In this post, I shared some of the most popular and (for the most part) totally nonsensical, blatantly untrue stereotypes that seem to never go away about England and its citizens. Since I never turn down the opportunity to offend all people equally, I’ve decided to turn the tables. What do the Brits (and the rest of the world) think of us? Are they right? This time I can be honest without fear of any retribution. After all, I’m an American, and that gives me the right to say every disparaging thing about our country that I can think of, if I’m so inclined. So, here we go!
1. We’re fat
I just did a google image search for ‘stereotypical American’. In addition to the lovely image above with the exposed belly fat and the hamburger, I saw this, one:
Far more depressing than the cartoon, because it’s real. And no one can pretend that this stereotype isn’t true. According to a Telegraph article, the global average human adult ways about 137 lbs. I am considered a normal weight for my height, but I am about 15 lbs over that. The US is the third most obese country on the planet (our average weight is around 180 lbs), beaten only by Micronesia and Tonga. So the stereotype is true; more true for our country than the vast majority of them. Of course that doesn’t mean every American is fat. But, we just can’t deny that this is true of our country as a whole, which means it must be true for many of the tourists from America visiting countries like Britain. But, let’s put it in a bit of context. The UK is actually number 10 on the list, with their average at 167 lbs. So at a whopping 13 pounds lighter than we are, I would say there’s not much difference between our two countries, when it comes to the ravages of obesity. And I’ve seen how busy the McDonald’s is on Oxford Street (for just one example), and I’m fairly certain that not everyone in that restaurant is American. Conclusion: It’s true, but it’s also true for the UK, so they can shut up.
1a-All we eat is hamburgers and hot dogs. This is patently untrue, obviously. We also eat tacos, barbecue, and delivery pizza. I’m joking, of course. There are tons of different types of restaurants in the US, and in large cities you can find any kind of cuisine you want. On the other hand, there are areas in the country, largely in the rural areas, some suburbs, and and particularly in poorer inner city areas, where there is an absolute culinary wasteland. You can’t find anything that’s not a chain restaurant without some real effort. I grew up in the Midwest, and though I don’t know if my situation was typical, I didn’t have anything that would be described as ethnic food until I was about twenty. No Chinese food, no Italian that wasn’t spaghetti, not even authentic Mexican food. That’s not something you would encounter in the UK, that’s for sure. They eat a lot of Indian food, and Chinese and other East Asian cuisines are very popular as well, mostly due to the Imperial history of the country. On the other hand, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, Pizza Express, etc., are very popular there as well. They also seem to enjoy American-style fried chicken, but I never found any Mexican food that a Mexican would actually recognize. Lots of foods that we take for granted as staples, like barbecue, chili, pancakes and a lot of breakfast foods, I didn’t see once while I was there. The cuisines are just different, and I never saw any reason to think one was better or worse than the other. In both cultures, you can find interesting and wonderful restaurants where you can try something new; in both countries you can find absolute trash to eat. And in both countries there are people that prefer the great restaurants, and people that prefer the trash.
2. We’re rude.
There are a few components to this stereotype.
2a. We are loud–I don’t think that I’m the best person to comment on this. Anyone who has ever met me knows that I am one of the more quiet people in the world. I know people have a hard time hearing me, and when I have to speak louder than I’m naturally inclined, I feel like I’m making a spectacle of myself. My dad’s failing hearing causes me to be mortified whenever I am out with him, because not only do I have to yell, but so does anyone else he needs to converse with. So, obviously, it’s not true of all Americans, but only a moron thinks any of these stereotypes (or any stereotypes) are universally true. But, I do think I am in the minority in my mumbling soft-spoken ways. People here are loud, and it generally doesn’t occur to them that they should be ashamed of it. It’s not rudeness in the traditional sense, just a sort of lack of self-awareness. An article in the New York Times had a British perspective on the difference in decibels between the two cultures:
Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially.
2b. We don’t speak the language–Obviously this is more about us in countries other than the UK, but since we seem to have a lot of problems with their slang, it’s nearly true there too.
