Arrogance Away

Americans Behaving Badly Out of Country

 Our internet connection was out�a serious problem for the booth on site at World Youth Day (with the Pope) in Toronto, Canada.

So I hiked the hundred feet or so to the official Exhibition Office to chat with the woman in charge about what could be done. I waited while a journalist from the U.S. discussed with her how to get a television feed. She was originally from Quebec , and he was having a bit of trouble with her French-accented English. Unable to accept this confusion as a normal part of an international gathering, he mocked her accent (which I had no trouble with) and then lectured her on why he couldn’t understand her.

Several times in Toronto I wanted to hide my face, or at least my U.S. citizenship, due to the bad behavior of fellow Americans. At a large international assembly I helped coordinate, a young man from the Midwest went to the microphone and started off the sharing by ungratefully criticizing the “way too salty Canadian breakfast” he had received from his host family. There were dozens of Canadians present. I wondered what exactly he thought he was doing.

I could go on.

We Americans are generally good folk, I think. We are innovative and friendly, earnest and try to play by the rules. We believe in God in large numbers. But at moments like these, it becomes easy to understand why so many people from other countries complain about us. In certain circumstances, we look positively arrogant.

Now nearly everyone secretly believes his or her culture is the best, and generally everyone has license to act that way in the privacy of the homeland. But when traveling in other people’s countries, or when acting on the world stage, it is customary to show a little humility, or at least a little consideration for the mores, customs, and feelings of other peoples.

Sometimes Americans abroad, be we traveler or politician, seem to lose track of the “humility and consideration thing.” On the tourist front, we start behaving like the “ugly American” stereotype, demanding life work exactly like it does in the States no matter where we are. (And on another note, would it kill us to show a little hospitality and friendliness to foreign visitors and immigrants when they show up in the United States? That also might improve our reputation abroad.)

Then there is the political front. The U.S. government seems to have again found that there is only one international agenda worth paying any attention to�ours. So we “go it alone” on everything from Iraq to the environment to rejecting the International Criminal Court, and friends and enemies get the message that, “The Americans think they are special�everyone has to practice diplomacy and play by the rules except for them.”

Is that why so many people in the world seem to dislike us? To them we look arrogant�we will do and say what we want with seemingly little concern or respect for anyone else.

But we aren’t really like that, are we? I never thought so. At the very least, there is a lot more to the American character�freedom, optimism, drive, pragmatism, tolerance, respect for the law, vision, wisdom from an openly ambiguous history. But I fear, unless we set a better example, a lot of people around the world may never find out all that good stuff.