A Message From Academic Affairs
A MESSAGE FROM THE OFFICE OF INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMS
As the twenty-first century gets under way, the American Empire continues to loom large in people’s thoughts. This is complicated by the reality that while most of the planet sees the United States as an empire, we don’t. The politics of identity is therefore manifesting a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. Our view of self is different from others’ view of us. This creates challenges when American students go abroad.
What’s wrong with Americans when they go abroad to experience other cultures? Unless they are appropriately and reliably educated beforehand, plenty. All stereotypes should be taken with a grain of salt. As one commentator put it, forty unruly football [“soccer” in this country] fans in a stadium of 20,000 have ruined Britain’s reputation abroad. Nonetheless, there is a view that Americans are loud, large and disrespectful. This view in combination with the view of Americans as imperial citizens, can be a highly volatile mixture.
Noted public opinion analyst John Zogby has written a book that expresses the view that Americans are changing in the way they approach the world. In The Way We’ll Be, he argues that Americans are “being redefined by four meta-movements: living with limits as consumers and citizens; embracing diversity of views and ways of life; looking inward to find spiritual comfort; and demanding authenticity from the media, our leaders, and leading institutions.” Basing his arguments on polling data and many in-depth interviews, Zogby notes that while these tendencies are found most commonly among those aged 18 to 29, these beliefs and attitudes are emerging across the American public. But this transformation will take time. Meanwhile the negative view of the American empire and its citizens persist.
To loudly protest the justice of this characterization would only serve to reinforce it in the minds of many. The key is to be conscious of the stereotype and to work to counter it through actions. Some advice is therefore – humbly – offered:Dress appropriately. In many countries covering arms, legs, head and ankles is a sign of respect of the culture in which you are operating. Wearing shorts and tank tops while viewing churches and museums in Italy is not good form. Neither would it be particularly smart in an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem or a university campus in Botswana.
Be wary of what you choose to photograph. Wielding your digital camera can be wildly offensive if directed at children, families, or secure sites of a military nature.
Pay in local currency. The American dollar is not accepted everywhere. You’re in a foreign country. They don’t have to accept your currency.
Learn the language. This is a challenge for many, indeed most. But at least initiating a conversation in the local language will pay huge dividends in terms of respect and goodwill. To begin a conversation with “Do you speak English?” conveys at best, an indifference to the local culture.
Be polite, flexible and respectful in times of stress. I’m not thinking about behavior in a war zone – happily, I have no experience with this. My thoughts are drawn more towards the travels delays due to airport construction, industrial action or mechanical problems or acts of nature. Be gentle. Don’t loudly demand that your flight be re-scheduled yesterday. Our lives tend to be governed by the clock. Others are not so ruled.
Avoid overt displays of nationalism. You’re proud of being an American and there is much about which we can be proud. But the empire isn’t always held in as high esteem as we imagine. According to polling by Gallup and PEW, there is almost no country in the world in which attitudes toward the United States haven’t declined dramatically since 2000. You shouldn’t have to forsake or deny your identity – no one should – but it might be prudent to avoid flag lapel pins, sweatshirts with nationalist logos, or cell phones with national anthem ringtones.
When traveling, try to leave as much of your culture and everyday existence behind. Seek cultural competence and embrace the differences to whatever extent you can.
Perhaps the 20th century was “The American Century” as Time magazine’s founder Henry Luce, famously predicted. The jury is still out on the 21st. But however it evolves, it is important that we endeavor to be of the world and not merely in it.
Kim Tunnicliff, Director of International ProgramsGrants