Yanqui Hijo de Puta, Fuera del Mundo!

Eagle ‘Why does the rest of the world hate us?’ Americans ask, with large, moist, puppy-dog eyes. (Well, it’s really more distrust and suspicion than hate).

Many Americans prefer to blame it solely on resentment and anti-American manipulation. There’s some of that around, of course, but that’s not the whole story. I recently read Anatol Lieven’s blistering, largely on-target America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, which details plenty of rational reasons why non-Americans might distrust or resent the United States (hint: it’s the policies and the hypocrisy, stupid!).

Before I get to that, thought, I thought I’d address a more mundane reason why people don’t fancy Americans: Americans are renowned worldwide as being unusually ignorant and judgmental of other cultures. We don’t understand other cultures, and what’s more, we don’t want to understand them, and what’s even more, we show that openly. When we encounter some cultural practice that is different from what’s done in the United States, we tend to immediately call attention to it — and often by suggesting, more or less openly, that it be scrapped and replaced with the "right" American way of doing things.

Americans climb into our cultural (or rather, acultural) Hummers, you could say, and blithely drive them through other nations’ minefields, completely oblivious to the explosions we cause along the way. A recent example: During a recent dinner I attended, an American new to Germany blurted out to a German guest "Hey, you’re a German, maybe you can answer this. What the hell was Hitler thinking?!"

Trust me, it’s one of just dozens of indiscretions I’ve either observed or committed. You could defend this tendency to openly criticize other cultures as refreshing frankness, but people from other nations have much less complimentary words for it. Let me quote from a fine little book called Americans at Work: A Guide to the Can-Do People, written by intercultural consultant Craig Storti. Storti himself is from the Unites States, but has spent over two decades working all over the world:

"[N]ot believing in culture [in the sense of ingrained, traditional ways of doing things] means that Americans have a hard time accepting that there is any legitimate reason — any "excuse" for the odd way foreigners sometimes behave, and they conclude, therefore, that all such behavior is simply arbitrary. The strange things foreigners do may be deliberate or accidental, conscious or unconscious, but the point is they don’t have to act that way…

Americans are much more likely than other nationalities to be unprepared for and therefore to have a strong reaction to "different" behavior, more likely, in other words, to be surprised, confused, or irritated by some of the "odd" things you [i.e., a non-American] may do. They may also be less able to see things from your point of view and less willing, as a result, to listen to your explanation of things or to understand why you don’t agree with them. They are more likely than colleagues from other countries to see you as stubborn and unreasonable.

I can’t exempt myself from this accusation. Although I like to think I’ve become much more polished in the meantime, I still have episodes in which foreign habits and practices strike me as "wrong." Now let me say that some things — like honor killings, puking all over the city center, or mixing beer with cola — are wrong, in some cosmic, transcendental sense. But among many Americans I know who live abroad, there is embarrassingly little curiosity about foreign cultures, and much superficial, chauvinistic criticism. I know this because I occasionally hang around with expatriates, whose primary form of recreation seems to be bitching endlessly about their host countries whenever they can be sure no natives are around (and sometimes, when natives are around). My experience has taught me there really is a difference — the difference Storti identifies — between Americans and people from other nations.

The interesting question is why this should be so. The first explanation is America’s growing isolation from the rest of the world. Statistics show Americans making less and less use of opporunities for deep engagement with other cultures (reading a foreign novel in translation, studying abroad, etc.)

But there’s a deeper cultural difference at work. Most people come from countries have their own treasured cultural practices and local traditions that are deeply-rooted, long-standing, and widely-shared. They therefore understand — and often delight in — other peoples’ interesting habits. If you grew up doing a certain kind of folk-dancing that has been practiced in your country for centuries, you know the peculiar sense of cultural attachment that doing or observing that dancing inspires in you. Therefore, you understand how and why other people might enjoy their kind of folk-dancing, or their gradations of formality in conversation (Japan has 5!), or their yogurt-based national drink, or their 19th-century nationalist poetry. This doesn’t mean they’re all po-faced about it — the tradition is often mocked just as enthusiastically as it is carried out, and this mockery itself becomes part of the tradition.

When people from the United States come into contact with these sorts of traditional practices, by contrast, lots of them either burst out laughing, make a cynical remark, or suggest that the tradition be scrapped. I once saw an American — and a reasonably well-educated one — suggest that a certain country’s yogurt-based ‘national drink’ be replaced by delicious, refreshing Coca-Cola. In my experience, people from other countries almost never react to other nations’ cultural practices this way.

