The Ugly American and other stereotypes

By Bernd Debusmann
July 16, 2009

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

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.

79 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“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?”

Reply: He has turned to online blogging.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

Why the sensitivity Dan? He didn’t say a single bad word about Americans, sheesh.

These type of blogs are exactly what we need to stop stereotypes.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

More than the French is the Parisians with “la salle extranger” that are the arrogant tourists. Paris is a beautiful city but Parisians are haughty. As for Argentines, the joke is that you buy one for the price he is worth and you sell him for the price he believes he is worth.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

Finally! A Reuters mass-debate article that is about something genuinely important. I’m not sure about the version of heaven with the English police though, but I guess that depends on what branch they work for. (I haven’t noticed any ugly American’s on my travels either, which reminds me of a German chap I met while having a cigarette on the side of the road [you can't smoke on a motorbike] who came up and started talking to me in German [I was in Germany] so “I said I might look like a German but I’m not German” [in English] and he said “what does a German look like?” [also in English… they’re good like that, the Germans.)

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

I have to disagree about the anti-French comments. I spent the millenium party at the Moulin-Rouge, had a great time, and was treated courteously the next day when francs were exchanged for eurodollars. I only had one semester of French in college and when I tried to use it, the French were polite and ofter replied in English. If the exchange rate ever gets back to one Euro for one dollar, I will head back!

Posted by James Cannon | Report as abusive

It’s amazing how few people have read the original novel “The Ugly American.” I always find it ironic that the title character is, in fact, only ugly in his facial features, and is a model of how one should behave when abroad: sensitive to local needs and customs, the protagonist is an engineer who works hard to better the lives of the people he meets. Given that this book was written in the 1950s or early sixties, it’s amazing how sympathetically he and those he meets are presented. The unpleasant character is the government official from the embassy who is portrayed as loud, arrogant, and dismissive of the concerns and needs of the locals, sure (in the style of what we generally call an “Ugly American”) that he knows what is best for them.
I strongly recommend reading the book.

Posted by Rob B | Report as abusive

I am an American who owns a house in a colonial Méxican city, and yes I am often embarrassed by American visitors. First, they are much too big and much too pink: I suppose they can’t help that part. Second, you can often hear them before you see them, especially in restaurants. Third, they nearly always are dressed inappropriately. Méxican men only wear shorts on the soccer field and sometimes on the beach. Men over the age of 50 NEVER wear shorts! I don’t think I have ever seen a Méxican woman of any age in shorts in the city. Older Méxican women wear skirts, always. Only very young women wear jeans. Americans come off as being oblivious and clueless. But the sweet Méxicans forgive them because they are free-spending and invariably over-tip!

Posted by Constance | Report as abusive

The problem with using a tourist-based study to assess the truth behind stereotypes is that tourists to other countries are not a random sample of the population. Neither are all regions of a country visited equally by tourists. The US definitely has a fairly small minority of people who travel relatively frequently outside of North America, a larger minority who travel outside of the US on rare, special occasions, and a large group who do not travel outside the US. Witness the great pride exhibited by certain members of congress who paraded their lack of a passport as proof of patriotism. Why, after all, would any true-blooded American go to some foreign place?

Posted by Joy | Report as abusive

RE:”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”

Rather, it is: Hell is where the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are Italian, the police are German and the place is run by the French

Heaven is where the lovers are French, the cooks are Italian, the mechanics are German, the police are English and the place is run by the Swiss

…but things do change

Posted by Pablo | Report as abusive

So the article starts by saying Americans used to be viewed as loud and unpleasant, and finally concludes that Americans are still…loud and unpleasant. I have travelled a great deal and I think the stereotypes are well-deserved all around: passionate Italians, brash Australians, methodical Germans, loud but friendly Americans, drunk Russians, polite but distant English and Canadians. I’ve met several of all of these. I’ve also met some of each who shatter the mold, and have learned it’s best to just meet as many people from all places as possible and get to know them as people, rather than pre-judging them.

