Oh, That’s SO American

I live in Europe, and “Oh, that’s SO American,” is a line I hear often. I’ll tell you what it means and why it matters in this story of being SO American.

I grew up in a serene, farming community in South Dakota – home of the famous American landmark, Mount Rushmore. I departed my homeland for the first time at 19 years old to spend a summer in Cuernavaca, Mexico learning to dance salsa at the discotecas with some occasional Spanish language learning. Since then, I’ve spent nearly a decade outside of my home country and have lived on four continents.

The first time I fully considered what it meant to be an American was after I joined the Peace Corps. Living with my host family, I realized that I needed my personal space, access to peanut butter, and daily exercise – things many people in developing nations don’t have.

Over the years, I’ve identified less with my nationality and more with being a citizen of the world, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. I’ve also come to learn how others around the world perceive Americans.

I now work in a multinational environment with coworkers coming from 28 different European nations, and stereotypes are often part of the daily discussion. According to these typecasts, the French are snobby. The British are know-it-alls. The Germans are hyper organized. The Dutch are cheap. The Mediterraneans are allergic to work, etc, etc.

Likewise, there are endless stereotypes about Americans. The following are the top ten that I’ve compiled over the past 18 years of living off and on abroad:

10) Americans love air conditioning

9) Americans are too nationalistic

8) Americans don’t understand fine art, food, or wine

7) Americans are too focused on the bottom line, work too many hours, and don’t receive enough vacation

6) Americans think they know better than the rest of the world

5) Americans eat unhealthy, processed food and love McDonald’s

4) Americans don’t know geography or speak foreign languages

3) Americans are happy people with a can-do spirit – but at times naive.

2) Americans are loud

And the number stereotype of being SO American is…

1) Americans are big – their cars, houses, attitudes, physiques, etc

Do you feel hurt or annoyed by any of this? If you do, I understand. For a while, it irked me to be lumped in with these preconceived notions of being SO American. I would get defensive, asserting that none of these stereotypes applied to me, except admittedly, I can be loud.

As I stewed in my juices over these stereotypes, I participated in a training with people from all over Europe. While I was there, I discovered my own ability to stereotype.

First, when working on a small group exercise, I suggested a German be the group leader because Germans are super organized. The German woman gave me a strange look and said, “That’s quite a stereotype.”

Then, at lunch a Scotsman was telling a story about a harrowing incident involving too much whiskey, and I made a comment regarding the Scottish propensity to drink a lot of alcohol. In response, the man looked miffed and said, “Not all Scots drink too much.”

Last, but not least, at a coffee break the subject of why European men wear Speedos came up (a stereotype in itself), and an Italian man stated that his countrymen prefer wearing Speedos because Speedos were more comfortable for swimming. I countered, asserting that Italian men enjoy wearing Speedos to show off their physique. To that, the Italian looked at me and said, “That is an unkind thing to say.”

Knowing that I had said something unkind to a near stranger felt rotten. I realized that I was stereotyping others in the same hurtful way that I disliked. So, I vowed to better adopt the golden rule into my life and do unto others the way I would have them do unto me.

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti.

In stereotyping others – especially in a negative light – we are casting judgment. When we judge others, we are only judging aspects of ourselves that we find inadequate. To quote the Bible, “For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

It’s judgment that leads to conflict among friends and nations: judgment that one group is different or superior. But the truth is we’re all connected. We’re all made of the same material, come from the same source, and return to the same source.

mount-rushmore-construction-above_64400_600x450

Construction of Mouth Rushmore in 1939. What would the world think if the U.S. were carving Mount Rushmore today? Would it be considered too patriotic or over the top?

I used to be a socio-cultural analyst where I had to analyze why ethnicities, tribes, or religions behaved in a certain way. In order to make conclusions, I had to make generalizations. But I knew with every generalization, there were hundreds of caveats and exceptions to the rule.

So yes, we can say, on average, Americans drive big cars. But if you find yourself casting a negative stereotype on any group of people, first consider how you’d like it if others were stereotyping you, and recognize that you are casting judgment.

“When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer

Now when I hear that famous line, “Oh, that’s so American,” I don’t get irked, I just kindly point out that not all Americans fall into whatever stereotype is being referenced. I continually strive to lessen my own stereotyping. I still have my moments, but I’m always aware when it’s happening and resolve to let it go for next time.

In these moments of judgment, I immediately ask: “What aspect of myself am I finding inadequate?” and an answer always appears.

Post a comment: What are your thoughts on stereotyping? What do you find SO American? Are there areas where Americans are unfairly labeled? When do you find yourself doing the most stereotyping? What have you done to judge less?

Take action: Can you bring greater awareness to the judgments you may be making in your life? Is it a people, a race, a nationality, or a neighbor? Can you look at yourself and see if there is some aspect of yourself that you are judging and projecting on to others?

Did you like this content?? Then subscribe to Shanti Pax to receive inspirational stories of peace. I love sharing these stories with you, and in return, I’d be grateful if you “liked” this post and shared it with a few friends.

Remember, it’s the little changes that you make in your daily life that brings greater peace to the whole.

