23 October 2010

americans are not the most popular people on the planet (the golden rule is in effect)

Traveling abroad during a recent presidential administration required making a lot of apologies. People would frequently criticize our government and policies, and frankly, I didn’t blame them. I tried to put my best American face forward to convince other global citizens that not everyone subscribed to a certain leader’s school of thought. Once Obama was sworn into office, I thought our public perception would improve – slowly – but was met with a lot of skepticism about what would happen next. I still encounter a lot of doubts (albeit a lot less angry), but find when you strip away all of perceptions about our government and foreign policies, a lot of people just aren't all that enthralled with Americans.

At least that’s the message that comes through loud and clear as I volunteer abroad. I guess I got spoiled traveling the world primarily with travel writers over the past several years. No matter where these writers hailed from, there was for the most part, unspoken open-mindedness and cultural compassion. Five volunteer projects into The Global Citizen Project, I find that our public perception on the global scale isn’t all that endearing and that I have to try extra hard to win people over the minute they find out where I’m from.

Far and wide, people seem to peg the stereotypical American something like this: We talk ten decibels louder than anyone else, dominate conversations, rudely interrupt and think we know it all. Unfortunately, this sounds spot on when I think of several of the Americans I’d volunteered with along the way. Sure, every single one of us is raised to think we’re the world’s almightiest super power, but have we taken our go-team-go mentality to narcissistic extremes on the worldwide travel playground? It stings to hear what other travelers' perceptions, but there are some truths to their words, and I am glad I can (hopefully) show them that not all Americans are alike. Some of us, dare I say, a lot of us, travel to learn from others.

These perceptions rolled around in my mind the morning I left my volunteer project in Ecuador. As my plane taxied to the runway, we were forced to turn back to the gate because an American passenger refused to turn his cell phone off. On the second leg of my flight itinerary, another American insisted on using his BlackBerry during take-off. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t so important that whatever message he had to send couldn’t wait the short two hour flight. The more I looked, the more I saw the ugly, “me first” mentality my international friends pointed out. Rude people come from all places, but still, it wasn’t pretty.

America may be the superpower of the world, but that doesn’t it make it okay to journey through the world thinking every interaction is all about us. We’re lucky to live in the U.S. (more than most people will ever know), but that doesn’t mean we have all the answers or that we’re always right. There’s a lot to learn from other countries and cultures, but as travelers, we need to shut up, practice some compassion and listen. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wish to be called out for my fellow American travelers’ bad behavior, because I know that is not what our country is all about. We’re just one piece in the grandmaster puzzle of this globe.


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Carolyn said...

Totally true! I hate the bad face the country gets from the majority of American travelers. Though whenever people accuse Americans of being the rudest country in the world, I am quick to point out Israel. You can't be respected by an Israeli unless you are loud and rude. If you speak humbly and quietly they will look right through you. I'm generalizing, true, but it is definitely a predominant characteristic of Israelis.

Not excusing our fellow American's behavior, it's horribly embarrassing. But I hope others don't limit these characteristics to us. But I do suppose it's because there are more of us.

Charyn Pfeuffer said...

Carolyn, Thanks for your comment. It's my hope that more people in general, and not just Americans, would make their way through the world a bit more consciously/kindly. Whether we like it or not, we're all in this together and it's a heckuva lot easier to get along.