Unbelievable. I’ve seen some tacky behavior, but not to that level – mostly I’ve been embarrassed by overhearing the “I can say whatever I want, because no one who lives here speaks English” sort of thing. Which is a rather risky assumption in a hotel and resort town that clearly caters to Americans…

    Comment by shiloh — May 21, 2006 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  3. Er, not to put too fine a point on it, but couldn’t this entry be seen as sticking it to a strawman? A highly stereotyped, faceless one at that?

    Comment by Adam Gurri — May 21, 2006 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  4. Adam, I surmise you’re saying that I’m merely setting up dominos to turn around and knock them down. I guess you could look at it that way, but I don’t. Besides, the original idea doesn’t come from me; I’m only commenting on it.

    I’ve travelled abroad a fair amount, and it’s usually quite easy to pick Americans out of a crowd. They/we behave in stereotypical and obvious ways. The sterotype is borne out of experience — enough so that the U.S. government is now publishing a guide for travellers in an attempt to improve our public image. If the cliche is faceless, it’s only because it’s also so widespread that it needn’t be pinned to anyone in particular.

    Comment by Brutus — May 21, 2006 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  5. Why limit such behavioral adaptations to when we Americans travel abroad? I do these things every single day.

    Of course, I live in a mildly tough neighborhood within blocks of a street that even Playboy Magazine called one of the worst streets in America. (It isn’t quite that bad anymore.) So acting somewhat harmless while maintaining the “I am not a target.” attitude is almost mandatory.

    Comment by Off Colfax — May 21, 2006 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  6. All tourists are the same, I suppose. The exactly same advice and loathing for own culture (this is perhaps too strong a word, but I mean the kind of we [x] often [negative thing] -formula) exists for Finns who go abroad (perhaps it’s the alcohol that many Finns [along with Germans] are prodigious users of when they go abroad]).

    But perhaps Americans are often like this — but I’d say as long as this comes with a live and let live attitude (the American may be loud and brash, but accepts that others are not) it’s not entirely negative. The talkativeness, energy and outgoingness of Americans I have met is somewhat endearing and almost infectious. As for Finns, this is quite funny because it is true.

    A quote from it:

    2. When a stranger on the street smiles at you:
    a. you assume he is drunk
    b. he is insane
    c. he’s an American

    Comment by Tuomas — May 21, 2006 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  7. I agree that many countries have national characteristics that are quite noticeable. I heard a funny anecdote that Eurodisney is especially well attended by Bavarians, who have a reputation (deserved or not) of being lower class working Germans. To the French perception is that Eurodisney is heavily populated by “fat Germans in shorts.”

    Comment by Brutus — May 22, 2006 @ 10:37 am | Reply

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