Fighting the Stereotypes

Fighting the Stereotypes

By Katie Ford

I’m traveling between the UK and France today, and as such, I have spent a lot of time sitting on buses and in the airport.  On my journey between Cardiff and Gatwick Airport, I overheard a Welsh man speaking about an “ugly” experience he’d had with several Americans.  The story was one I’ve heard many times before, and went something like this:

“They started asking me where I was from.  First they suggested Australia, and I said, ‘No, I’m from Wales’, and they replied, ‘Oh, so England?’”

The story was a bit longer, but it generally demonstrated two things to me.  First, this man was genuinely upset that the Americans he’d met didn’t even realize that his home country was its own country.  Second, the “ugly American” stereotype is alive and well, folks!

The “ugly American” is one which truly exceeds definition; he or she is an individual who demonstrates total ignorance about the world around him or her, and is one who doesn’t seem to be interested in actually learning about it.  Usually this person is rather loud and obnoxious, and expects people outside of the United States to cater to them and their cultural needs.  For example, an ugly American in France will walk into a café and automatically start speaking English to the staff, and won’t bother determining whether anyone there actually speaks English.  He or she might actually be upset if they don’t speak English… I mean, how dare they NOT speak MY language, right?

I am well aware that not all Americans are like this.  In fact, I would argue that most are not like this.  The problem, however, is that there are enough people like this for many in other countries to label Americans by these stereotypes.  There are some super easy ways to combat these stereotypes; remember, when you’re abroad you’re not only representing yourself, your representing everything that you’re affiliated with (including that handy USA passport).

  1. Make an effort to learn something about the current events and culture of the countries you’ll be visiting.  You never know when current event knowledge might come in handy, even if that just means having an interesting conversation with someone in a bar.  Learning some key facts about the culture will make your travels INFINITELY easier- you’ll know the proper way to dispense payment at a store or restaurant, the tipping etiquette, the appropriate noise level in a given establishment, and maybe even a couple key words/phrases in the local language.  All of the gestures go a very long way.
  2. Try to blend in!  The easiest way to do this is to avoid wearing clothing with words in English or recognizable American brands.  American Eagle hoodies are a pretty dead giveaway, as are university t-shirts and fraternity/sorority apparel.  Leave those things at home, you don’t want someone judging you by the t-shirt you chose to wear that day.
  3. Make an effort to meet people that aren’t American when you’re traveling.  The easiest way to ensure you’re not immersing yourself into the local culture is spending every waking moment you’re away from the States with other Americans.  You can do that at home, go make some new (foreign) friends- you might even learn something new!
  4. If you do come across a situation in which you’re a bit ignorant (it’s okay, you can’t know everything about everything!) like the Welshman situation above, apologize for not realizing your error, and ask for more information!  In that kind of situation, the person will likely be interested in explaining to you the difference between England and Wales, and it’ll be a great opportunity for you to learn something new and meet someone new.

Traveling is one of the best opportunities we, as Americans, have to change our stereotypes abroad.  Be an ambassador for all of the good aspects of American culture, and try to leave the bad ones behind 😉

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