This is, I have to say, true. Totally true. I speak Italian pretty well (though my skills are starting to atrophy), but most people I know don’t speak another language at all. You have to really want to speak it well and remember it in order to move beyond menu ordering levels in foreign languages. Most people take Spanish or French in high school, and you learn so laughably little that there is no way to function in another language in another country. I took Spanish for four years, but I wouldn’t presume to say I speak it. (Though I will happily tell anyone that listens about the time I successfully asked where to find some Chuck Taylor’s in Barcelona, and comprehended the answer…well, I found the shoes anyway). For the most part, we don’t need to be fluent. When we travel internationally, the fact that we don’t speak the language is not in itself rude, nor do I think it’s particularly unusual. There is more of a focus on foreign languages in Europe, because international travel is more common, but that doesn’t mean every British citizen speaks 5 languages. The rudeness lies not in our not speaking the language, but in our expecting others to speak English. This is a rampant behavior. There is no reason to assume that other countries are filled with English speakers. I mean, if someone comes from France or China and assumes you speak French or Chinese, wouldn’t you find that to be…moronic? My advice: If you’re going to a foreign country, learn some basics–hello, goodbye, thank you, please, some food info, 1-10, etc. Make an effort to use them. Before I went to France, I learned to say those basics, plus “I’m a vegetarian”. It took about two days to learn those and remember them. I can’t say I stunned anyone with my French, but they really do give you points for trying.
2c. We don’t know the customs–I’ll discuss this separately under the heading of our general ignorance.
Just a note that these accusations of rudeness tend to come out when we travel, more than when people travel here. Most visitors to America from the UK have, I think, a generally positive and possibly surprisingly positive impression of Americans in our natural habitat. Which just means that these stereotypes must be pretty rampant, and are naturally not as true as they seem to be to people who haven’t been here.
3. We’re uber-religious and love guns
Obviously neither of these are true for me (a running theme of this post), or large chunks of the American populace. But think about the sort of people you know who are very religious, and fit into your own stereotypes of rednecks. Wouldn’t they be the sort of loud, obnoxious morons that would draw a lot of attention if you put them in the middle of Piccadilly Circus? People for which these are true do stand out when they encounter other (different) cultures. I think most people know that our gun control (or lack there of) laws are incredibly lax compared to Britain and most of Europe. We also have a lot more gun violence than those countries. The police don’t even carry guns in the UK (with a few exceptions). That’s all you really have to know to see why we seem like gun nuts to them. As to religion, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, 73% of UK citizens describe religion as not important to their lives; only 27% described it as important. In the US, that ratio was nearly flipped, with 65% describing it as important and only 35% say it isn’t important. I remember when I was going to the UK, I said something to my Dad about the UK not being very religious. He informed me that I was totally wrong, because of all the hullabaloo with Henry VIII and the Catholic church. I had to point out to him that things had changed in the last 450 years. Compared the UK, the US is more religious on average. Some states, like say Alabama and Mississippi, according to a Gallup poll, rate religion as far more important than even the rest of the country (those states rank it as similar importance to countries like Iran, where the religion and the government go hand in hand). This should surprise no one who has lived in the US for any length of period, but to the UK citizen, they seem to think of us all that way.
4. We’re ignorant of world events, politics, etc.
This map isn’t very accurate, of course. It’s hyperbole. Also, no idea why Antarctica is filled with Aliens. I would go with Penguins. And Polar Bears, according to some people (I’m looking at you, boyfriend). But, it is absolutely true that a lot of Americans are entirely ignorant about most of the world. I like to think of myself as pretty informed; much more so than your average American, but probably less so than I should be. However, I have no problem admitting that I am pretty ignorant compared to a lot of only moderately-informed Brits. Why? The news! The news there takes a much more world-conscious approach than ours. The BBC news is amazing compared to ours. And not just compared to stuff you know is absolute nonsense, like the Onion or Fox News, but compared to actual news like CNN. I’m not saying that Britain doesn’t have its share of muckraking rubbish (News of the World!), but you can easily be exposed to much more comprehensive news stories about (gasp!) other countries! And not just other countries that they’re currently at war with, but actual other countries that are just existing independent of us.
So how dumb are we? Well, most people in this country couldn’t pass our own citizenship test–according to a Newsweek quiz.
Newsweek also reports that: In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.
I’m not certain why the US is so insular in its education, news, concerns. Part of it must be a certain degree of geographical isolation. Even in the 21st century, we’re just far as fuck away from a lot of other countries. (But is Canada this way? They have the same geography, but a totally different level of status in the world. Any Canadians reading this, let me know.) Then there’s also, undoubtedly, a mean kid attitude that comes from being the biggest guy on the playground. We don’t have to care, so we make less effort to do so. But I wish we would. I have no arguments with this stereotype; it’s true.