Another example. Here, a Canadian conservative (that is, an American in all but name) named Robert Fulford ridicules the UNESCO cultural heritage program, mocking the very idea that "[a]ncient dances of obscure tribes, almost forgotten rituals and nearly extinct musical instruments must be saved." Of course, you could argue that Fulford’s main target is self- satisfied UN bureaucrats (and a rich target they are), but he nowhere proposes any alternative for preserving these aspects of cultural heritage, or even suggesting that they are worthy of preservation. Fulford couldn’t care less what happens to these practices, because they strike him as trivial or bizarre. It’s that simple.

To sum up, people from the United States have the worst reputation for "intercultural competence" of any national group on earth. And I think this reputation is, alas, largely justified. Feel free to revile me as a Nestbeschmutzer, or share your own tales of Americans’ faux pas in comments.

And this weekend, I’ll get to the book itself. I promise.

14 thoughts on “Yanqui Hijo de Puta, Fuera del Mundo!

  1. WOW! I’m speechless. Andrew for president.

    “I once saw an American — and a reasonably well-educated one — suggest that a certain country’s yogurt-based ‘national drink’ be replaced by delicious, refreshing Coca-Cola.”

    And I remember very well Anheuser-Busch who paid $40 million for “pouring rights” at 12 stadiums across Germany at the World Cup last year. How was this debacle possible? Germany with more than 1,200 breweries of our national drink, some of them traceable to the 8th century, and a purity law from 1516, our national sport at the World Cup in our own country – and we were forced as Germans to drink American dishwater… Restistance against evil US imperialism was inevitable.

  2. > “Hey, you’re a German, maybe you can answer this. What the hell was Hitler thinking?!”

    “Hey, you’re a Yank, maybe you can answer this. What the hell is Bush thinking?!” …is the likely variation, Americans will have to face over here.

    > or share your own tales of Americans’ faux pas in comments

    Can’t oblige, really. While pubescent US tourists cruising Kreuzberg for booze are certainly annoying, so are their French, Italian or Aussie counterparts – and those hundred thousands that crowd the Oktoberfest each year just want to regress to troglodyte state exactly as the natives do. Arguably a sympathy for foreign unculture, a sympathy for things foreign nevertheless.

    As a rule, I prefer interlocutors halfway civilised, so Americans I meet tend to be just that: mildly mannered, unusually friendly for Germans standards, and likeably so, while being quite interested in local affairs.

    btw: the heading needs an initial ¡. ¡mierquina, bárbaro imperialista!

  3. America has been straying from what Chesterton originally called and Lieven now calls the “American Creed” (or “American Thesis”): the belief in liberty and equality, the intrinsic dignity of every human being, separation of church and state. I wonder how many Americans these days recognize the discrepancy between recent White House policy and their core beliefs.

    Re-reading Jefferson’s “First Inaugural Address,” I was struck by the map of misreading drawn up by Washington’s neoconservatives of this essential document: note the contrast to Jefferson’s enumeration of basic freedoms, especially: “…the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason… and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.” This map of misreading, it is becoming increasingly evident, is leading Americans and, willy-nilly, much of the world as well, into the perilous territory of empire building.

    And so Lieven, though not particularly original, is on the money with his critique of the new radical, Jacksonian nationalism, the Anti-Thesis to his American Thesis. Though I still have faith in the ability of the American government and the American people to overcome their crises of legitimation, the manipulation of the 2000 election and lacking focus on bringing the 9/11 perpetrators to justice, among other peculiar developments, are truly unsettling.

    What would Jefferson have thought of the Bush administration with its Manichaean notions of good and evil and incorporation of fundamentalist beliefs? He, Paine, Franklin, and others thought very freely about spritual matters and were devoted to reason and science.

    Where Lieven and I part company, and here I, for lack of information, might be misunderstanding him, is in his assessing the American Creed as a new form of nationalism. One thing to say the Creed can be abused as a bludgeon to assert hegemonic aspirations, another to say that it is “a dangerous form of messianic universalism.” (Foreign Affairs review of “America Right or Wrong”)

    In sum, Lieven may be overstating his case.

    I never liked the word “Nestbeschmutzer” with its nationalist resonance, Andrew. It doesn’t apply to you, anyway, because for some time you’ve been inhabiting a German nest, a comfortable one, in fact, and in one of Germany’s wealthiest cities. It may be because you hail from Texas and I from Connecticut, but I have a different impression of America and Americans. Americans naive, hypocritical, irrational, uninformed? Such tired generalizations. Americans have no cultural competence? Just what enabled Americans to build up Europe and Japan from the ashes of World War II, among other intercultural accomplishments?

    Lieven himself says that knowledge of international affairs “is pretty low and always was” in America, but also: “I don’t know whether the American people are really more ignorant of international affairs than people of other countries. This has become a standard cliché and anti-American accusation.”

