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.