16 replies
  1. Theron
    Theron says:

    A well written post Allyson. I think that stereotyping begins with an observation and may contains a grain of truth. However, it becomes harmful when we are not willing to challenge our pre-conceived notions. Sometimes people fit stereotypes and sometimes they don’t. And if the stereotype is used to be hurtful or hold someone back, then there is a bigger problem. So, it is easier to reserve judgement and comment than have to apologize later.

    Also, I have to laugh a bit about the “American” stereotypes. While I have not traveled internationally as much as you, I have been to several European nations and Central America. I think it is easy to see where some of the stereotypes emerge. I’ve witnessed U.S citizens complaining about the lack of air conditioning, the food, or how some perceived inconvenience wouldn’t happen in an American establishment. My wife and I do our best to challenge these stereotypes, and I believe we have been successful. People that we meet while traveling have thought we were Canadian, Mexican, and Spanish. When we tell them that we are from the United States and they express surprise, it usually starts the conversation that not every American is the same.

    Reply
    • Allyson
      Allyson says:

      Theron, well said! Yes, alas, at times Americans have over the years fallen into these stereotypes whilst traveling abroad. But like you, I love NOT being the stereotype. Thanks so much for the comment.

      Reply
  2. Jim Geers
    Jim Geers says:

    I’ve never lived abroad but have had the privilege of quite a bit of international travel. Some years back I was asked to give a tips/tricks presentation at work to a group of people who were preparing for visits to our company’s overseas facilities. Among the food for thought I gave them was the observation that stereotypes about various cultures exist for a reason and are often accurate. I then hastened to add, there is also a stereotype of Americans that is also accurate, and it’s not especially flattering. I find your bullet points spot on.

    When I read that list I’m forced to concede that, yes, Americans *in aggregate* really do behave that way. And this would be true of all of the cultural stereotypes, in my opinion. But the point, as you illustrate, is to acknowledge and respect each person’s uniqueness, with the emphasis on the values you share.

    Absorbing the unfairness of a stereotype aimed at ourselves goes a long way towards sensitizing us against abusing stereotypes aimed at others. It’s easy to put your foot in your mouth (I’ve done it too) but the response you get will educate you quickly. A spirit of humor and goodwill goes a long way in such situations, LOL.

    I like your ambition to be “a citizen of the world”. I’ve used those exact words. To me that means, at once: 1) cultivating oneself to be less of a stereotypical “Ugly American” 2) viewing all you encounter as individuals and avoiding stereotypical and prejudicial assumptions 3) Acknowledging and celebrating the values you share but also 3) embodying and upholding the very real positive values of American culture and being a good ambassador for them, most especially, the ethic of Liberty, both personal and economic and the sanctity of the rights of individuals.

    Great post.

    Reply
  3. Allyson
    Allyson says:

    Wow fantastic comment, Jim! Thank you so much. I love this: “Absorbing the unfairness of a stereotype aimed at ourselves goes a long way towards sensitizing us against abusing stereotypes aimed at others.” And your points to becoming a citizen of the world are spot on!!

    Reply
  4. Kevin Nelson
    Kevin Nelson says:

    Hello Allyson,
    I don’t have much to add to this post but I enjoy reading them and I am very happy that you have done so well with your life! I will always remember you as very passionate about the things you believed in when we discussed them back in middle school social studies! You just might have gotten that from your parents!!

    Reply
  5. Stella
    Stella says:

    Dear Allyson,

    what a wonderful blog! And I love the new look of the webpage 🙂

    You are so right about stereotypes. And, yes, we use them way too often. When I first came to the U.S. to live there, I was very tempted to categorize whatever I saw or whomever I met. And, after a while, I think I found out why. Because I had never lived overseas, I was trying to make sense of my environment, to make it fit into my horizon, instead of broadening mine, and becoming part of the environment. Of course there are certain things that might be more “typical” for a country, as they might be part of customs or culture, or behaviour. But, really, about 317 million Americans cannot be all the same. And they are definitely not. I have met so many different, wonderful, people here, and the longer I lived here, and forced myself to be as open as possible, to listen, to see, I saw more clearly that really there is no such a thing as “the American.” And I think I love this country now even more that I see the variety of backgrounds, thoughts, world views and so on. So, the best way to overcome stereotypes, from my experience, is to accept that something or someone is different to you and to what you know. Difference can be scary, disturbing, challenging, but in the end, it will simply broaden your horizon.

    Sometimes I still catch myself, for example like now when strolling through Washington D.C., thinking “Oh, these people over there really act like Americans…” And if I happen to start talking to people that I just randomly judged, oh wonder, they often are not as stereotype as I expected them to be. A lot of stereotypes just happen in our heads, and we need to get out of there.

    Reply
    • Allyson
      Allyson says:

      Great to get your perspective as a European living in the U.S. I still catch myself making stereotypes too, but I think being self-aware is the first step to easing the judgement. Thanks so much for the comment.

      Reply
  6. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    Wonderful post, Allyson … Reminds me of many incidents from my own travels – some funny, some embarrassing ha. THere’s a beautiful TED talk on this topic called The Danger of the Single Story that you might enjoy.

    Reply
    • Allyson
      Allyson says:

      Hey Natalie, thank so much for the comment. The Ted Talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was incredible – one of the best I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing it.

      Reply

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