Using Stereotypes as a Learning Opportunity

We here at Aspire by API encourage our students not to over pack for their time abroad.  But there’s some baggage you won’t be able to help bringing along with you.   Cultural baggage, that is.

Quintessential American tourist?

How NOT to be a tourist

At some point while overseas, you’ll probably have to deal with someone assuming certain things about you that aren’t necessarily true.  Stereotypes are nothing new, and they exist everywhere, about virtually every group of people imaginable.   And no one likes being at the wrong end of a snide remark, especially when that remark is made based on an oversimplified generalization.  The good news is that these stereotypes are well-known, so you can prepare for what you might hear.

There is a long list of stereotypes often associated with Americans—both positive and negative.  Here are a few of the more common ones:

-Americans only follow their own national news, and don’t have a clue as to what’s happening on a global scale.

-Americans are very friendly, and always willing to help.

-Americans have no idea about basic geography or other cultures.

-Americans are capitalistic, materialistic machines.  They really do “live to work,” and they’re always in a hurry.

-Americans are loud and obnoxious, especially in public places.

-Americans are wealthy and generous.

-Americans don’t have any sense of style.

-Americans are obsessed with the lives of celebrities.

-Americans are gun-obsessed, self-righteous “cowboys.”

You get the gist of it.  Now, ask yourself: how many of these general statements fit you personally?  There is a bit of truth to each one, or else they wouldn’t be stereotypes.  For the ones that do fit you, is it necessarily a bad thing? Or are there differences in cultural values that are shaping the way the stereotype is being perceived?

Remember that history has had a lot to do with the development of many of these generalizations.  Capitalism was a driving force in the American economy since before our country’s birth, and compared to the rest of the world’s industrialized countries, the models upon which we base our form of government and economic policies are pretty individualistic.  Is there anything inherently wrong with this?  What’s so bad about being a “go-getter,” or emphasizing personal responsibility?  Are there limits to this type of mindset?

Lots of foreigners also can’t understand why Americans have the right to own guns.  But when you think about the context in which that right was secured (just after the American Revolution, following  a period when American colonists had been forced to house British soldiers in their home, and when much of America was still a wilderness), it begins to make more sense.  The question then becomes, is the right to bear arms still relevant today?  Why or why not?

Furthermore, if there are any negative stereotypes that you may be portraying, what can you do to fix this before departing?  Maybe this means consciously making an effort to tone it down while out to dinner (something I definitely needed to learn how to do), or putting on a button-down shirt every now and then.  And no matter where you are going, you will want to at least familiarize yourself with the news from that region of the world before leaving.  Who is the President or Prime Minister of your future host country?  How does the local government work?  Are there any hot topics that are being discussed in the press right now?  Remember to take a look at local news sources as well as American coverage.

Of course, this street goes both ways: there are also going to be generalizations about the inhabitants of your host country as well.  When you leave home, it is important to enter your new situation with an open mind.  Sure, you may

Visiting Omaha Beach in Normandy, and proud to be an American in France!

find that some of the stereotypes are true, but as a whole they’re probably about as accurate as the list of American stereotypes noted above.  Personally, I was surprised to find out that the French attitude towards work was not as relaxed as it is usually made out to be.  Just make sure you don’t start off on the wrong foot with any preconceived notions (which isn’t easy to do) and you’ll discover firsthand what’s true and what’s not.

Studying abroad is a learning experience, and one of the best ways to learn is to examine the world around you through different lenses.  People across the globe have different ways of doing things: it’s important to ask yourself why.  In addition, while no one is asking you to change who you are as a person for your time overseas, you should still be respectful of other cultures’ norms and values.  Whether you mean to or not, you will be acting as an ambassador while abroad, and you can make a real difference in either confirming or discrediting the rest of the world’s ideas (positive and negative) on what it means to be American.  By comparing the rest of the world’s ideas to your own, you’ll also be able to gain a better perspective on what it is that truly makes you American, as well as what distinguishes you from among your peers.

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