You no doubt have done it before—encountered a single English, Argentinean, or Chinese individual, and made sweeping societal assumptions based on your interaction. Sometimes we don’t even require such firsthand experience to trust common stereotypes that our culture proclaims of others. Then how can we assume that others have not innocently done the same for Americans? Unluckily, this situation can be aggravated when cultures infrequently interact with real Americans, and instead must learn about our country from popular American media. Imagine what might be assumed if one’s only knowledge of American culture is from observing Sex and the City’s glamorous promiscuity, hip hop’s nonchalant obscenity, Paris Hilton’s public extravagance... Yikes. There are many notions of who Americans are—loud, loaded with money, sexually adventurous, rushing through life.
So what does this mean for you? 1. Use your time abroad as an opportunity to dispel stereotypes...
2. But remain acutely conscious of how stereotypes may make you vulnerable to miscommunication.
So much time abroad is spent observing that students sometimes forget they are being observed themselves! Be aware that while you are revising your own preconceptions about a foreign country, you may also be interacting with someone else’s preconceptions that Americans are:
Rude, loud, boastful
Extravagant and wasteful
Disrespectful of authority
Sure they have all the answers
Ignorant of other countries
Always in a hurry
Not all are negative, and in some, you may even recognize traces of reality. You also likely find that many don’t fit you at all. Don’t write off these impressions simply because you feel they do not represent yourself accurately—because someone who just met you may not understand that, even if you feel your individual behavior clearly reveals your true character.
“Learn languages (at least the basics) when you travel. You can't imagine how far knowing how to say "Do you speak English?" in a foreign language will change someone's perspective on Americans.” -ND Student
“I remember doing sprints in a park near where our building was (my softball trainer gave me a week by week conditioning schedule). An Australian man came up and asked me what I was doing and when I answered him, he noticed my accent. Then he immediately asked me where I was from. He had never met anyone from the U.S. and in an effort to make conversation I asked him if he would ever want to go there. Without hesitation he said, ‘no way, they have real guns there.’ As a side note, he was wearing a Chicago Bulls t-shirt and Chicago Bulls shorts.”-ND Student
be opportunistic: act as an ambassador of your culture
You ARE a representative of the United States. In brief encounters, most will only remember you as “an American.” So be conscious that every time you break local customs or get sloppily drunk on the streets of your city—or every time you are polite to the checkout worker at the local supermercado—you no longer reflect just your own character. You reflect the character of the United States. Act wisely, and give your cultural roots their due.
Being proactive can lead to engaging cross-cultural lessons, too. Ask new local friends how they see their hometown, country, and traditions. Share personal experiences of your own culture. The results could be enlightening.
Stereotypes will not constantly impede your life abroad. Most people you meet—whether the café owner pouring your cappuccino, or someone with whom you hold a personal relationship—will appreciate you for the individual you are. Meeting strangers in a new country is much like meeting Americans in the U.S.: many will be respectful, but a few will be ignorant and rude. You know that not every Italian tosses pizza for dinner; they will understand that not every American wears a cowboy hat to work. Just keep in mind impressions that can cause sticky cultural situations...
“Get to know the locals. The temptation will be to hang out with the group of ND students that you're with but the real way to get to know the country/culture is to develop friendships with the locals. You'll find some who may not be interested in talking to you but the overall majority enjoys visitors to their country and is happy to share their customs/culture with you, and in fact appreciate those who take an interest and make an effort to learn about their ways.” -ND Student
be cautious: stereotypes can fuel uncomfortable miscues
Most stereotypes will remain a minor misunderstanding of character or motivation.
But a few can lead to annoying or even dangerous miscues and imperceptibly color your interactions with others. Keep these problematic common assumptions in mind:
“Americans are rich.”
Be physically prepared to be a ripe target for pickpockets—but also be mentally prepared to potentially face this conception in personal relationships, especially in poorer countries. You may be asked for money by your host family or hustled for help by a friend. It does not mean necessarily that your new friends care for you less. You really are “rich” in many parts of the world, no matter how lean your student budget. Try to imagine fighting for your family’s financial survival, and this may help to see how someone in your host culture can mentally separate a perceived financial opportunity from a personal relationship. Be respectful, but avoid the difficulty of becoming the local bank.
“Americans are war-mongers/imperialists.”
You may be surprised to find that this perception of the U.S. actually does not taint views of its citizens abroad more. Most foreign nationals are wise enough to separate U.S. political affairs from individuals’ values. However, the topic always arises at some point or another. You have to decide when this kind of discussion can be respectfully or usefully pursued (i.e. not in a rowdy pub or in the middle of a public street). It is often wise to just ignore the benign comments and avoid talking politics with strangers.
“The European perception of Americans is very much a stereotype; they love us, they just for the most part do not agree with our politics. On that note, if you get into a political discussion with someone, don't take offense. They are opinionated and will be animated, but political discussions are far less taboo over there. They will be quick to buy you a beer as soon as they're done yelling.” -ND Student
“Americans are promiscuous.”
This assumption is particularly aggravating for women traveling overseas because men often take more liberties in harassing and pursuing American women. When sexual stereotyping meets a student’s lack of awareness in customs of male-female relationships, it can also generate potentially dangerous misunderstandings. Issues relating to gender and sexuality are (and should be!) concerns for women travelling abroad, but men have not been immune to such issues either.