Cleaning up the ‘ugly American’

The end of winter term is nigh and for college students here at PSU and everywhere in the United States that means one thing: spring break!

Though for many of us that just translates to working longer hours and squeezing a few more measly dollars out of our under-paying jobs, for some of us it will mean travel abroad.

As someone lucky enough to have grown up abroad and privileged enough to have traveled the world a bit, I’ve personally experienced the damage people from the United States can do by living up to pre-established stereotypes that exist in the world.

With the current administration’s foreign policy heavily contested not only within this country but throughout the rest of the world, now is an especially important time to acknowledge and fight against anti-American sentiment, so that we can all someday travel without having to pretend we’re Canadian.

Though many of us are completely oblivious to them, stereotypes of people from the United States abound. Though some are positive – that we’re hardworking, outgoing and generous, for example – many are negative.

The most common stereotype is probably the loud and arrogant American. Like many stereotypes, though definitely not all, there is some truth to this.

When we’re together in groups, and especially if we’ve been drinking, people from the United States do tend to talk loudly to and over one another. While this would be normal in a bar in the States, such behavior stands out in other cultures.

That having been said, do try to remain conscious of your environment and adapt your behavior to those around you.

Do leave your Old Navy American flag gear at home. I understand that you’re proud of your country, but in the face of a stereotype about arrogance, let’s try to be discreet, shall we?

And just in case I’m about to get an outpouring of hate mail for sounding un-American, think about this: One of the public service announcements aired for years on the military television stations overseas warns us to "Think OP-SEC." For those of you not in the know, "OP-SEC" stands for Operations Security.

The announcement warns people from the United States traveling abroad not to wear clothing that will set us apart from those around us. Try to blend in as much as possible and you’ll be less likely to be a target for petty theft or terrorism.

In addition, avoid getting into arguments over politics, avoid getting defensive if you’re asked to explain why Americans are this or that way, and above all do not begin or end sentences, "It’s better in the United States because…" or, "Why don’t you do/have _______ like in the United States?"

Even if you travel to a tourist locale, don’t expect everyone to speak English, and don’t get angry if you’re not understood. Above all, do not raise your voice to try to make yourself understood.

This is common for people from the United States to do, and it is insulting and embarrassing. Someone who doesn’t understand your language isn’t suddenly going to get it because you’re yelling.

On the subject of language, it is of course best to do some study of the language of the country you’re traveling to before the trip. Dictionaries are helpful, but memorizing important phrases like "Where is the bathroom?" can save you a lot of trouble.

Since another stereotype is that we’re ignorant of other countries, it would also be beneficial to study the country you’re visiting, but avoid arguing about what you learned. Instead try to be open to learning the perspectives of the people who live there.

If you’re in a Spanish-speaking country, please do not try to communicate by adding an "o" to the end of English words or saying them with what you think is a Spanish accent to make yourself understood. Though there are many cognates in the Latin-based languages, you’re unlikely to successfully communicate this way and you’ll sound like an ass.

Because another stereotype is that people from the United States are all rich, at least those of us who can travel, don’t get angry at street vendors or merchants aggressively trying to sell you things. Remember, many people survive solely from tourism, and we all have to earn a living somehow.

These are only the basics; the stereotypes abound and range from funny (we’re all cowboys who constantly and annoyingly smack gum) to sad (we all slouch excessively and are obese).

The most important thing to remember is that, like it or not, you are representing your entire country when you travel, so be very careful and polite. Study up on the customs of the place you are visiting and remember that some values and ideals we hold are diametrically opposed to those of other cultures.

Many people will understand that it’s not possible for a foreigner to be familiar with all of the customs and taboos, but small things that show you’re at least thinking about these things can go a long way to earning the respect of others.

So have fun. But try to be conscious.

Michelle K. Howa can be reached at [email protected]