The Ugly American

Posted: May 21, 2006 in Manners, Taste

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.

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