Extreme Makeover: Ugly American Edition

With the travel season upon us, the U.S. State Department has produced a “World Citizens Guide” aimed at teaching U.S. tourists how not to act so … well, so very American when they’re abroad. The goal is to turn the 3 million of us who travel overseas every year into an army of civilian ambassadors to places where rude, vulgar or base behavior is virtually unheard of—you know, places like Paris, Rome, Glasgow and, of course, Amsterdam. The State Department hopes to eventually include a “World Citizens Guide” with every passport they issue in support of what I think we would all agree is their primary mission: to encourage everyone in the entire world, regardless of their motives, values or actions, to really, really like Americans.

To my way of thinking the “Guide” doesn’t go nearly far enough, but at least it’s a start. Here are some of the Guide’s etiquette tips for American travelers, each of which is followed by my additional comments and suggestions. (The quotes from the guide, in italics, are excerpted from “Speak softly, don’t argue, and slow down,” by Philip Sherwell, The Telegraph, April 16, 2006.)

Think as Big as You Like, but Talk and Act Smaller.

(In many countries, any form of boasting is considered rude. Talking about wealth, power or status—corporate or personal—can create resentment.)

Yes, by all means avoid boasting whenever possible, which means you won’t want to mention World War I or World War II when you’re in Europe or Asia because that might be perceived as bragging about how American soldiers fought and died to save those continents from tyranny—twice, and each time at our own expense! Also off-limits: any talk of the period between 1945 and 1989 when American troops and missiles kept Western Europe safe from Soviet encroachment. I guess the less said about that the better, right? While you’re at it, try not to bring up things like the Marshall Plan or the Berlin Airlift, as well as the widespread starvation they averted—might sound a little show-offy, don’t you think? Ditto for things like the Truman Doctrine and America’s leading role in the formation of NATO and the UN.

At all costs, stay away from topics like how the United States, with just 5% of the world’s population, produces more than 25% of the world’s goods and services every year while routinely leading the world in high-tech innovation, or how U.S. farmers feed a sizable portion of the world’s population every year—remember, nobody likes a “showboat.” And whatever you do, don’t bring up the fact that Americans, both in terms of taxpayer-supported foreign aid and in private charitable donations, are by far the most generous people in the history of the planet and have been for many years. That’s just the kind of loud, cowboyish chatter that can lead to resentment among your hosts overseas.

Listen at Least as Much as You Talk.

(By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you’re visiting about themselves and their way of life.)

Yes, otherwise the people you meet abroad might get the impression that you spent thousands of dollars traveling thousands of miles to meet them because you’re not interested in them or their culture.

You can see how someone might get the impression that we Americans spend our summers traipsing through Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world that don’t have ESPN or normal toilets because we’re such an insular, provincial, incurious race of people. Why, as I’ve so often asked myself, can’t we Americans be more like the vast mobs of French, German and Italian tourists who throng here en masse every year to scour heartland states like Ohio and Nebraska in search of the genuine Americana that fascinates them so?

Save the Lectures for Your Kids—Speak Lower and Slower.

(A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening. Whatever your subject of discussion, let it be a discussion not a lecture. Justified or not, the U.S. is seen as imposing its will on the world.)

Here’s a ticklish subject: the uniquely American trait of being bombastic, over-bearing or just loudly opinionated. Just think of what kind of world this would be if people from other countries ever, ever acted this way. For example, consider the abject horror the average Italian must experience when confronted by an American who insists on expressing his views with passion and conviction, perhaps even to the point of making wild, unruly hand gestures as he speaks!

Or imagine—if you even can—a Frenchman trying to wrap his Gallic brain around the notion of someone—from another country!—presuming to lecture him on, say, food. Or wine, or economics, or fashion, or romance, or marital decorum. Why, the very idea of such behavior by a European is almost grotesque, the type of horror only an American could even imagine. While we’re on the subject, always be careful while traveling about doing or saying anything that might sound like you’re trying to impose your will on the world. I seem to recall the Germans being especially sensitive about this.

As a general rule, Americans traveling abroad should always strive to be modest, soft-spoken and humble in demeanor when they talk. You know, just like the Greeks, the Russians and the Irish always are, especially after they’ve relaxed with a few drinks.

Think a Little Locally.

(Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. What we call “soccer” is football everywhere else. And it’s the most popular sport on the planet.)

Excellent note—it’s about time somebody called us Americans on our ugly habit of aggressively cornering every non-American we encounter and immediately subjecting them to a lengthy discourse on the Super Bowl, the World Series or both. Boy, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve witnessed that ugly spectacle while traveling overseas.

