Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.

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