The Ugly American and other stereotypes
What happened to the Ugly American, the one with the loud shirt and the loud voice, expecting the natives to speak English? Has he been shouldered aside by the Arrogant French?
That’s the conclusion one could draw from a survey this month of 4,500 hotel owners around the world who rated the French the world’s worst tourists, bad at foreign languages, arrogant and tight-fisted. Spaniards, deemed noisy and messy, came second in a field of 27. Americans ranked 9th on the list of the top 10 best.
The survey, commissioned by the online travel agency Expedia, ranked travellers in nine categories, from cleanliness to generosity in tipping, and provided food for thought on a long-running debate on an unresolved question: to what extent do national stereotypes correspond to reality?
One of the most extensive studies of that question ever conducted, led by scientists of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, involved 4,000 people in 48 countries and came to the conclusion, in 2005, that most national stereotypes are inaccurate.
Researchers compared perceived national characteristics with actual character traits and reported some surprising findings. Americans, for example, think the typical American is very assertive. Canadians think the typical Canadian is submissive. But Canadians and Americans had almost identical scores in objective measures of assertiveness.
The enduring nature of stereotypes, scientific studies challenging their veracity notwithstanding, is reflected in an evergreen joke about the nature of heaven and hell: Heaven is the place where the lovers are Italian, the police are English, the mechanics are German, the cooks are French and the place is run by the Swiss.
Hell is where the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the police are German and the place is run by the Italians.
In a similar vein: How many American tourists does it take to change a light bulb? Nine. Three to figure out how much the bulb costs in the local currency, three to comment on how funny-looking local light bulbs are and three to hire a local person to change the bulb.
So is there a kernel of truth to the notion of the noisy American, the efficient German, the stiff-upper-lip Briton, the stingy Scot, the rude French, the passionate Latin lover, the drunken Russian, the polite and boring Canadian, the extrovert Australian, the macho Mexican, the egocentric Argentine, the melancholic Swede? It depends on whom you ask.
STEREOTYPES ARE UNIVERSAL
Almost everyone has stereotypical ideas of other nations and other cultures. Shining the light on these notions can be entertaining as well as good business. Take the case of the Xenophobe’s Guides, a series of light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek books on the characteristics of different nations.
Since the guides started in 1995, the publisher sold 2.6 million copies and there are translations into 22 languages, according to Anne Tauté, the creator and editor of the series who lives in London. She says she was prompted to start the books to provide more insight into other cultures.
The guide to Americans observes that they “are friendly because they just can’t help it; they like to be neighbourly and want to be liked. However, a wise traveller realises that a few happy moments with an American do not translate into a permanent commitment of any kind.”
On the French: “French politicians look smart because power itself is chic, attractive, and one should dress to look the part. The French electorate would never allow any government to intervene in their lives if it were shabbily dressed.”
There is a serious side to stereotypes. As history has shown, they can contribute to discrimination and prejudice, often reflected by offensive jokes. As in: What do you get when you cross an Italian with a Mexican? A gangster on welfare. At the extreme end of stereotyping, there have been persecution and mass murder, viz. Nazi Germany or Rwanda.
To get back to the survey of tourists: it confirmed some widely-held stereotypes and raised questions over others. Why do people from France and Spain, the world’s top two tourist destinations (The U.S. is third) behave in ways they would criticise in visitors to their own countries?
As to the Americans: they were rated the loudest, least tidy and worst complainers. They owe their ranking as the 9th best to generous spending and tipping and to their willingness to try and communicate in the local language. Who ranked first? The Japanese.