This story stuck in my craw today, detailing a new effort by a nonprofit to combat behavior that they believe contributes to the "Ugly American" reputation.
Alarmed by the relentless rise of anti-Americanism around the world, a business-backed group is trying to change the behavior that spawned an enduring stereotype of Americans abroad — loud, arrogant, ill-dressed, ill-mannered and lacking respect for other cultures.
For many years, much of the rest of the world distinguished between the United States and the American people. Americans tended to get better ratings than their country and its policies. But recent surveys show that favorable perceptions of Americans have been shrinking while views on the world's only superpower grow increasingly hostile.
Enter Business for Diplomatic Action Inc. (BDA), a non-profit organization founded by advertising executive Keith Reinhard after a worldwide survey of attitudes toward Americans convinced him that "our collective personality is one of the root causes of anti-Americanism."
"We are seen as loud, arrogant and completely self-absorbed," said Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the advertising agency DDB Worldwide. "People see in us the ultimate arrogance — assuming that everybody wants to be like us."
This month, San Francisco-based BDA — whose board includes executives from Exxon and McDonald's — began distributing a "World Citizen's Guide" to corporate travelers. Its 16 points are a mirror image of the behavioral patterns that earned Americans a boorish reputation in the first place.
I’ve now been overseas for about fourteen months and change; in that time I’ve visited Turkey, Great Britain, Hungary, Austria, Israel, Germany, Spain and Jordan. (More to come.) Here’s a bit of what I’ve seen regarding Ugly Americans and Ugly Other Folk:
For starters, in my neck of the woods, just about every member of the U.S. embassy and every American expat that I know speaks a little Turkish. “Ve Az Turkje Bilyorum.” (“And I know a little Turkish.”) I don’t say this to pat myself on the back (my Turkish beyond basic greetings, ordering at restaurants, and giving directions is pretty terrible; I’ve found my skill at charades growing exponentially) but simply to offer the contrast I’ve heard from my Turkish friends – that other diplomats in town, particularly European ones, often know much less of the native language or none at all. More than a few have given the impression to Turks that they find learning any of the language beneath them. Which is a shame, because the Turks know that their language is not a common one, and they seem to appreciate any effort to try to speak it, no matter how much you mangle it. Or, they’re just being nice to me. (Insert joke about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” here.)
- When I leave the country, I’m often flying through Austria or Germany, and my flights are usually full of (surprise!) Turks. Some of the Turks on the flights are very urban and cosmopolitan, but many others appear to be rural folks, unfamiliar with the ins and outs and procedures of flying internationally. Obviously this is anecdotal, but from what I’ve seen, the customs, border and security folk in Vienna, Munich and Frankfurt make the crankiest TSA guards look like Little Mary Sunshine. Oh, they’re nice to me, but many of these airport employees end up yelling at these poor confused Turks in a language they don’t understand. (Now we know what happened to all those old warm and gracious East German Border Guards.)
- I’m perusing the list of recommendations from that article. “A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.” Well, yes, but it’s not like the salesmen at the Istanbul bazaar are known for their soft-spoken leisurely drawl.
“Dress up. You can always dress down. In some countries, casual dress is a sign of disrespect.” Okay, fair enough, I have seen enough Americans in too-short shorts, t-shirts, sneakers, etc. and standing out a bit. Having said that, I would semi-seriously suggest that you can always spot the Italians in a tour group from the way they’re dressed; and you can always tell that the Russians are the ones who are trying to look like Italians, and it’s just not working for them.
I’m sure there are ugly Americans out there, alienating foreign citizens and creating a bad impressions. But let’s not overhype this. (I note the article points out that “When word of the new guide first filtered onto Internet discussion groups, some participants were quick to point out that American travelers have no monopoly on boorish behavior.”) I can’t help but wonder if U.S. travelers complaining about those embarrassing Ugly Americans is a habit of an equally unappealing figure: the Ugly American Travel Snob.