A new video has come out in which a bunch of non-American students share their impressions of Americans. My countrymen and women do not come off well. In general, foreigners impressions’ of Americans seem to include being loud, fat, and really into McDonalds.
In fairness, there are stereotypes about people from every country, and there are plenty of American travelers who don’t fit into the rather broad categories described in the video.
Still, it’s worth considering the disadvantages of standing out for largely negative reasons, and the benefits of blending in.
1. It’s safer to blend in.
Once upon a time in Brazil, Laura and I got mugged. Part of the problem was that we wandered into an area that we shouldn’t have been in. But another big problem was that we very clearly stood out from the people who were all around us. We didn’t blend in so we became targets.
This happens with all sorts of crime. Europe has a bit of a reputation for having pickpockets and other scams in touristy areas. While that reputation is overblown, the truth is that you’re an easier target if you look like an American fish out of water.
2. Blending in opens doors.
When we visited Manaus, on the Amazon, we decided last minute to go into the jungle with a small group. As it so happened, I speak some Portuguese, and after setting up the trip, I ended up having a conversation with the guys who were going to be our guides. That conversation somehow evolved into a driving tour of Manaus, during which several guys told us about the evolution of the city, recent socio-economic friction, and other things.
Later, also in Manaus, we managed to get into a free performance at the beautiful local opera house because we had, among other things, dressed correctly for the show (which in this case was neither very formal nor very casual). The lesson from these stories is that fitting in somehow with the people you’re visiting offers a chance to make unique connections.
3. It’s polite, and helps counter negative stereotypes.
In a brief interview about the new video, travel writer Rick Steves calls it “appalling” when he is on a train in Europe and the only audible voices are six Americans at the end of the car. I think the point is that while traveling, it’s considerate to observe the local customs — irrespective of what you get out of it. And if nothing else, being considerate helps reverse the kinds of impressions expressed in the video.
— Jim Dalrymple II