April 21, 2006

The "Ugly American"

I had seen this article in a few spots on the 'Net this morning, but for no special I am linking to the Reason posting:

The reputation of the "Ugly American" abroad is not ... just some cruel stereotype, but - according to the American government itself - worryingly accurate. Now, the State Department in Washington has joined forces with American industry to plan an image make-over by issuing guides for Americans travelling overseas on how to behave.

I've traveled quite a bit in my time and have indeed encountered "Ugly Americans." Perhaps the most glaring example was in Costa Rica in 1989 while my then-fianceé Grettel and I were waiting for her visa to be approved. Gret was at work, and I was waiting in line at the nearby popular ice cream joint "Pops." In front of me was an older American couple, obviously on some type of tour. When the woman got to the order window, she virtually yelled her request: "CAN I HAVE A CHOCOLATE CONE??" The poor girl behind the counter smiled and uttered "Lo siento ... no entiendo" -- "I'm sorry ... I don't understand." The idiot woman turns back to her husband and remarkably says (huffily) "She doesn't even speak my language!"

That's where I had to jump in: "Uh, did it occur to you that that's because you're in THEIR country, ma'am?"

The woman and her hubby gave me some nasty glances but then proceeded to muddle through with getting their order completed. Thankfully, the counter girl managed to find a fellow employee who knew enough English to understand the moron couple's desires.

But, overall, to be honest, I've found European tourists to be ruder than Americans. Costa Rica is a haven for Europeans (Americans were not that common a site -- at least not as much as they are now -- in CR in the 80s due to the Nicaraguan Contra war in the north and Manuel Noriega running Panama in the south) and besides Euro males' penchant for wearing Speedos (ARGH!) I've found them to be decidedly gruffer than Americans at various resorts and downtown San José (CR's capital).

Canadians seem to be quite polite, on the other hand. Despite one I met (he dated a friend of my then-fianceé) who was a complete a-hole -- he'd openly belittle Costa Ricans as poor and stupid -- the others I encountered were great people. Gret and I once were in a beachfront room next to two dudes (no, they weren't gay, not that there's anything wrong with that!) from Quebec, and they were extremely friendly. They invited us for drinks and food constantly and always wanted to chat. We've met other [Anglo] Canadians who were [also] genuinely great people. One of Gret's childhood friends married a guy from British Columbia, and he's awesome.

It's been a while since I was in Europe, but here's what I remember: The Dutch are some of the nicest folks on the planet! I do not recall encountering a Holland native, either here or in The Netherlands, whom I didn't like. Contrariwise, I found Germans to be rather cold, and Belgians somewhere in between the Germans and Dutch. (One thing I'll always remember about older Belgians -- they absolutely love Big Band music. When the band I played with back in the day began our Glenn Miller medley, the Belgian senior citizen set at the North Sea resort we were at went absolutely bonkers with glee!)

Posted by Hube at April 21, 2006 10:24 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Canadians are indeed great. Judging by the ones I know, they seem to have a distinct laid-back attitude and wry sense of humor that is very fun.

It's been a while since I was in Europe, but here's what I remember: The Dutch are some of the nicest folks on the planet!

Dude, they're high all the time. What did you expect? :)

Posted by: dan at April 21, 2006 12:00 PM

Most of my exposure in China has been to Australians, who are also quite nice.

Talking to other foreigners confirms the stereotype of the Ugly American, which was reinforced by a guy (working for another business) who was here before me. I think that my co-workers and I have reversed that image a little.

Posted by: The Unabrewer at April 21, 2006 11:57 PM

It is a shame we have to remind people to take an interest in others and to "listen as much as they talk." First, one would think they were taught this a long time ago. Second, isn't the whole point of visiting another country to learn about other cultures? You really can't do that if you aren't interested and never shut up. As much as I would like to believe telling Americans this would change their ways, I doubt it will work.

Posted by: Mark at April 22, 2006 12:28 PM

The only time I experienced a rude person in France - Paris, no less - was when I asked the person in front of me at the airport (in French) if he could move up a bit in line. He was leaving an enormous 10-foot gap in the line, and anyone who has been to France will tell you that the French don't queue. That gap would have been neatly filled by anyone else, so the guy needed to move up.

He was very huffy with me as he moved his cart, and in perfectly accented American English asked me "Is that better?"

In my own perfectly accented American English, I replied "Yeah, thanks a lot."

Jackass. He had the nerve to try to apologize to me after that.

I think in most countries, if you make the effort to speak the language, natives cut you a lot more slack. If you don't bother to learn some of the language before you go - and I'm not saying "be fluent" here - then you deserve just a bit of what you get.

I don't know about the guidebook. I think some people would read it, but the vast majority would resent being told to "behave" when they're abroad.

Posted by: Bronwen at April 22, 2006 08:24 PM

All of the Canadians I met in Mexico were a-holes. Polite to me, they belittled Mexicans as poor, stupid and backward as if it is some kind of birthright.

Posted by: jason at April 22, 2006 10:18 PM

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