The winds of change are blowing through the US. No matter how you feel about the election, being an American today is different than it was a few days ago. People in the wider world are looking to us to understand what will happen next. It’s a good time to think about what being American means and how that affects our interactions when we travel abroad.
I’ve just finished up at our annual guide summit at Rick Steves Europe. It’s always a fun and thought-provoking event. Put 150 extremely interesting people in one room and you get an overload of great conversation and differing perspectives.
One of our sessions this year focused on understanding Americans, with American studies scholar Dr. Anu Taranath from the University of Washington. It was designed to help explain the American way of seeing the world to our European colleagues, to aid in communication and understanding of our clients. I wasn’t sure that this would be interesting or beneficial to me, I’m American after all. The simplicity of the ideas in it made me think quite a bit. Sometimes looking in a mirror can help us see the world more clearly.
I have a few ideas that I’d like to share, things that we take for granted that are not common in the minds of citizens in other countries. It’s much easier to understand others if we understand ourselves first. Dr. Taranath described it as a “pivot”, which is to recognize truths about yourself and then pivot to face the truth of others.
A caveat- I’m going to speak about big generalizations that don’t apply to everyone. America is an incredibly diverse place. Who “we” are is totally subjective depending on who you ask. I will speak about “we” though, and when I do I am speaking about Americans while recognizing that my readers come from different backgrounds and from all over the globe.
This stuff may seem obvious, but here’s the question- have you really thought about this?
Do you remember that term from elementary school? I do, but I don’t think about it much. I remember dressing up as a pioneer and making a model covered wagon in the 5th grade. But what does that have to do with my life? Everything, as it turns out.
Our country has a unique history and a lot of space. The idea of the westward expansion in the 19th century, of hopping in a wagon and trying your fortune in the Wild West, it has never left us. Other countries did not develop like that and don’t have a mindset like it.
What is the result? Americans are totally comfortable with relocating far away from their birthplace. You’d be hard pressed to find people in other countries that move as casually as we do, excepting Saharan nomads, I guess.
Reinvention! Move to the west and become a movie star! Reinvent yourself a million times over, you can always have a clean slate here. Other people in other countries keep long, long cultural memories that we can’t even imagine and carry not only their own baggage, but the baggage of their ancestors. Ask an Italian about Istria sometime and be prepared for some passionate gesticulating.
Manifest Destiny set up the American mindset to be one of unlimited potential and limitless possibility. Shedding the past to face a bright, new future. That’s a really cool thing, a unique idea in the world, but it’s important to know how unusual it is when you travel.
A common root cause of misunderstandings that I see with my groups is the idea of individuality. This is such a simple concept. We are so steeped in this idea that we are all unique and individually important, we don’t even think about it. We assume other people look at the world the same way. But it isn’t that way. Other cultures tend to look at the collective. It’s not a better or worse thing, it just is.
Understanding that individuality is not as important to other cultures can help avoid or at least alleviate conflicts. For example, customer service in the US demands that the customer is always right. In Europe, the customer may or may not be right, depends on the situation. That’s why a complaint to a hotel owner may be met with a lukewarm reception. Is your concern something that affects everyone in the hotel (like a gas leak) or something that only affects you (like a dripping faucet)? The hotel owner may not see something as a big deal that’s worth their time if it only slightly affects you alone.
American individuality and creativity are the fuel for all kinds of innovation, no other place supports individual ambition better than the US in my view. On the other hand, seeing the world as a collective place makes people feel more connected to each other and a part of something bigger than themselves. Socialism is not a dirty word in many other places, it’s just a way of life. There are trade-offs and benefits to both ways of operating.
We are taught that every person has the potential to succeed in the US. It’s that “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that is a hallmark of the American Dream. Continually working harder and improving your situation is something we all do. Working towards that better job or promotion. Starting side businesses to make more money. Going back to school to get more education to change careers. This is all normal to us. It isn’t normal to everyone in the world.
