As a student from the U.S. studying in another country or U.S. territory, regardless of how you may self-identify, host locals may see you first as a U.S. American. Being identified as such, you will be perceived as a representative of the country, its people, and its culture. You are a cultural ambassador of the U.S. This sounds like a lot of responsibility, and it is, so please remember to respect others and to act responsibly. If you are coming from the U.S. and also identify with other cultural identities, be sure to head to the section titled Race, Ethnicity and Nationality, after you get done reading through this one.
Dealing with Assumptions About U.S. Americans and Challenging Negative Stereotypes
There exist many preconceived ideas about who an American is and what they are like. Due to popular media and lack of exposure to the everyday realities of life in the U.S., people around the world might expect all U.S. Americans to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed, anglo-cultured, and culturally conservative. This is despite the fact that we know how much diversity exists within our country’s population. Host locals might think of U.S. Americans as rich and greedy, demanding and arrogant, and politically in line with the U.S. government. However, we know that not all of us have these attributes or attitudes. Host locals might even stereotype us as all being uncultured, unkind, and unintelligent. These stereotypes hurt, and we know they are far from the truth. Thus, as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. while on a Study Abroad or Away program, it is important that you keep these stereotypes in mind as you prepare to challenge them and show the world the diverse realities of U.S. Americans.
Negative Stereotype Attribute Number 1: U.S. AMERICANS ARE RICH AND GREEDY
Studying abroad as a university student from the U.S., a common assumption people may make is that you are rich. And, you very well could be of high socioeconomic status in the U.S., or as many students, you may not be. In most cases, you will have a larger spending power than locals, especially in countries of the Global South, for example. What do you do with this assumption? You should recognize the truth in that you do have the spending power of the U.S. dollar, but you can also be transparent about your financial situation as a university student. If you feel pressured by locals to offer, spend, or give them money, you can kindly refuse. Be responsible with your money, but also fair to local people who recognize your privilege as coming from the U.S. with the power of the dollar currency. As an ambassador of the U.S., don’t try to haggle or low-ball locals for lower prices – that is unfair to local people who are trying to make a living and gives a bad image for people coming from the U.S. If you have the money and are willing to spend it, then do. If you don’t, then don’t.
Negative Stereotype Attribute Number 2: U.S. AMERICANS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR COUNTRY’S FOREIGN RELATIONS.
Many people around the world who are politically inclined pay very close attention to U.S local and foreign policies. As an ambassador for the U.S., you should make yourself knowledgeable about the history or current events between the U.S. and country or territory you will be studying in. Surely, wherever you go, there will be some kind of current or historical event between the two countries. And, in some cases, you might find yourself being held responsible or being regarded with hostility for these past or current events. Whatever your political stance may be and whatever your perspective about these events, you should prepare yourself with knowledge about them. Acknowledge the existence of these events, and if you feel like you need to assure people that you are not personally responsible for them, you can. If you are politically inclined towards the position that the person approaching you with this topic has, you can let them know that you completely agree with them. If you do not agree with what the person has to say, for your safety, it may be best to not share your opinion about it. You can keep it to yourself for the time being, and when you find a like-minded peer you feel safe sharing with, you can do that then. Try to not take these approaches personally but rather recognize that people see you as a representative of the U.S. and thus may want to engage in political dialogue with you.
Negative Stereotype Attribute Number 3: U.S. AMERICANS ARE DEMANDING AND ARROGANT.
Because so many locals have interactions with U.S. Americans who come to their country for a short term holiday or vacation, many of them might have only seen the short side of tourists. Those people they had bad experiences with might not have prepared themselves as well as you are expected to and perhaps came on vacation with only their own personal enjoyment in mind. Some of these short behaviors include demanding high-quality services at low prices and expecting to be treated like faultless royalty at all times. As an international student coming from the U.S., you should prepare yourself to be a guest living and studying in the host country, looking to have a mutually beneficial relationship with your host country and local people.
Steps for Engaging in this Criticism of U.S. Americans:
- Try to Understand the Criticism- Try and talk to your “accuser” and ask questions that may help illuminate this person’s opinion about the United States and the reasons why they might hold them. Does this person get ideas from the media? Movies? Television? Is this something being taught in school? Has this person experienced some form of harassment from an American? If you understand the critic’s motives, or from where their information comes, perhaps you can find some common ground and a more tolerant way to respond.
- Draw Upon Personal Experiences and Observations- When someone asks you a question like, “Why are Americans so wasteful of natural resources?” Your first response might be to say: “Oh, not me.” Whether or not the question is based on fact, one way to respond might be to draw on your own experiences and observations. In this case, you can say that while you cannot speak for the rest of the American population, you have your own personal practices, such as recycling, water conservation or use of public transportation.
- Avoid Becoming Defensive- You sometimes can’t help becoming defensive when you are feeling attacked, but try avoiding getting it as much as possible. Keep an open mind, and remember to try and understand your critic’s motives.
- Become more familiar with common U.S. facts and policies- People in other countries will probably ask you a lot of questions about the United States, on such varied topics as geography, politics, pop culture, etc. They may be questions from, ‘”Who decides whether a person is guilty of a crime?” to, “Does every American wear cowboy boots and ride a horse?” However, it is not uncommon to find that people overseas know a great deal about U.S. politics and policies. You should familiarize yourself with basic U.S. facts and policies because you do not want to be uneducated or ignorant of basic facts.
Information About the U.S. You Should Equip Yourself With:
- U.S. geography (e.g. differences in regions)
- U.S. political system (e.g. how does Congress differ from the Senate)
- U.S. judicial system (e.g. how does the jury system work “in theory”)
- U.S. foreign policy (especially how it applies to your host country)
Student Perspectives and Resources
- Ugly American Sentiment Abroad: Tips on how to be a thoughtful U.S. traveler while in Europe
- How to Avoid Being an Ugly American: Tips on photography, style of dress, table manners, and more
- Americans Abroad: What to keep in mind about your identity and behavior as a U.S. American abroad
- Don’t Study Abroad, Study America: Some considerations about why you should study away in the U.S. rather than study abroad
- I’ve been to 25 countries, and these are the 7 worst stereotypes I’ve heard about Americans
- Dealing with Stereotypes While Studying Abroad
- I’m an American living in the UK. Here are the biggest misconceptions people abroad have about people in the US.
- Americans Abroad – Do NOT Make These Stupid Mistakes
- The world is bigger than the United States: why American students should study abroad
- Diversity is Why I Wanted to Study Abroad
- Too American?: Tips on Blending In While in London
- An American Abroad
- How Korean Pop Culture Influenced My Decision to Study Abroad
- Playing American Football in Spain
- Leveraging Immersive Study in China to Meet Career Goals
- Being the Only One in Australia