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.