Sunday, October 28, 2007

God Bless America

Ok, so we all know it. No matter who we are as individuals, as Americans, we're viewed as the a*sholes of the world.

Yes, foreign friends, we are aware.

But, I promise--we are not all loud. We're not all rude. We're not all obnoxious. And, we're not even all rich! Truth be told, contrary to what many other cultures believe, we are not even all supporters of our fearless leader (no, I am not making a political statement--just dispelling a myth). And, shockingly, many of us do have an interest in cultures other than our own.

But, honestly, I suspect that many-an-American has earned us our fantastic reputation. In reality, it came from somewhere and I am pretty sure the entire rest of the world didn't make it up like a high school rumor.

In an effort to help my fellow American's disband our reputation (good luck to us!), I've found a great new series being featured by MSN travel that fills us in on how, exactly, we're viewed in various countries. The first step is awareness, right?

Regardless of whether or not you think you fit the stereotype of a “typical American tourist”, it really is a fascinating read. I’ll be featuring more from this series on the blog. (It came just in time—I’m in the last 3 weeks of my wedding, so I don’t have a ton of time to blog, but I definitely don’t want to leave you hanging.)

Without further ado, I present to you, the British view of Americans.

P.S. If we have any non-American readers out there, I'd love to hear your take!


How American Travelers Are Viewed Abroad: The U.K.

By Diane Vadino

The Photo Featured With the Article. ;)

Which affects British perceptions more: Stereotypes of the “ugly American” or our country’s foreign policy? Or is something else at play? First in a series.

Despite the title of the smash TV hit, it may surprise you to learn that American Idol had its genesis in the U.K. But when it comes to cultures crossing boundaries, it’s America that rules the waves. So when you journey overseas, you’re bound to confront strong opinions about the U.S.—our culture, our people and our government. Like it or not, an American abroad is a living symbol of his homeland, and is occasionally held to account for it, from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the base of Ayers Rock. In this series, we’ll explore perspectives about Americans from a variety of countries around the world.

To start, here’s a classic view of the U.S. traveler in Britain: “When I think of American tourists, I think of people in front of the British Museum, yelling across large spaces to each other about how to use their digital cameras,” says Ian Hamilton, a university student in Glasgow. “Or complaining loudly in McDonald’s about how the chips taste in London versus how they taste in America.”

Fortunately, that unflattering view appears to be in the minority, at least among the British people I spoke with. When giving their opinions of American tourists, most were positive—as long as we were talking about an American, in the singular. “When abroad as individuals or couples, Americans are sociable, friendly and generous, but something seems to happen when Americans are abroad in groups,” says Geoff Smith, a British tech worker. “A group of Yanks is loud, raucous, insular and appears to have no interest in the local culture.”

Indeed, solitary travelers conjured up an entirely different reaction than a group of Americans, who were perceived as camera-wielding, Bush-supporting boors. “Universally idiotic; large Hawaiian shirts; large cameras; stupid questions,” says Ian Clifford, a software developer from Nottingham, ticking off the stereotypical qualities of a group of average American tourists. And, says Clifford, these are the more cultured members of U.S. society: “Only 10 percent of Americans have passports. What on earth have you left behind?”

Clifford’s deflated figure isn’t exactly right. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 25 percent of American citizens have been issued passports, and that number has likely risen since new regulations require more U.S. travelers to carry them. But Clifford’s impression—and the unmistakable antipathy it suggests—haven’t developed in a vacuum. What’s made all the difference is our involvement in Iraq, the predominant political issue of the past four years.

In fact, a new MSN-Zogby poll shows that the vast majority of Americans (89 percent) believe that those in other countries view Americans based on their perception of the United States in general, while just 7 percent say that foreigners’ attitudes are based on their experiences with individual travelers. That suggests that at least according to Americans, it’s policy—rather than stereotypes of U.S. travelers—that contributes more to how they’re seen abroad. (The interactive survey of 10,642 adults nationwide was conducted March 5-7, 2007, and carries a margin of error of +/- 1.0 percentage points.)

Bush’s poodle?

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s continued support of White House policy is another factor that affects how American travelers are viewed in the U.K. Popular British endorsement of the war has dropped from roughly two-thirds in 2003 to 29 percent, according to a BBC survey conducted this March. And to many Brits, the much-vaunted “special relationship” between our two countries was brightly illuminated at last summer’s G8 Summit in Russia. In what became a notorious incident, President Bush greeted the leader of the United Kingdom with “Yo, Blair,” displaying a lack of formality—and, some said, respect—that led to Blair’s being pilloried in the British press as Bush’s “poodle.” That sort of disregard between leaders, some said, reflected an assumed American superiority—as well as a general disrespect of other cultures. "It's like the U.S. is the flash kid in school with the money and great clothes and neat stuff who gets 'wanker' muttered behind their back as they walk down the hall," says Smith. "But they either don't hear or don't care, because they have the money and great clothes and neat stuff."

Of course, not everyone in the U.K. believes that U.S. involvement in Iraq reflects arrogance in world affairs. On a recent trip to London, I changed money at a booth on busy Oxford Street. The clerk asked me where I was from, and I asked him the same. "Iraq," he said. "I'm sorry," I replied, not knowing how to respond. What do you say to someone whose country your own has invaded? "Don't worry for me," he said. "I'm a Kurd. My family is better than ever. Saddam is dead. We love George Bush!" And he pointed to a small picture of the U.S. president on his desk.

But even those who admire U.S. foreign policy can be taken aback by America’s ever-spreading commercial culture. Forget about suggesting a coffee break at Starbucks, for example. The British don’t mind chain shops but loudly prefer their homegrown alternatives, such as Caffè Nero and Costa Coffee, even if the number of Starbucks locations overwhelms both. (A 2004 poll by the Guardian newspaper found that more than half of the Britons surveyed believed American culture—coffee shops included—threatened their own.)

Such biases are likely to affect even the quiet American shopping for flowers on Columbia Road, who’ll notice subtle changes in how she’s treated by local merchants. But is there something else contributing to Britons’ impressions of American travelers? Smith gives a clue as he describes his perceptions of U.S. citizens at home and the opinions they express abroad. “All my friends who have traveled through America tell me that on their home ground the Americans are as hospitable as you could ever want,” he says. “But what is it about guns? And alien abductions? And intelligent design?” Don’t think of his questions as proof of irreconcilable differences; instead, consider them talking points for the pub.

Diane Vadino writes about fashion, travel and film from her base in San Francisco. Her debut novel, Smart Girls Like Me, will be published in September.

1 comment:

mamacita chilena said...

That's a really interesting article. I am a USA'ian (I don't like the term American at suggests that we are the only Americans when in reality everybody who lives in South, Central and North America is an American) who has lived in Chile for the past couple years. I've been here since just a few months after the second re-election of W. and I will definitely say I've noticed a difference in the way I've been treated. So I think that whoever suggested that the rest of the world's perception of us is based off of government policies may be right. At the same time, many US citizens are arrogant/ignorant of other cultures, or any such combination of unflattering qualities. And when they travel abroad they just continue to perpetuate stereotypes. I've spent years trying to set myself apart from those kind of travelers, yet it's still not surprising for me to occasionally here people shout obscenities at me in the street, just because they see my blond hair and assume that I'm a Bush support, rich gringa who doesn't have a clue.