Tag Archives: ugly American

The Beautiful American

For the first 20 years of my life I loved complaining about ugly Americans.  You know what I am talking about:  Arrogant.  Ignorant of the rest of the world.  Loud.  Barely unilingual.  Chasing a purely materialistic version of the American Dream.  The kind that believes that the answer to every diplomatic crisis is a healthy bombing.

Useless Critique

As much as I could list the faults of ugly Americans, I realized after moving to the United States, that as much as these tired talking points about ugly Americans may have been on point, harping on about them was helping nothing.

Qualities of the Beautiful American

So I started thinking about the future of the United States.  What would constitute a “beautiful American?”  Weren’t there already American models of: savvy, global do-gooding?  Could this behavior become sought after as the new American Dream?

I recently re-wrote, the About section (do check it out, it’s WAY more concise) of CultureMutt and I define the blog’s “savvy, global do-gooding” as boiling down to:

“… these three guiding principles:

1) You are happiest when you are helping others.

2) The best kind of adventure is found in international do-gooding.

3) To be of service internationally you have to first understand people and cultures.”

Just as it is true that the ugly American is truly horrendous, the beautiful American, as defined by a willingness to help others through international, culturally-appropriate service, is genuinely impressive and has always been around.

I recently heard a definition of art as being “that which chases away ugliness”.  Let’s dedicate ourselves to chasing away the ugliness in American society.  It’s time to build on what is beautiful.  Let’s welcome in the era of the Beautiful American.



Bjorn Karlman

Why People Lecture Americans

The world loves to lecture Americans.  It can come as a bit of a shock to US citizens the first time they travel.  After months of planning and excitement in the lead up to a big international trip, the giddy American is just getting used to the routine in the new country.  Then he or she mentions being from the US and someone has a question about the “crazy politicians” or why so many Americans are fat or why Americans always stick their nose in everyone’s business.  As much as you may try to diffuse the confrontation that ensues, things can easily get ugly.

The abuse can be worst from people from small countries.  I’ll admit to having been one of these nitpickers, especially when I still lived in Europe.  Unsuspecting Americans would come over to Europe and I would take my frustrations with parts of American foreign policy and culture out on them.

It works in _________ country so it should work in America

One thing I would frequently do was to insist that something that worked well in a small country like Sweden, would work well in the US.  Welfare policies that worked in Sweden and allowed for very generous policies on education, health care, vacation time, etc made perfect sense to me.  So what if you had to pay more taxes for it?   It was a better system, more enlightened and more compassionate.  Or so I felt.  Strongly.  And I would argue with Americans about what I saw as a heartless, greedy system where the rich got richer and the poor, weak or otherwise disadvantaged were largely ignored.  Sometimes Americans would listen.  Other times they would get upset and we would launch into huge critiques of each others’ countries.

Americans don’t seem to expect it

This is definitely not true for all the Americans I have met.  But for many it is:  the abuse they take abroad is not expected.  As much as most Americans have some knowledge of the anti-American sentiment out there, a lot do not quite understand the extent of it.  The anger directed towards America in large parts of the world is palpable and it only gets worse when Americans get defensive or act shocked at the abuse.  It’s a vicious cycle: people shout abuse – American tourist/traveler/expat is caught off guard/upset – people shout more abuse.


As much as we all deny it, everyone loves to stereotype.  It prevents excessive thinking and fits so well into the modes of thinking that we have been able to construct for ourselves.  Americans have been pegged as loud, ignorant about the rest of the world, spoiled and, nowadays, increasingly as citizens of a fading superpower.  This is a hard stereotype to shake and unfortunately, there are enough brash American tourists out there with entitlement complexes to keep this image alive and ruin things for everyone else.


This is not one that most people admit to but, as a non-American, I definitely feel that much of the lecturing and abuse aimed at traveling Americans comes as a result of international jealousy.  Yes, it is true that America is not quite the same gleaming promised land of past decades.  The recession and serious foreign policy blunders have hurt the US image but America is still the big kid on the block – the richest and the most powerful nation on earth.  That is enough for some to want to make life difficult for Americans.

What to do?

So what do we do about all of this?   If you are an American, how do you brace yourself against the onslaught of haters.  I am not even American and I have had to take abuse for sounding like one.  I have found that overcompensating with false humility or forced praise of other countries comes across as trite.  Too many oversensitive tourists have tried this in the past.  Defending yourself doesn’t really work either.  The critics are not going to miraculously change their minds because of your sensible talking points.  Generally the only thing I have seen work is developing personal friendships with the critics and challenging their viewpoints from an experiential angle rather than a philosophical one.  If they like you, at worst they may simple label you “the one good American.”  Be happy with yourself even if you only get this far.  You may even get lucky and introduce the idea that Americans are a very diverse bunch that don’t fit into any boxes.




Bjorn Karlman

Don’t Fake Accents and three other rules for keeping it real when abroad

back in my Europe-dwelling days on a three-day Paris trip

When I was in my teens I lived about an hour by train west of London.  My dad taught at a college that drew a lot of American college students, eager to “do Europe” for a year.   One of the most frustrating thing about some of these students was the accent that they would try to fake.  Nothing made the English roll their eyes more than the latest American attempt at copying their accent.  It was genuinely painful to listen to.

The irony of course, was that in this desperate attempt at generating street cred, the offending 19 year-old American was accomplishing just the opposite.  The locals would at best put up with or overlook the posturing.  When it got bad enough, the aspiring Hugh Grant actually took a social beating.

Sure, socially punishing those that fake their accent may have been a little harsh of the English.  But the root of the problem was deeper than just a question of accents – it had to do with the accent impostor’s lack of self-confidence.  More than anything, self-confidence and a belief in what you can bring to the table is important when you are abroad.  You’ve got to keep it real.

Be your “confident self” – you will be rewarded

If you present yourself confidently, as though you have “nothing to hide”, your unique qualities and foreign ways will come across as refreshing and interesting.  It pays to be different.  This is very different from being cocky.  Cockiness masks insecurity badly and most people can see right through it, especially when you are being cocky on their turf.  But a warm confidence speaks volumes.

Learn from but do not copy

A willingness to learn lies at the heart of any successful relocation experience.  Rather than coming with an expectation that you will teach others how things should be done, arriving in another country with a blank slate and a willingness to learn is so helpful to you and so appreciated by locals.  This does not mean that you copy locals as in the above example of inauthentic accent imitation.   Instead, this is all about learning from the good and letting it organically enrich your life and experience.  Have you relocated to a country that spends two hours on lunch every day?  Learn to appreciate this natural emphasis on life balance, natural rhythm and nurtured relationships and apply it to your life.  Are there tweaks that you can make so that your family and friends feel more appreciated and cared for when they are in your presence?

Be the “reasonable foreigner”

The opposite of the “ugly American” or Swede for that matter, is the “reasonable one”.  I am always impressed by those that arrive in a new country and context with a clear determination to build bridges.  There is so much that you could potentially disagree with and start judging when you travel.  RESIST THE TEMPTATION.  Instead, seek out the areas of common ground that you can build upon.  There is always a lot of good that can be celebrated about your host nation’s culture and ways.  Be the foreigner that seeks these good things out.  Make sure your hosts know that you appreciate them and their unique cultural qualities.  If you start by emphasizing common ground a near-magical thing happens – the locals around you start to think “she gets it” or “he’s adjusting so well” and they will be much more likely to want to invest time and effort in getting to know you and making you feel comfortable.

Travel and relocation can be some of the best adventures of life if you approach them with a gentle confidence.  Be real.  Be yourself.  This builds trust and goodwill – the currency of international success.



Bjorn Karlman