Before I moved to Germany, I was warned about the amount of anit-American sentiment there was in Europe. I was told stories by friends how they disguised themselves as Canadians and wore red maple leafs on their backpacks when they had travelled over here. I know there may be other reasons why people from other countries dislike Americans (multiple wars, foreign policy, and so on) but I wondered if Americans had a reputation for rudeness. I decided to check it out.
In the four months we had before we moved here, I watched everything on television I could find with the names of Europe or Germany in the description. A show that I became hooked on was 'House Hunters International.' It showed many families, mostly American, moving across the world and their experiences. If you're not familiar with the show, read about it here. A common theme I was seeing was that American families were told they were too loud in Europe. Well, that's a problem I can start on right here and now.
I started something with my kids called EV. What's EV? EV stands for European Voices. When we would be out in public, say like in Target, and my children would raise their voices, I would look at them and say "Shhh. EV." It worked really well. It got my children to pay attention that not everyone in a 25 foot radius is interested in hearing our conversation about how much the dog threw up that morning or who poked who in the eye back in the car. EV, people. EV.
We were quieter. I felt ready for Germany.
Our first trip down the Hauptstrasse, or main street, in Heidelberg was met with stares. A lot. I leaned over to Matt and asked why they were staring. He answered, "Probably because we have four kids. You never see that over here." Great. So much for being able to blend in with our European Voices.
I asked my friend who was born and raised in Germany if she thought Americans were rude. She gave me a weird look. "Really," I said. "I want to know." So in typical German form she gave me blunt answers. "I don't think Americans are rude, I think they are obnoxious. Americans are really loud. Their voices carry. They think everything is funny. They take up too much room when walking down the street. Instead of walking in smaller groups, they will all walk side-by-side preventing anyone from getting past them. And they don't dress warm enough and then they complain that it's cold."
Here are some other comments I received on the rudeness of Americans.
1. Americans are loud. (I heard this one a lot.)
2. Americans are too informal in meeting strangers and how we deal with people.
3. Americans think everyone is interested in them and what they are doing in Europe.
4. Americans assume everyone understands English.
5. Americans dress sloppily. Jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers are workout wear. Not going out wear.
6. Americans are often late.
I am sad to say that this list seems mostly true. Americans are loud, but I don't know why. I know I am loud because I grew up with a parent who was partially deaf. We had to be loud in my family. The rest of America? Maybe it's all that rock music that we listen to.
If we are informal with people, it's because we are comfortable with them or because we view others as our peers. Back home in my neighborhood in America, it was no big deal to walk into a neighbors house with a quick knock on the door and flop on the couch. You were family. We might not realize that that same open behavior comes across as disrespect in other cultures instead of familiarity which we view as a good thing.
I do think Americans think everyone is interested in Americans. That's because when people from Europe come to America, we are so interested in them. I spent a summer working in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. We got a lot of European vacationers. We, the employees, were always so excited to talk to them and ask them where they were from and where they were going. We just assume that the same will be thought of us when we travel abroad. I guess not.
We think everyone speaks English. I think this might not be all our fault because many people do speak English. In Sweden, the rate of people who speak English is 90%. In Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium it's 60%. France and Italy lag behind at around 35%-40%. That's still a lot of English being spoken. It's not hard to find someone to understand you. I do understand though how it comes across as rude. I recently went to lunch with some friends in France and was a little shocked when the Americans next to us spoke English to the waitress without even asking if she spoke English in her native tongue. We had had the same waitress and I knew her English was spotty. I saw a look of fear cross her face as the Americans rattled off what they wanted. She scuttled away and I saw her conferring with another waitress who then came to their table to retake their order. I then spoke as much rusty French as I could dig out of my brain to her. I thought the Americans behavior was rude myself. But who knows? Maybe that was rude of me to slaughter her language. I tried, at least.
As far as Americans dressing like slobs, I just don't see that. I have been in nine different European countries now and it seems everyone dresses like that. When we went on our first trip out of Germany to Paris, I was really worried that people would think the way we were dressed was messy. Then I got there. I saw people wearing flip-flops, sneakers, pants with holes in them, hijabs, tank tops with no bras, track suits, saris, and T-Shirts with naughty slang words on them. So many different and beautiful styles of dress were there. When we were at a street cafe, a French family sat down right next to us. I looked over at them and they were all wearing shorts with white socks pulled half-way up their calves. And to top it all off, the mom and dad were wearing fanny packs. Honest-to-goodness fanny packs or bum bags. If you don't know what that is, read about it here. In America, the fanny pack, or bum bag, is the epitome of a fashion disaster. I decided I wasn't going to worry too much about what we were wearing. That our attitudes and behavior while travelling abroad were much more important.
And on being late. I think that is just part of our informal society. Aren't all times followed by an ish? As in, "I will be there at 4ish." Which means I will be there as close to 4:00 as humanly possible, but I might be late.
What about you? Do you think Americans are rude travelling abroad? Have you been told you are rude?