Perhaps, though, a slight correction to the “Guide” would be in order here. Yes, soccer is the most popular sport on the planet—except in places where it isn’t. Like in the Far East and parts of Asia, where the American sport of baseball is king. And in parts of South America. And throughout the Caribbean, the West Indies and in Cuba, where baseball is nothing short of a delirious obsession. Not to mention Australia and much of North and Central America. All of which has made major league baseball in America probably the most culturally and ethnically diverse professional sport in the world. With the possible exception of basketball, another American-invented sport which is also more popular than soccer in many parts of the world, even without the benefit of having regular TV programming overseas pre-empted in favor of something called “World Cup Basketball” (as we do here in the U.S. every four years for “soccer,” as we insist on calling it) so as to provide wall-to-wall coverage of a sporting event enjoyed mostly by very young latchkey white kids from Blue States and the Hispanic immigrants who are raising them.

Slow Down.

(We talk fast, eat fast, move fast, live fast. Many cultures do not.)

Yes, if there’s one thing you’ll constantly be doing when you travel overseas it’s asking people who don’t speak English to talk faster. Fact is, we Americans just talk way too fast, especially compared to that slow-as-molasses verbal style more typical of the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Spanish and, of course, the Japanese. As to moving and living “too fast,” with time you’ll come to appreciate the advantages of visiting places where it takes three days to cash a traveler’s check or get an appointment with a licensed plumber. Remember, it’s just a matter of slowing down. Full employment and a robust GDP aren’t everything, you know.

Your Religion Is Your Religion and not Necessarily Theirs.

(Religion is usually considered deeply personal, not a subject for public discussion.)

And if there’s one thing we Americans can learn a thing or two from other countries about, it’s religious tolerance. Well, except Saudi Arabia, where they don’t issue visas to Jews and the possession of a Bible is a criminal offense. (Actually, make that the entire Middle East except for the parts of Israel not currently being bombarded by P.L.O. missiles). Or China, where the practice of Christianity is rigorously discouraged by the government. Or in those parts of Europe where publishing cartoons offensive to Muslims can trigger bloody riots, which is to say most of Europe. Or Northern Ireland, where I seem to recall some sort of religious dust-up or other took place a few years back.

OK, OK—four incredibly bad examples in a row—what were the odds of that? The point is, unless you’re trying to give this country another black eye around the globe, keep your nutty religious convictions to yourself, Americans—especially all you conservative Christian kooks.

If You Talk Politics, Talk—Don’t Argue.

(Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking U.S. politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)

Absolutely. I can’t think of a better way to foster mutual respect and friendship with the rest of the world than for you to stand idly by as various foreigners denounce you, your country and your commander in chief right to your face while you’re paying them untold thousands of dollars for the privilege of experiencing their charmingly idiomatic take on your homeland first-hand. True friendship, after all, is rooted in respect. So just imagine how much respect you’ll command when America’s critics abroad see how unwilling you are to speak up in defense of your own country.

Remember, you’re not protected by a 1st Amendment over there the way you are here at home. So when someone from another land starts bad-mouthing America, your fellow Americans or American foreign policy, remember to keep your eyes lowered, your mouth shut and your head nodding in passive agreement. We are, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave. But that doesn’t mean we have to go around acting like it.

As I’ve noted, this “World Citizens Guide” the State Department is graciously allowing U.S. taxpayers to pay for is a good start, but we could do so much more to promote our public image throughout the world. And that’s where you come in, world traveler.

The secret of being a successful civilian ambassador to the world is pretty simple: Whenever you’re overseas, always remember what a shameful thing it is to be an American. Practice saying “I apologize for being an American” in the native language of every country you plan to visit—yes, even countries whose bacon we saved during a World War or guarded during a Cold one. When you’re meeting foreign nationals for the first time, always try to be holding a burning U.S. flag and wearing a T-shirt bearing a vulgar denunciation of President Bush.

As a general rule, when in doubt about how much America-bashing you should put up with overseas, think of questions like these: What would Michael Moore do in this situation? What would Jimmy Carter say? How would John Kerry turn this into a “teachable moment” with regard to America’s image abroad, and in what language would he do so? With questions like those as your guide you can look forward to a lifetime of service as a Joe Wilson-style, self-appointed “ambassador without portfolio” entrusted with the never-ending mission of keeping America—and Americans—in their rightful place. Bon voyage!