  4. “expatriates, whose primary form of recreation seems to be bitching endlessly about their host countries whenever they can be sure no natives are around”

    Hmmm. I endlessly bitch about Germans I suppose – but don’t live there. Perhaps if I did I’d find less to complain about.

    I live in the UK and don’t endlessly complain about it. The French are right about at least one thing, though – Brits put up with way too much bad food. Even the US has better food. Good beer here, particularly the small regional brews.

  5. “Americans are renowned worldwide as being unusually ignorant and judgmental of other cultures.”

    Phrases like this one usually cause me to burst out laughing. Many critics of America criticize supposed ‘american’ behavior whilst doing exactly what they criticize vis the US – completely unconciously of course…. 😉

    ” I once saw an American — and a reasonably well-educated one — suggest that a certain country’s yogurt-based ‘national drink’ be replaced by delicious, refreshing Coca-Cola.”

    I believe I have equal international experience to Andrews – and have never seen anything like this. Sounds like an urban legend to me.

    “In my experience, people from other countries almost never react to other nations’ cultural practices this way.”

    Except, of course, when dealing with the ‘arrogant’ US. Then I have seen it. Not usually in person perhaps, but in magazine articles, books, and myriad other ways.

  6. I’m relatively new to this Blog. Reading over your previous posts to orient myself, I noticed the following development: if previously you had some critical words to say about America bashing, lately you yourself have been bashing America; your Blog could just as well be re-titled: German Joys and American Horrors.

    I was pleased to read your earlier post on “Stern” and its series of articles on Americans, who allegedly “couldn’t care less about the rest of humanity,” for two reasons: you criticize this statement, but you also, in another post, see the root of anti-Americanism not so much in Americans per se as in the foreign policy of their government and the Iraq War.

    The Pew Global Attitudes survey, which shows a spike in anti-Americanism in the years of the Bush administration, supports this conclusion; and personally, as an American expatriate in Germany, I have much the same impression you do, that most Germans do not dislike Americans as such but their present government.

    In my admittedly unscientific view, I would say that the real America-haters in Germany are a small but significant minority; their members include, among others, neo-Nazis, losers of German reunification, frustrated members of the 1968 generation, and just about anyone with a grudge looking for a scapegoat in America. At the moment, about 70 percent of Germans have an unfavorable view of Americans; but in time most of these will change their view in the post-Bush era, provided Washington amends its policies.

    Getting a grip on anti-Americanism is not so easy. For one thing, anti-Americanism is often not just prejudice against Americans but a convenient tool. One example is Schroeder’s use of anti-Americanism to garner German votes for his party. This is the old Machiavellian device of demonizing an external foe in order to shore up internal unity. Conversely, American right-wing Republicans may exploit European anti-Americanism to justify neo-conservative aims.

    To sum up, I share some of your views about America bashing, and some I find distressing. These Americans-are-x,y,z statements aren’t helpful in the current anti-American climate and bolster the bigoted image of Americans. I fall into the same sort of trap at times; for example, in my comment below about Texans and New Englanders. In your case, though, perhaps as a result of your years abroad, or because of your need to prove the purported superiority of the European Model, it is becoming a conditioned blogging reflex.

    No harm meant–just a friendly critique.

  7. As a German who has come to bear generalizations of my country with a smile, I would still recommend that you shouldn’t generalize about your fellow Americans like you seem to do here. Even if the yoghurt/coca-cola story is indeed true (I don’t see why Andrew would make this up) and may serve as an example, there are numerous counter-examples of Americans who behave just wonderfully abroad. When I visited Athens recently, I had the impression that it was the American tourists who had spent most time preparing their trips, as their enormous knowledge of historical details suggested. For every dumb and ignorant example, there are probably five decent and interested ones. More or less the same is true for tourists from other nationalities.

    Americans DO tend to behave more visibly than Japanese tourists abroad, and their outspoken, direct way of voicing their impressions on the spot as well as their complex-free attitude when meeting new people may seem a bit presumptuous at first. But overall I think that, precisely in the intercultural context, it’s quite beneficial and refreshing to have visitors like that. Furthermore, the dollars they spend haven’t done much harm yet (except that they might spoil the prices sometimes).

  8. @Nicolae Carpathia
    If you want to put the blame for the “beer debacle” at the World Cup at someone then put it on the right ones. How about blaming the FIFA who was seemingly more interested in cold cash than in any local feelings or how about blaming your local beer producers that weren’t able to come up with more money (they could have made a unified stand if one of them wasn’t financially strong enough)? But I am sure the “evil” US Government was involved in a conspiracy to force FIFA into signing the contract with A&B just as they are involved in a worldwide scheme to spread McDonalds.

