Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Excuse me, Pepe Le pew, which way to the Awful Tower?

I see the British aren't above lazy stereotype. Here's how a reporter for the London Telegraph describes us in a recent article:

Loud and brash, in gawdy garb and baseball caps, more than three million of them flock to our shores every year. Shuffling between tourist sites or preparing to negotiate a business deal, they bemoan the failings of the world outside the United States.

The reputation of the "Ugly American" abroad is not, however, just some cruel stereotype, but - according to the American government itself - worryingly accurate.

Time to focus group it!

Now, the State Department in Washington has joined forces with American industry to plan an image make-over by issuing guides for Americans travelling overseas on how to behave.

Under a program starting next month, several leading U.S. companies will give employees heading abroad a "World Citizens Guide" featuring 16 etiquette tips on how they can help improve America's battered international image.

Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), a non-profit group funded by big American companies, has also met Karen Hughes, the head of public diplomacy at the State Department, to discuss issuing the guide with every new U.S. passport. The goal is to create an army of civilian ambassadors.

Nice try, but first off few are likely to read those pamphlets. And if Karen Huges has anything to do with, Americans abroad will be recast as pleasant zombies, quick with a smile and unfailingly bland.

The guide offers a series of "simple suggestions" under the slogan, "Help your country while you travel for your company". The advice targets a series of common American traits and includes:

• Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller. (In many countries, any form of boasting is considered very rude. Talking about wealth, power or status - corporate or personal - can create resentment.)

• Listen at least as much as you talk. (By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you're visiting about themselves and their way of life.)

• Save the lectures for your kids. (Whatever your subject of discussion, let it be a discussion not a lecture. Justified or not, the US is seen as imposing its will on the world.)

• Think a little locally. (Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. What we call "soccer" is football everywhere else. And it's the most popular sport on the planet.)

• Slow down. (We talk fast, eat fast, move fast, live fast. Many cultures do not.)

• Speak lower and slower. (A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.)

• Your religion is your religion and not necessarily theirs. (Religion is usually considered deeply personal, not a subject for public discussions.)

• If you talk politics, talk - don't argue. (Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking US politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)

I'm sort of torn on this one. It'd be nice if people followed this guide here in the states. However, as an opinionated, occassionally brash American, I don't like being told how to act.

Does the Japanese government advise its citizenry not to take picutres of everything when they're abroad?

And I suspect the stereotype is a broad generalization conveniently embraced by the rest of the world at odds with our foreign policy. A spokesman for the National Tourism Agency for Britain concurs:

"Americans have a certain reputation which, for the majority, is undeserved. These guidelines sound like good common sense but they're not something the majority of our American visitors need."

No wonder our government is spending money on it.

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