5. We dress badly
There are a few factors that make a big difference with this one. First of all, it absolutely has to be acknowledged that Americans dress in a far more casual manner in every possible situation than most of Europe. We just do. We are much more likely to wear shorts, jeans, old clothes, baggy clothes, and things that cost under 20 dollars at Walmart, than I think anywhere else in the world. I am guilty of dressing fairly casual–I like jeans, what can I say? I enjoy a dress or skirt too, but I live in jeans. We are also one of the fatter countries, which, unless you put in a lot of effort to still look good, can make it a lot harder to look stylish. As a country, we have absolutely no concept on how to buy clothes that fit us properly. I wonder if this is because it’s so hard to find a tailor here? Anyway, combine it all and no matter if we’re in our Sunday best, we’re going to look less stylish and less professional than a lot of Brits, even in their casual wear.
Europeans in general tend to wear darker colors and more professional clothes in all situations. They tend to be thinner. The climate means they are more likely to layer their clothes (the climate cannot explain why when Americans are cold they often don a sweatshirt with screen printed horses and the Brits put on a cashmere v-neck pullover). They put more effort into how they look, and I’m not really sure why that’s a cultural norm in Europe and not here.
On the other hand, I have noticed the same sort of general poshness when wandering around NYC and especially Washington, D.C. that I found in London. When you have groups of intelligent, reasonably affluent, educated people living together, you’re going to have some well-dressed people. It just seems that those well-dressed people are more prevalent in the UK than here.
I think the stereotype is reinforced by the fact that the majority of Americans visit the UK in the summer on vacation–re: they are wearing shorts or capris, sandals or trainers (tennis shoes). Undoubtedly, our vacation clothes are our worst. Some of this is necessary–I am not going to be walking miles and miles in London in my work flats, even if they are flats. I am bringing trainers. Some of it is unnecessary. I do not need a bum bag (fanny pack); I do not need to wear a shirt with an American flag on it. No one needs to wear an American flag shirt, come to think of it. That brings me to the last item on the list:
6. We’re overly patriotic
This is a matter of opinion, because a lot of people will tell you that we have a right to think our country is the greatest in the world, etc. etc. etc. We have a really great history, and they ingrain that shit into your head for the first 10 years of school. I can’t remember learning anything in history class until I was in …possibly high school that involved anything other than the American Revolution, and maybe something about the Civil War. We are taught more about the revolutionary war than I think anything else as children. People know about the founding fathers, etc., even when they don’t know who the current VP is. And it is a great story. It’s a really noble story. But! We have a habit, starting with the revolutionary war, of white-washing over all the facts. We have deified those men so much that even nearly 250 years later, we’re still doing it. A book called ‘The Jefferson Lies‘ was published by Glenn Beck’s favorite historian that was pulled by the publisher (I know, right, what a loss to the world) because it was full of untrue rubbish. The point of the book was to show that Jefferson was a devout orthodox Christian. This about the president who made his own bible which contained no references to Jesus being a supernatural being with any sort of powers–he was just a man in Jefferson’s rendition, and the tales of the New Testament change from God myths to morality tales. I would like to know how David Barton, the author, addressed the whole slavery issue in this book, but my guess is he ignored it. Anyway, I digress. We glaze over the unpalatable parts of our own history and embrace the myth and the idea of America. And we embrace it on our clothing. I have no arguments for this; I don’t understand it. Obviously, I am not this way, or this would be a blog about how great American culture is. The only thing I can say is that we aren’t all like this. I swear, we aren’t.
So, after this incredibly long look at stereotypes of Americans, the sad thing I must conclude is that a lot of them are true. But, like any stereotype, they are only true of some part of the population, and adherence to them can vary wildly from place to place. America is a huge country, especially compared to the UK, and you won’t find the same people in Portland that you find in Atlanta, for example, same as you won’t find the same people in London that you find in Belfast. The moral of the story is that there are idiots everywhere, and there are smart, thoughtful people everywhere.
I embrace and welcome any arguments people want to make, or if anyone has stereotypes to add to my list, let me know.