Breaking The Ignorant American Stereotype

Image Credit: Pixabay, JESHOOTS

Image Credit: Pixabay, JESHOOTS

Has anyone’s first impression totally ruined something for you?

Sure, it’s not exactly fair to base your opinions off of one brief experience, but we do it.  It is so easy for us, in an age of constant motion and shortcuts, to connect the dots and associate one thing with another.

The fact of the matter is this: you are representing a whole lot more than yourself when you do just about anything. Whether it’s the city you’re from, the company you work for, the university you attend, or even the shoes you’re wearing, your actions reflect the identity of those groups. Gives you a lot of power, huh? But put on a larger scale, this kind of responsibility can be quite daunting; especially when there are millions of other people vying for attention and your audience already has a preconceived idea of how you operate.

Being an American in America is wonderful. Step outside the U.S., and the rest of the world can have very different opinions about who Americans are. The problem arises when it’s our turn to be the American abroad and it becomes our responsibility to show the world that Americans are not as ignorant as they might think.

How to break the “Ignorant American” stereotype:

1) Small talk

I don’t know about you, but it totally makes my day when a stranger wishes me good morning; the kindness even takes me aback for the most part. In some foreign countries, this kind of gesture is commonplace and almost expected. Small greetings and expressions of gratitude are really a simple thing, but they have a large impact on the tone of a conversation.

Using these kinds of phrases is worthwhile especially if they are in an unfamiliar language. This kind of effort doesn’t go unnoticed and even if you butcher the pronunciation, it is understood for the most part. People will understand, and appreciate that you took the time to learn about something unfamiliar in order to come across as friendly? It is a two-fold sign of respect if you can learn to say things like “please” and “thank you” in the language of the country you’re visiting.

2) Quit it with the camera

Do you want to know something totally weird? (At least for me.) Recently, I took a trip to London, and one of the first places I went was the Victoria and Albert Museum. Anyway, I was appalled to see people of all kinds walking around with their phones out snapping pictures, in a museum! I thought for sure a security guard or someone would come and handle it but no one did. Turns out, they welcome picture taking. I couldn’t believe it! I had to go up and double check with a member of the museum staff before I even dared.

The quintessential tourist piece is, of course, a camera, and there’s really no shame in that. Pictures are often some of the more valuable mementos brought back from abroad experiences. Cameras really only become a problem when their users are more engrossed in getting a pic than in respecting where they are standing. War memorials, cathedrals, museums, or even random places with a no camera sign, need to be respected. Often, it’s rewarding enough to marvel at their majesty without peering through a lens. Remember to put the camera down every once in a while and take in the sites.

3) Silence is golden

Along with turning off your flash comes turning down your volume. As much fun as talking and laughing can be, in many cultures, people go about their daily lives in a relatively quiet manner. Sitting at a café, taking the Tube, and even conversing are all done in hushed tones. There are times and places for loud banter and jovial conversation, but take a hint from the people around you and bring it down a notch or two if they are trying to enjoy some peace and quiet.

4) The eyes are the windows to the soul

I was actually sitting in a study abroad orientation lecture when one of the advisors told us a story about her experience in Central America. She was walking down the street in a large city and was smiling at everyone she saw. She was caught totally off guard when a strange man started following her. He didn’t have malicious intent, but her plain eye contact and happy smile were seen as flirtatious and even sensual.

Before you go abroad, it is important to understand the habits and expectations of the locals. Is eye contact brazen or expected? Is personal space normally invaded or fiercely guarded? Is physical touching allowed in public? Is it normal to keep to yourself or greet others with a smile? Do your research before you head elsewhere to avoid any miscommunication or even insult. People do things differently in different parts of the world.

5) Money, money, money

Chances are, you’re going to be dealing with local currency in whatever country you find yourself in. Food, clothes, tours, gifts, it all costs money. What’s important is that you know how to use your money when it’s time to pay up. Find out how to tip your waiter or even your bartender. Know if it’s normal to haggle with street vendors. And please, look up the exchange rate before you spend way more money than you intended. The fun thing is, a lot of foreign currency is actually very fun to handle; it can be colorful, heavy, and of various sizes and values. It’s just best to know how to use your resources before someone takes advantage of you.

6) Pride and prejudice

I love me a good “U.S.A.” chant. In fact, I’m proud to be an American. We are by no means a perfect nation, but there are some things we have gotten right. Being patriotic is not a bad thing and in fact, many people all over the world have a same fierce pride in their homeland. But when you choose to leave your country to experience another, it is important to respect the pride the locals have in their own country. It is actually fun to participate in that pride and immerse yourself in another culture.

A few years ago, I found myself cheering for Germany in the 2012 Euro Cup. I bought red, yellow, and black facepaint and went to public viewings of the soccer matches in various cities. It was incredible to be surrounded by so much national pride that was uniquely German. It didn’t matter that I was American because I joined in and wanted to see their team do well.

Take pride in being American but don’t get too wrapped up in the red, white, and blue. Take time to experience some different colors, because who knows, you may like it!

At the heart of it all:

RESPECT. Understand that you are a guest when you travel abroad. Traveling is a privilege and being welcomed into a foreign country, even more so. Show them that you value their trust by meeting them halfway: do your research beforehand and know what you’re getting yourself into. Learn some of the language; know how to behave; try something new. And in the end, it all comes down to respect. Have respect for the people you are visiting and respect your home country enough to put your best foot forward.