In many cultures, what you do for a living is often not a choice. What your parents do is what you will do also. If you’ve chosen a career, it’s probably not much different than your parents in terms of social position. And once you have a decent job, you probably don’t leave it. Ever. I know desk clerks at hotels in Europe that have had that same job for 20-30 years and have no intention of changing it. It’s not laziness, it’s cultural. That’s a decent job, so why change?
It may seem depressing to an American that upward mobility is not a common idea abroad. But there is a flip side to it. It’s the idea that ALL work is valuable. It isn’t necessary to keep trying to move up if you’re really good at what you do and you enjoy it. All jobs, no matter where they fall on the social hierarchy, are worthy of respect and all workers demand a certain level of respect for doing them.
As an example of this cultural miscommunication, I once had a breakfast room attendant in Paris get very upset because she thought my group was being disrespectful to her. Nobody greeted her or looked her in the eye, they simply told her what kind of coffee they wanted. That was absolutely my fault. I forgot to explain the local customs, that you look the server in the eye and greet them before asking for anything. It’s a sign of respect. Being a server at a restaurant is a serious job, not something a college kid does to make ends meet.
From a personal level, I admire that attitude. I have family members who never went to college and have solidly blue collar jobs that they enjoy and are good at. Loading luggage on airplanes and moving boxes in a warehouse are necessary jobs. Contributing to society in whatever way works for you is worthy of respect.
Going back to the Manifest Destiny idea, we Americans like our space. We have so gosh darned much of it. Our cars and houses are huge by world standards. Do we need, from a biological perspective, to have so much real estate at our command? Definitely not. It’s a cultural expectation. Remember that the next time you are in a cramped hotel room in Paris. That’s probably a palace to someone in Mumbai.
The idea of space goes not only for our perception of our indoor surroundings but also to our personal space. We’ve got so much room in the US that we don’t even need to share elbow room on a bus. Or we don’t like to, at least. Touching and entering someone’s personal space bubble can feel threatening, perhaps, or it can be a sign of familiarity, trust and intimacy. Depends on how you look at it.
Of all of the cultural norms that present roadblocks in travel, time may be the most frustrating. There are just too many ways to look at it. Even reading the clock tower in a foreign land can be strange.
I’m not sure there is a more American sentiment than “Time is Money”. Our time is considered valuable, like a resource to be spent properly. Having someone waste our time is like being robbed of something we can never recover.
Coupled with this concept of time is our need to accomplish things. Get sh*t done. Take a deep breath when you travel because unless you’re in Germany or Switzerland, people won’t care about how precious you think your time is. Everything has its’ own pace and accepting a different schedule is a part of the cultural package.
I’ve been taught about relative time by my beloved adopted country of Italy. When I first started guiding, I carried around my tour manual like a fanatic, trying to keep the tour on schedule to the second. We must arrive by 3pm or else! But of course, Italy always has different plans for me. Strikes, closures, traffic…you name it and I’ve dealt with it. In the end, I’ve learned that it’s more about the journey than about what time you get there. Getting derailed is usually the most memorable part, just ask my tour members who were with me when the Chunnel caught fire…with us in it. We didn’t make it to Paris on time, but getting there was the best group event that happened that year. Time? Once it’s thrown out the window, a whole new window opens up.
How to Be American
What does it all mean, then, to be an American? I guess, from my point of view (which I admit is not entirely American) it means that we are different. We know that. The bigger trick is to understand that other people literally do not see the world the way we do. Every country is programmed differently. Even within our own country we are programmed differently, depending on our heritage and where we come from.
I’ve learned so many things working abroad. Every problem has given me an opportunity to look beyond the situation and try to discover what the actual issue is, and it’s usually a cultural miscommunication. Possibly the best strategy I can offer for being an American in a foreign country is this: listen. Ask people why they do things that you don’t understand. Maybe they can’t explain it, but maybe they can give you a clue. Compare that clue to your observations of your cultural biases. And when they ask you what makes America tick, go back to the 5th grade playbook and be ready to explain Manifest Destiny.
Thanks to Dr. Anu Taranath for the excellent presentation and thought provoking discussion. And thanks to my colleague and friend Lisa Rybloom for talking me through these ideas. Couldn’t have done it without her!