Loud and brash, in gawdy garb and baseball caps, more than three million of them flock to our shores every year. Shuffling between tourist sites or preparing to negotiate a business deal, they bemoan the failings of the world outside the United States.
The reputation of the “Ugly American” abroad is not, however, just some cruel stereotype, but – according to the American government itself – worryingly accurate. Now, the State Department in Washington has joined forces with American industry to plan an image make-over by issuing guides for Americans travelling overseas on how to behave.
The ‘Ugly American’ abroad
‘Ugly American’ abroad: Worryingly accurate
Under a programme starting next month, several leading US companies will give employees heading abroad a “World Citizens Guide” featuring 16 etiquette tips on how they can help improve America’s battered international image.
Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), a non-profit group funded by big American companies, has also met Karen Hughes, the head of public diplomacy at the State Department, to discuss issuing the guide with every new US passport. The goal is to create an army of civilian ambassadors.
The guide offers a series of “simple suggestions” under the slogan, “Help your country while you travel for your company”. The advice targets a series of common American traits and includes:
“¢ Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller. (In many countries, any form of boasting is considered very rude. Talking about wealth, power or status – corporate or personal – can create resentment.)
“¢ Listen at least as much as you talk. (By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you’re visiting about themselves and their way of life.)
“¢ Save the lectures for your kids. (Whatever your subject of discussion, let it be a discussion not a lecture. Justified or not, the US is seen as imposing its will on the world.)
“¢ Think a little locally. (Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. What we call “soccer” is football everywhere else. And it’s the most popular sport on the planet.)
“¢ Slow down. (We talk fast, eat fast, move fast, live fast. Many cultures do not.)
“¢ Speak lower and slower. (A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.)
“¢ Your religion is your religion and not necessarily theirs. (Religion is usually considered deeply personal, not a subject for public discussions.)
“¢ If you talk politics, talk – don’t argue. (Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking US politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)
Keith Reinhard, one of New York’s top advertising executives, who heads BDA, said: “Surveys consistently show that Americans are viewed as arrogant, insensitive, over-materialistic and ignorant about local values. That, in short, is the image of the Ugly American abroad and we want to change it.”
The guide also offers tips on the dangers of dressing too casually, the pluses of learning a few words of the local language, use of hand gestures and even map-reading.
Of course, US foreign policy – and perceptions of it – currently has the biggest impact on the image of Americans abroad. President George W Bush recognised this when he appointed Ms Hughes, a close confidante, to head the country’s public diplomacy push. But Mr Reinhard and his colleagues are convinced that individual Americans can also make a difference.
They also want to highlight the positives in foreigners’ impression of the US as a land of opportunity, freedom, diversity and “can-do spirit” by boosting business and domestic travel to America.
“In many parts of the world, America is not getting the benefit of the doubt right now. People prefer to dump on us instead. But for many people, corporate America is their main point of contact, and that’s where we come in.”
Business for Diplomatic Action, which was formed in 2004, has already distributed 200,000 -passport-sized guides tailored to college students going abroad.
The group’s next target is to raise funding for a colourful pictorial World Citizen’s Guide For Kids for children on school or youth group trips. However, a spokesman for the National Tourism Agency for Britain said last night: “Americans have a certain reputation which, for the majority, is undeserved. These guidelines sound like good common sense but they’re not something the majority of our American visitors need. As tourists, they’re out to enjoy themselves and have a good time. We continue to welcome them.”