The unquiet Americans

Their culture may dominate the world, but there’s nothing like meeting American tourists overseas to give you a glowing sense of superiority. Because everyone was away from their desks yesterday stuffing their faces with chocolate, you may have missed a great opportunity to feel smug in yesterday’s Herald. It seems that even the US State Department now recognises the problem, and even more surprisingly, wants to do something about it.

They’ve released a sensible checklist of suggestions under the slogan “Help your country while you travel for your company.” And given the irritating patriotism that surely tops anyone’s list of things they hate American travellers, an appeal to that overdeveloped sense of national duty may just work.

The suggestions are pretty sensible, including “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.”

I love this, because it highlights how arrogantly stupid it is to call a domestic competition the “World Series”. Much as they arrogantly refer to the NBA champions as the “world champions”. I think what makes us all most angry may be the way that America is that it simultaneously dominates the world while having not the slightest bit of interest in it.

Can you imagine an Aussie rabbiting on about AFL to foreigners, assuming they’ll be interested in it? Although our problem’s opposite – we’re keenly aware of most of the rest of the world, and how very far we are from it.

I think the list, though, can be summarised in one simple rule, which is unfortunately anathema to anyone raised on Oprah. This list is basically telling Americans: don’t be yourself.

Anyway, the website about all this is just as funny, actually. How do they propose that all this be implemented? “Designate an executive to attend BDA roundtable discussions where best practices can be shared, collective actions discussed and new tactics devised.” I haven’t been to no roundtable, but surely stopping speaking in business-ese like that has to be a great start for improving communication abroad.

But if they’re serious about improving America’s image abroad, they need to greatly expand the list of don’ts for their travellers.

Other countries have different food from ours: Some countries do not have the delicious treats of modern America. Some nations do not even have ready supplies of spray-on cheese. And even though McDonald’s and KFC is everywhere, residents of foreign countries may want you to eat at one of their unusual ethnic restaurants – and yes, there are foreign foods other than Tex-Mex. Eat a small amount then go for a burger later.

Other nations eat less (not applicable for visits to Australia): This may be foreigners are, in general, less fat. Therefore, what you perceive as a starter may actually be a main course. Don’t comment on this. Just feel quietly smug that your land is so much richer than theirs.

Respect other people’s religions: When you see a Palestinian wedding party, try not to bomb it.

Be conscious of cultural differences: In the rest of the world, for instance, Deuce Bigalow is simply not funny. Nor is Adam Sandler.

Free speech is important, but not universal:
This might be difficult for you to understand, but not everyone thinks free speech at all times is good. You may find yourself better able to understand this if you ask any foreigner their honest opinion of President Bush.

Read up on your destination: A bit of research before you go can save a lot of hassle. For example, you might want to check on whether a nation will welcome an invading force with “garlands of flowers” or a prolonged and deadly insurgency.

Not everybody hates the French: You will be fine in England, but minimise your use of the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. Be aware that this will go down particularly badly on visits to France.

Make a token effort to speak other languages:
Your accent will be so appalling that the foreigners will gladly converse with you in English just to stop you massacring their native tongue.

Not everyone is glad of America’s military presence:
As strange as this may seem, some countries view American troops as sinister rather than reassuring. Take for instance the residents of Okinawa, who are strangely against American troops just because our base totally dominates their island and the troops have committed a whole bunch of violent crimes over the years.

Try to understand of “irony”: This is a tough one, but the rest of the world often doesn’t mean what it says, and in fact is sarcastically saying the opposite to what they actually think. For instance, when the characters on The Simpsons patriotically chant “USA, USA”, this is a coded ironic message to the rest of the world that the idea of mindlessly chanting “USA, USA” is stupid. And yes, they should be arrested for doing that.

Add your own suggestions and I’ll email the list to “Business for Diplomatic Action.” I’m sure they’ll reply abusively. Will they never learn?

Dominic Knight