Anti-Americanism is a little like poetry.  It exists on a very high level that ordinary mortals may read but which requires  experts for deep analysis and interpretation.  And then it exists on a very down to earth people’s level which the experts from their lofty vantage points usually decline to acknowledge.  A bit like asking  a lecturer in Chaucer or Virgil to condescend to write about rap.

International relations experts in the United States write about anti Americanism in the conference paper foreign policy context but Americans abroad are more sensitive to the street variety.   Admittedly, foreign policy clashes can quickly become the flash point for anti-American sentiment and intensify matters for the American abroad but the most common forms of anti-American behaviour happen on a more personal level fueled but not created by policies emanating from Washington. Anti-Americanism abroad is more likely to be  little pin pricks criticising Americans as people for this or that.

Students have struggled to understand the ivory tower versus street anti-Americanism versions for years without really being able to come to terms with it. This is because the two concepts are so different and because students are looking for practical advice on how to avoid or at least minimize unpleasant encounters.  As a result, they have historically  boiled down their perspective to two pieces of advice.   They advise fellow students abroad to speak softly and read the newspaper. From this counsel we can glean that students are   sensitive to the criticism that Americans are ignorant.  They also plainly believe that others believe Americans speak more loudly than others. By conversing in low tones they hope to avoid calling attention to themselves as Americans.

This suggestion spans at least a generation.  I remember being told  it when I was a student. But after so many years abroad I have made a discovery.  Americans are no more loud than anyone else abroad.  My experience has led me to conclude that anyone speaking in a different language or accent usually sounds louder because they are not blending with the general noise.  The more different – the louder it appears.  Judging from the reaction of passengers on London trains  sometimes the “loudest” people are Polish, sometimes Italian and sometimes French  speakers.  The same was true in France but substitute French for English. If they are in a group they are loud because they may all be  speaking to someone a few seats away — as tourists tend to do. Otherwise, their conversation levels are perfectly normal but because they are not speaking English it grates on the nerves of people only able to tune out their own language and accent.  My advice is by all means speak in a low tone but don’t expect people not to know you are  American unless your entire wardrobe, haircut, stance and facial expressions were made outside of the United States.   As for reading the newspaper that is a more complex matter.

The newspaper suggestion is presumably meant to counter accusations of American ignorance. But when people abroad call Americans “uninformed” or “stupid” they may mean any number of things.  Sometimes they are reacting to the surveys published by the National Geographic Society on geographical knowledge.  Foreigners want to know why Americans can not locate countries on a map? Good question. Here is another one. Why could the British people surveyed by not locate on a map countries where they had just spent their vacation? (I am not making this up.) Clearly, Americans are not the only ones in need of an atlas.

Just as often people ridicule or criticize Americans for their ignorance of the political world (both national and international) outside of the United States. If that is indeed what the student bloggers and youtubers are concerned about, then reading the newspaper is a little vague as a remedy.  Foreigners in the US frequently comment on the limited information about the world in US newspapers so reading US papers will not be much help.  For in depth international stories it’s best to switch your allegiance to Time and Newsweek or other weeklies which tend to have longer international pieces or there are foreign magazines and newspapers. Many of these have english language versions, if you need them.

Yet– is reading international news on politics the solution? Who is to say that lack of political knowledge is the only form of ignorance? Just as Anti-Americanism has one meaning for the  academic and another for the American abroad,  so news and information also have a number of permutations.   Social information,  sports  and the arts are also important elements of a society.  Equally, the newspaper is not necessarily the best way to find out multiple viewpoints on issues in the host society. Radio shows abroad can be fabulously enriching and much better for you too,  if you are in a non English speaking environment.  Prime time television is also good because you are watching it at the same time as everyone else to discuss the next day.  Do not neglect comedy shows for social and political news value. Jon Stewart has a huge following abroad. Other countries also have comedians who have insights into their societies.  Crime shows, soap operas and anything else written, produced and acted by people in the country contains   cultural information and gives you more social flexibility in conversation.

In summary, non Americans are concerned about American political and international knowledge because they care about the affect American policies and elections will have on their own economy and politics. But it does not follow that as individuals they enjoy discussing politics or  know a lot about it. They may appreciate an American who is informed on the political front but they will cherish one who is a local sports fan or is familiar with their arts and theatre  scene for example.  Explore your host society  in various contexts and you will soon learn that talking loudly is not the issue,  it’s what you have to say that matters.


4 thoughts on “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Newspaper: Student Advice on Anti Americanism

  1. I have lovely American friends here in the UK. The article is absolutely correct, I enjoy their company not because they are American per say but because they are interesting, articulate, friendly women who take a lively interest in friends, family and community. Its who you are underneath whatever accent you have that matters.

  2. Thank you for this Tina. This is the kind of encouragement that young Americans need when travelling to other countries. A valuable perspective for anxious parents as well. And it neatly makes the point that when it comes to friends we all have the same criteria – the individual.

  3. Do you think that maybe Americans when they visit other countries they are arrogant? Not to mention the fact they feel superior to other cultures. Americans need to remember where they come from and be humble when they visit other countries. Additionally, they need to respect the culture of the country they are visiting.

  4. Hi Bernadine
    It is absolutely true that some Americans are arrogant in their attitudes to other countries. An example is calling the currency elsewhere “monopoly money.” However, I have also seen people of other nationalities behave arrogantly toward other cultures so Americans are not the only ones. Nor do I believe most Americans behave in this way. Since the Vietnam war and the more recent wars on terrorism many more Americans are concerned about their image abroad and try to keep a low profile. The business about keeping your voice down is part of that. What I would like students (and others who do not wish to be perceived as arrogant) to understand is that learning about other cultures is the way to be respected and valued in turn.

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