Posted by Ken Baker | Report as abusive

Rob B:

The book, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick was published in 1958 and became a bestseller. Its title
became a dual-purpose label, first primarily pasted on inept American officials abroad and later on the kind of traveler who would irritate the natives with boorish manners and garish clothes, feeding anti-American sentiments around the globe.

The book is indeed worth reading, or re-reading. Many of the characters it portrays are alive and well today, in different settings and different countries.

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

Constance, first off, foreigners can’t own property in Mexico. Are you sporting duel citizenship or something? And if you’re seriously going to suggest to me that a country with no middle class somehow “outdresses” Americans is a joke. When did wearing shorts become a problem? It is, after all, really hot in Mexico. Perhaps your “colonial Mexican city” isn’t the norm. Maybe they’re not wearing shorts because they can’t afford them, or they’re waiting on one of their relatives who illegally came to the states to send them back some of OUR money. (see, I can use CAPS too).

Posted by Greggo | Report as abusive

Princeton did an interesting study a few years ago on whether stereotypes change over time. They do, it found. Stereotypes in the U.S. of Italians and Japanese, for example, were much more negative in the 1930s than they are today. The question that is not often asked is to what extent politicians and the media in a free society (as opposed to a dictatorship with a controlled press) are responsible for perpetuating or deepening stereotypes. Anyone remember how “French fries” became “Freedom fries”? The neocons under Bush went out of their way to portray the French as cowards for not joining the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. The conservative media went right along.

Posted by Elvira | Report as abusive

Hate to rain on your politically correct parade Michael, but “stereotypes” are a fact of life. They exist because they are based on facts people can see with thier own eyes. They won’t go away and there is nothing we can do about it. As for Constance, I am embarrased that people like that always look down on thier own country. You can defend the Mexicans if you wish but based on what I have seen they don’t need to be looking down on Americans in the rudeness department. Based on what I see with my own eyes they are extremely surly when I go to thier restaraunts and when they “bump” into me at Wal-Mart (literally). They often come off as arrogant and careless so if Americans do them the same way in thier country, I say HOORAY!!! HAHA!

Posted by Christopher | Report as abusive

I’m an American living in the PRC. Stereotypes abound and the ex-pat community comments on them regularly. They make life easier when dealing with new situations and we all do it. When my children were young I told them stereotypes exist for a reason. Some members of a group live up to them and so we stereo type the group. But, each individual should be judged on their own merits and given the benefit of the doubt even as I would hope others would do for this ugly, old, white (actually kinda gray), big nosed, loud, opinionated, American in China

Posted by Jeff Legue | Report as abusive

We need reminding that “The Ugly American” was the hero of the book with that name. He was an American engineer who created a simple water pumping system for the natives using a bicycle and bamboo, which were local materials easily obtained. His efforts were contrasted in the book to a US government sponsored super highway that ended at the edge of a jungle. Perhaps the original road to nowhere. He was a good man, a simple man and bit ugly. Somewhere along the way he’s been transformed into a tourist. The book was credited with inspiring JFK to create the Peace Corps.

Posted by Richard Guindon | Report as abusive

read mark twain’s *the innocent abroads.* he’s the one who coined the term, “ugly american.”

Posted by gloria monti, ph.d. | Report as abusive

Filipinos are hospitable.

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my time and have found that cultural stereotypes do carry an element of truth in their descriptions. I’m reminded of the old joke that goes, “What is the difference between a group of terrorists and a group of German tourists?” The answer is, “Terrorists have sympathizers.”

Posted by queenofromania | Report as abusive

US AMERICANS -
HAWAIIN SHIRTS in a formal restuarant , big hair and beer belly couples cheap CIGARS AND FAT overtly displayed MONEY CLIPS OF THE DEMANDING NEUVO RICHE ARE NO LONGER the norm. THE KIDS GREW UP EMBARRASSED and learned manners. Also-
The neuvo poor(er) are more humble and less brash.

Posted by dcm | Report as abusive