Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Deal with Stereotypes while Travelling

Loud. Proud. Fake. Closed-minded.  Safety-obsessed.  Uptight.  Imposing.  Assuming. Ignorant. These are a few of the American stereotypes I’ve encountered since moving to Edinburgh.

I shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of British and European people have preconceived notions about the United States. People all over the world are exposed to American films, television, sports, and politics every day. With constant exposure these things, of course people will develop opinions of the USA, even if they haven’t met an American before.  Unfortunately, some of these opinions are negative.

In a way, I can’t blame people for being a bit cynical about Americans.  We impose our culture on the rest of the world, and yet we often fail to learn about our global neighbors. But it’s also not fair to make assumptions about people you don’t know, and being subjected to a stereotype can be difficult to deal with.

So, I’ve come up with a few coping mechanisms. 
Laugh it off.  When somebody raises their eyebrows or rolls their eyes after hearing I’m American, I might say “I know, you were expecting a 250-pound, bleached-blonde, ultra-conservative, nut-job.  Sorry to disappoint.”  By addressing the stereotype in an off-hand way, I’m able to challenge them without starting an argument.  Joking around about the stereotypes I don’t take myself too seriously, and helps me make new friends. 
Ask “why do you think that?” Even though it’s tempting to take a defensive position and challenge a stereotype, it’s more constructive to try to understand why that stereotype exists.  Maybe your new Austrian friend thinks American girls are shallow and giggly because he’s watched a lot of teen films from the 90’s.  Or maybe that French girl thinks Americans are rude because she met a lot of pushy American tourists while working in a shop in Paris.  Questioning the root of stereotypes can start interesting conversations—and it shows that you’re concerned with others’ perceptions of your country.
 Just walk away.  If someone’s being blatantly rude or antagonistic towards your nationality, just leave the conversation.  There’s no point in engaging with somebody who’s determined to dislike you. Besides, if someone is closed-minded enough to attack you based only on where you were born, who care’s what they think? 

But please don’t do this…
Some Americans I’ve met abroad have deal with stereotypes by simply “jumping on the bandwagon.”  In just agreeing with whatever assumption about Americans that they come across, they hope to come off as likeable.  They represent themselves as a “rare” and “unique” American, above all the flaws of the rest of their country. 
To me, this is shallow and disingenuous.  Travelers have a responsibility to represent their homes in the best ways possible. This doesn’t mean bragging or denying a country’s flaws, but it does mean being honest about their opinions. People can always tell when someone’s lying to impress others, anyway.
So be honest and polite.  Ask questions.  You may learn something about yourself as well as the people you talk with.  And isn’t that what travel is all about?


  1. What a lovely, thoughtful post. The other thing it's important to remember is that most people butt up against people's preconceptions for myriad reasons - being attractive, ugly, old, fat, too thin, smart, stupid. Usually all it takes is a little time and ice-breaking for those preconceptions to be dispelled. Unless the person is a dick, in which case they're not really worth being friends with anyone.

    Also, my personal hero is Jim Henson, who was American as apple pie.

  2. Thanks, Katie! You're so right- a lot of these issues solve themselves with time, so a lot of the time the best thing to do is be patient. I think it's also important for everyone to remember that they have their own preconceptions of different nationalities, and that a lot of these are sure to be false.

    And you love Jim Henson? He was a champ, but I've got to say The Dark Crystal was one of the strangest things I've ever seen!