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Imagine that a friend arrives in your home. You give him or her a cordial drink—tea or coffee, perhaps, or maybe something stronger. You smile graciously at your guest, preparing to make the kind of welcoming small talk you think would be appropriate, and she or he proceeds to tell you what’s wrong with your taste (“What ugly fixtures you have, and could you have found a less attractive sofa?”) , the size of your home (“This is nowhere near the space I’m used to”), and the complexions of your children (“My, but they’re primitive-looking, aren’t they?”). Your friend gives you a look that says you’re in urgent need of social repair, and says, “But I’m sure this is nice to you.” How do you feel about your friend now? How soon will this person be invited back?
“Tell people you’re Canadian,” advised a friend the first time I traveled to a foreign country. “They like Canadians.” The assumption is that American tourists are and have been universally disliked in many countries. But why?
Politics explain some of our bad reputation, of course. We’ve fought against many nationalities at one time or other, and our policies or the behavior of certain American representatives (such as spying?) haven’t endeared us abroad. Our reputation is that we are hopelessly rude, materialistic, and self-centered. Next to the cultural norms of more group-centered cultures, we deserve our reputation. Our styles of conversation are often offensive to people who come from different styles. We may seem too blunt, too loud, and too concerned with “the bottom line.” We assume people want us to embrace them.
When my sister and I took our first international trip to Scotland, we were taken aback when the sweet lady who ran our bed-and-breakfast told us, “You aren’t anything like Americans.” How could we not be? It was our first trip abroad. What she meant was we hadn’t complained because she didn’t have central heat or individual bathrooms for each room or unlimited hot water. We drank her tea and complimented her dining room furniture and tried to obey all the rules our mother had taught us for overnight visits. Many people who travel don’t want any variation from what they could expect at home. They want to view the scenery and quaint local charm from the comfort of a bus or hotel that could function perfectly well in New York City. My guess would be that our hostess had experienced plenty of exposure to people who are certain the United States is the gold standard of human behavior. They display what is called “ethnocentrism” or the unwavering belief that their culture is the best in every way. They treat the people in the country they’re visiting as less. The people notice.
We who were born in America are understandably proud. So are Brits or Mexicans or Belgians. We love our homes as we love our families, and we’re willing to overlook the little weaknesses of our family members. What do we expect of visitors to the United States? We ask that they understand enough English to function. We ask that they know a few of our social rules—like how to wait your turn, say please and thank-you, or how to use our money. The inhabitants in the countries we visit feel the same way. They appreciate it if we bother to learn basic phrases in their language, have some concept of the coinage, and observe the rules of behavior we see demonstrated around us. They may not have as much money as we have, but their culture may be older and their people less violent. They may not judge each other on the amount of space between their beds and the walls, the composition of the kitchen countertops, or the cost of their clothes. They expect the kind of respect we would expect of them.