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30 Apr, 2006

Guide To Help Americans Dispel Stereotype of the “Ugly American”

Originally Published: 30 April 2006

A group of U.S. students has compiled a guide to help Americans travelling abroad “dispel the stereotype of the Ugly American”. In an amazingly forthright piece of market research that would apply more to the U.S. government than U.S. citizens, the guide identifies the four root causes of anti-American sentiment thus: U.S. public policy, the negative effects of globalization, “our popular culture and our collective personality.”

The advice it offers the roughly 55 to 60 million Americans who travel abroad annually is just as applicable to U.S. public policy: “Refrain from lecturing. Whether on pollution, energy usage or the environment, it’s not a polite stance. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes a whole nation of them. Rightly or wrongly the U.S. is seen as appointing itself as policeman, judge and jury to the world. Be aware of this perception and try to understand other viewpoints.”

It adds: “Be proud, not arrogant. People around the world are fascinated by the U.S. and the lives we Americans live. They admire our openness, our optimism, our creativity and our “can-do” spirit. But that doesn’t mean they feel less proud of their country and culture. Be proud of being an American, but resist any temptation to present our way as the best way or the only way.”

According to the www.worldcitizensguide.com website [where an abridged version of the guide is posted], the guide was compiled by five students at the Temerlin Advertising Institute, at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in cooperation with a group called Business for Diplomatic Action, Inc. (BDA) based on the philosophy that “the negative stereotypes about our collective personality are something (American) travelers can help to change.”

According to the website, the BDA “realized that America’s favorability in other countries was decreasing. In a search for answers there was a huge listening exercise with people all over the world participating.”

Says the Guide, “Every year an estimated 70,000 college students from the U. S. study abroad. That’s a lot of potential ambassadors who can make a change simply by being good world citizens.”

A detailed backgrounder on the project, posted on the website, says that it began in the fall of 2003 with a global listening effort led by Keith Reinhard, chairman of the advertising agency DDB Worldwide, who reached out to more than 200 DDB offices overseas, asking foreign nationals, “If you could advise Americans on what they could do to be a better global citizen and reduce resentment towards them, what would you say?”

According to the website, the response filled several notebooks. In January 2004, the BDA asked Dr. Patty Alvey, director of the Temerlin Advertising Institute and an advisor to the BDA board of directors, to develop a booklet for students studying abroad. She assembled a group of her best advertising students for the six-month project.

The SMU students began by researching what was already available to young people. Most of the books offered information, generally about the logistics of travel — exchange rates, road signs, hotels, etc. — or warnings about safety and crime in certain locales. Nothing was available that addressed the mindset of young travellers, with content that would make their experiences abroad richer.

The students next sought input from 50 students from across the U.S. who had studied abroad. These responses helped to form the tone of the Guide. Once the design and 90 percent of the content were developed, the students approached 100 other SMU students who were about to begin a study abroad program. They asked them to read the Guide and offer feedback.

With the support of a major soft drinks giant, copies of the guide have been distributed around U.S. college campuses.

The Guide stresses, “For years, many people in the world have had a great fondness for America. They admired our culture, our products, and our cheerful, fun-loving nature. However, there has been a significant shift in those feelings. Research studies show that, for a number of reasons, ‘favorability’ ratings for America are declining around the world.

“While it is true that negative feelings towards (Americans) may result from perceptions more than reality, it is also true that perceptions are more powerful opinion-makers. You, and the 55-60 million people, who travel abroad each have a unique opportunity to change at least some impressions of us from negative to positive. By following the few simple suggestions in this guide, you can have a better travel experience while showing America’s best face to those you visit.”

Among its tips:

<> Think big. Act small. Be humble. In many countries, boasting is considered very rude. It’s easy to resent big, powerful people. Assume resentment as a default and play down your wealth, power and status. When Americans meet each other for the first time, our job (and implied status) is a key part of “who” we are, and how we introduce ourselves. This is less important elsewhere, and can be perceived as braggadocio.

<> Most people believe that Americans have the most fun when they are in their own company. Prove them wrong. The world is full of interesting and exciting things, people and places you might never have heard of. Take some of it in.

<> Be patient. We talk fast. Eat fast. Move fast. Live fast. Many cultures do not. In fact, time is understood very differently around the world. In the short term, speed and instant satisfaction are less important than enjoying a new culture.

<> Celebrate our diversity. We are a giant patchwork of many cultures, and not the singular people others envision. Find a way to share that.

<> Dialogue instead of monologue. When you’re talking about the U.S. and your life there, ask people you’re visiting how what you’ve said compares to what they do and how they live in their country.

<> Keep religion private. Globally speaking, religion is not something you wear on your sleeve. Often it is considered deeply personal — not public. Some may have no knowledge of the Bible, nor is it appropriate to tell them about it unless you are a professional missionary identified as such.

<> Be quiet. Less is more. In conversation match your voice level to the environment and other speakers. A loud voice is often perceived as a bragging voice. Casual profanity is almost always considered unacceptable.

<> Check the atlas. You may not believe anyone could confuse “Australia” with “Austria,” but it happens. Everyone’s home is important to them. It’s helpful if you familiarize yourself with local geography.

<> Talk about something besides politics. Make yourself aware of the political environment of the region but don’t offer a view if you don’t have to. If pushed, ask the people with whom you’re having a conversation what their thoughts are. Listen first. Then speak. And leave politics alone if you can. Speak of culture, art, food or family if you need another topic.