  9. @Nicolae Carpathia
    If you want to put the blame for the “beer debacle” at the World Cup at someone then put it on the right ones. How about blaming the FIFA who was seemingly more interested in cold cash than in any local feelings or how about blaming your local beer producers that weren’t able to come up with more money (they could have made a unified stand if one of them wasn’t financially strong enough)? But I am sure the “evil” US Government was involved in a conspiracy to force FIFA into signing the contract with A&B just as they are involved in a worldwide scheme to spread McDonalds.

  10. The American “dishwater” beer wasn’t that bad BTW. Funny how this has to be marked as “American imperialism”. Had Heineken/Inbev won the race, would we have felt Dutch/Belgian imperialism?

  11. “Americans climb into our cultural (or rather, acultural) Hummers, you could say, and blithely drive them through other nations’ minefields, completely oblivious to the explosions we cause along the way. A recent example: During a recent dinner I attended, an American new to Germany blurted out to a German guest “Hey, you’re a German, maybe you can answer this. What the hell was Hitler thinking?!” ”

    And I’ve had four or five DOZEN experiences in continental Europe (Germany, France, Netherlands) where I was held to account for

    1. Bush
    2. The War.
    3. 1848 (North Mexico’s seizure)
    4. Slavery (yes, I was held PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE BY A BAVARIAN).
    5. All foreign policy post 1952.
    6. Cluster bombs
    7. Garishly well kept American teeth.

    These were only the discussions, mind you, where I was held personally responsible by the participant- often an intelligent person who suddenly turned into a raving moron the moment a particular subject came up. But mostly it was being interrupted at meals by people who heard my accent and thought they’d give me a good drubbing until noting my size and height. Being held individually responsible is a bit more than, say, having someone ponder the motivations therein, don’t you think? You used that as ‘prima fascist’ (heh) evidence of American ignorance, so can I use this as continuing proof of your ignorance plus a good dose of sheer genetically based stupidity?

    “hint: it’s the policies and the hypocrisy, stupid!”

    Really. Tell me, what policy are the black Darfurians supporting what makes the Arab muslims try to kill them? Or southern Somali’s, what makes them get the musselman knife? Do enlighten me what the what the 95% of people who musselmen kill who aren’t Americans have done to raise their ire…but of course you can’t because they haven’t. The musselmen hate us because they’re Mohammedans who live in paranoid cultures and subcultures that hate all foreigners. Once again you have NO idea how the world gets along its view of us, (much like that ideologically motivated bookwriter), you only see yours. And hell, you don’t even speak for most other Europeans, you speak for you. If for some reason you don’t really think ill of us deep down (a dubious proposition at the BEST interpretation of your work), then you don’t even speak for the rest of the people on your block. Even the more-pro-American english media makes it abundantly clear they don’t hate American actions, they hate Americans (quick, how many Germans aren’t aware Americans are fat? Personal hatred, quod erat demonstradum.)

    As for hypocrisy, I don’t even know what to say. I assume you’re correct from the “it takes one to know” category because honestly, I won’t get into a conversation about it. Suffice to say I don’t think Europeans do business any other way.

  12. @ James, RE “experiences”

    Here’s one. What a joy it can be sometimes to be American in Germany.

    1) I’m working in an office with a gay woman who distrusts men (BTW I’m not homophobe).
    2) The pleasant South American wife of a Canadian colleague wanders in. I make her a cup of tea and we chat about V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, etc.
    3) The gay woman, who is pissed off because she thinks I’m flirting with the woman (I’m not, I just like talking about belles lettres), makes a hurried exit to the office of the Canadian colleague (as I learn later).
    4) A few days later, Outlook sounds its characteristic “ping” and an e-mail pops up on my screen: a tasteless anti-American joke, broadcast to the entire building by the husband, whose masculine pride is hurt by my gay colleague’s report. I’m the only American in the building.
    5) I invite the husband out to lunch to defuse the situation. This works, but soon:
    6) Another colleague decides to join in the fun, and broadcasts another anti-American e-mail. By this time, I’m beginning to dread that pinging Outlook.
    7) A mobbing situation results. Other comments follow, e.g. on returning from lunch, a co-worker asks me if I enjoyed my Big Mac.
    8) This continues… a slow but effective toxin. I begin to not look forward to going to my job.
    9) Useless to protest. The institution’s an uptight place ruled over by an anal-retentive administrator who dresses and looks like a funeral director. Unwritten rule is: you don’t complain because an appearance of harmony must be maintained at all times. Never draw attention to yourself.
    10) You shouldn’t wonder that I am no longer working there.

  13. Hey, you’re a German, maybe you can answer this. What the hell was Hitler thinking?!

    Only correct answer: “I couldn’t possibly know, Hitler was Austrian.”

  14. “Hey, you’re a German, maybe you can answer this. What the hell was Hitler thinking?!”
    “He was probably thinking he’d get away with it? Like, duh.

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