Ugly American? Not Me!

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"I am not a typical ugly American!"

When I was much younger, I really believed this statement and was eager to prove it. I wanted to distance myself from the stereotype of the loud, brash, pushy American tourist and blend in to the cultures in the countries I was lucky enough to visit. I tried hard to pay attention to my surroundings, watch and listen before speaking, respect the local traditions, try the foods, and make friends with the people.

During my first trip to France, I remember a beautiful sunny day in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. Our quiet lunch was suddenly interrupted by someone speaking English with a strong mid-western-U.S. accent, loudly criticizing French people. When I turned and saw a man in a bright orange sweatshirt from a U.S. university, my negative opinion of him was solidified. I was embarrassed to be seen as an American, especially in the vicinity of such a fine example of an ugly one, and decided to try to blend in and act as French as possible for the rest of the trip.

For the next few years I was full of good intentions and really thought that those, along with my conscious efforts to adapt, would be enough to carry me successfully through many adventures and business situations in foreign countries.

Little did I know then, how little I really knew. Or how very American I really am.

It wasn't until we moved to The Netherlands, to live and work for three years, that I started to catch some hints about the depth of my ignorance, and the many ways in which I was so easily and obviously identifiable as a U.S.-American to my European colleagues and neighbors. Over the years, helpful friends pointed out strange things that we Americans did, like:

  • smiling and saying "hello" to people we passed on the sidewalks
  • working from home occasionally in the evenings, or at the office on weekends, or postponing vacations if an important business meeting came up.
  • putting bike helmets on our kids and even wearing them ourselves just to run errands in the neighborhood
  • asking for "special preparations" or substitutions of menu items in restaurants
  • inviting friends to our homes for dinner, and then asking them to bring a dish to share or a bottle of wine, and then offering them a tour of the entire home, including private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms!
  • and much, much more...

I couldn't argue with their observations. I did all of these things. They came naturally to me, and I had never realized that they might be interpreted as different or strange when viewed through a different cultural lens. I started to think that maybe I was really more of a typical American than I had wanted to admit before.

My illusions were shattered for good when I read an article by L. Robert Kohls, The Values Americans Live By, during my first semester studying for a masters degree in Intercultural Relations. Suddenly many of the beliefs that drove my behavior, and that I thought were somehow uniquely mine, were spelled out in black and white, in a 14-page article, as typical mainstream U.S. American Values.

Being informal. Taking initiative. Loving competition. Treating people as equals. Being seen, and seeing myself, as a unique individual. Being optimistic and action-oriented.  

These all rang true and I could no longer deny it. Compared to people from most other cultures in the world, my values are more aligned than not with mainstream U.S. values.

I don't mind any more being seen as a typical American. This is who I am and these values are the starting point and foundation for everything I do.

But I'll still always try to avoid the ugly part.

*This article was originally published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2011