Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

10.03.12

Are Americans Really So Rude?

The legend of American rudeness exceeds the reality.

Rod Dreher writes a post on preparing his children to go to France by researching local customs; naturally, the comments section fills up with complaints about how rude Americans abroad are.  I haven't been contrarian for oh, at least 18 hours, so let me make a counterargument: Americans aren't any ruder than any other group.  They're just more numerous.  

I've spent a bit of time working abroad, and a fair amount of time travelling there, and it is, of course, true that one sees rude Americans in many place.  There they are, asking questions in English louder and louder as if they can communicate by volume what they lack in the way of local idiom.  Or sprawling out and taking up too much space in a crowded restaurant.  Yes, I have cringed listening to Americans complain about how much smaller and dingier everything is compared to home.  And compared to, say, the French, our voices sure do carry, don't they?  How about you turn it down to 11, DJ USA?

But you know who's also kind of loud?  Groups of Australians, drunk Germans, British soccer fans.  You know who also spends a lot of time complaining about how crap everything is in a foreign country?  Almost every nationality of tourist I ever encountered in New York--and yes, that joke about how Americans are all monolingual is really funny, but unfortunately, given the forty minute rant you just delivered about the poor quality of our food, public transit, street cleaning, portion size, fashion sense and exercise regimes, not actually true.  For that matter, I have sat behind parties of Brits and Irish running through the same sort of litany.  Presumably, they think we talk so loud because we're all deaf.  

Judging from my experiences abroad, we're rather less prone to committing drunken assaults, or vomiting in the gutter, than some nationalities I could mention.  And I've never witnessed Americans lecture foreign tourists on their nation's crime rate, foreign policy, or welfare state--something that I've seen inflicted on Americans multiple times, including me.   On the flip side, I've seen Americans go far out of their way to help lost tourists or make them feel at home--something that hasn't been true of the locals in every country I've visited.  An American, upon hearing a tourist's foreign accent, is apt to be fascinated and eager to talk.  An American accent rarely has the same charm abroad.

This does not, of course, mean that all foreigners are drunken boors.  Every nationality has some genuinely rude people: the kind who think that everything is better at home and foreigners are rather stupid and backwards.  Some of those people travel, and some of the rest inflict their bad manners on tourists.  I'm sure there are Americans who say dreadful things to tourists; I just haven't happened to be there when it happened, because I don't spend that much time around tourists.  And of course, most of the people I've met in every country have been perfectly nice, helpful souls of courtesy.

To be sure, there probably are more rude American tourists abroad, simply because there are more Americans, particularly more Americans with the money for package tours.  But the legend is enhanced by the fact that everyone thinks that Americans are rude.  When they see a rude American, therefore, they chalk it up to our nationality, while Italian and Spanish and British jerks are just jerks.  

Moreover, not all of the identified "rudeness" is actually rude; it's just different customs.  It's not rude for an American to talk louder, handle a fork in a different way, slouch in their chair, or prefer their beer cold. It's not even ridiculous--certainly no more ridiculous than someone thinking that their own very local tastes were handed down by God along with the ten commandments.  Over the years, I have heard an inordinate amount about the American practice of wearing clothing emblazoned with the name of their college, as if it were somehow offensive to bring a Notre Dame sweatshirt into such close proximity with the Mona Lisa.  If you wouldn't mount the same complaint about someone showing up at the Louvre in a shalwar kameez, then please, stop with the damn sweatshirts.  We, too, are entitled to our local sartorial customs.  

What we are is kind of parochial and not all that well dressed, but these are not actually crimes against manners.  The fact is that local norms differ, and it's not reasonable to expect that any group of tourists will have mastered all of them before they venture abroad.  There's a difference between genuine rudeness of the kind that everyone should know not to engage in--like vomiting in the street, or asking "Why does your country suck so much?"--and simple ignorance of how it's done here.  Many tourists are not so adept at conforming to America's very strict customs about standing in line, but are they really rude?  Or do they just not realize that they're violating the local rules?

America is bigger than most countries, and also, isolated from everyone except Mexico and Canada by a lot of land and a very large ocean.  This means that we spend relatively more time travelling around our own nation, and relatively less time travelling abroad, and so we've had less time to accustom ourselves to other ways.  

It is, of course, polite to try to conform as much as possible to the local customs--but it is also polite to understand that people will make mistakes.  In America, the well-mannered way to handle these little frictions is to make allowances for differences between countries, and usually, to ask them where they're from and how they're enjoying their trip.  But of course, I understand that local custom may vary.