We all love to stereotype; to believe in, or to cast forth oversimplified ideas about certain groups, and in today’s case, a nationality. Is it really true that all Italians are passionate lovers and equally passionate about food? Do the Brits have stiff upper lips and bad teeth? Are Canadians simple outdoorsy types with an enthusiasm for chopping wood? Well, today we are going to look at just one country, in this episode of the Infographics show, Common Stereotypes about Americans.
The big, bold, brash American. How true is that? There is a stereotype that Americans are a big, or fat nation. The stereotype is partly true if you believe the World Health Organization. According to 2015 data, the USA was the most obese western nation in the world, but it only came 16th on the list which included all the world’s nations. The island of Nauru in the region of Micronesia came first on the list. Reports suggest Americans actually exercise a lot, but with a diet of fast food, high sugar intake, and super-sized portions, U.S. citizens will have a hard time running off the extra pounds.
We might take bold and brash to sometimes mean arrogant and dismissive of other cultures. Who hasn’t seen those viral video clips wherein Americans are subjected to global knowledge questions and come out looking like they know little about the world? According to the writer and habitually quoted academic, Noam Chomsky, the average American knows a lot more about sports than global politics. “The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn’t going to waste his time on international affairs, because that’s useless; he can’t do anything about it,” said Chomsky, stating that people use their expertise where they think it counts. He also said to be critical and disobedient went against the grain, and so most Americans just join in the debate at the trivial level and know very little about deconstructing global politics. Someone writing on Quora said the education system, the TV media, are U.S.-centric. She also pointed out that America is large enough to travel around extensively, and foreign travel can be prohibitively expensive. The State Department said in 2016 that 64 percent of Americans don’t even own a passport, but then you could ask with such a large and beautiful country, do they need one?
Another stereotype related to lack of knowledge about other countries might be that Americans watch way too much television, and that sometimes those shows are a tad mind-numbing. Well, Americans do top the list of being the most avid TV-watchers in the world. According to a Recode article in 2016, the average American watches 4.3 hours of TV a day. The older generation more so than the younger generation, who prefer spending time using other devices. It depends what you watch on TV, but one could ask if you could equate the global ignorance stereotype with being the country that is glued to what has sometimes been called the “idiot box” more than anyone else.
We are starting to sound quite negative now. So, what about all those positive stereotypes. The well-known English writer Stephen Fry once said that after travelling around the USA for a while making a TV program, one thing he most admired was the friendliness and positive outlook of Americans. He extolled what he called “American Optimism”, and that American people believed they could improve and do what they wanted to if they tried. This all may boil down to what we might call the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness. Are all Americans like this? A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime put Americans 8th on the list of most drug addicted countries, noting that the prescription painkiller epidemic is presently very worrying. North America had the highest amount of drug-related deaths of all continents in 2015, with the report stating, “In the United States, nearly half a million people are estimated to have died from drug overdoses since 2000.” Just recently, the New York Times reported that drug overdoses in the U.S. were rising faster than ever. Perhaps American Optimism is partially true, but American Oxycontin addiction undermines the positive outlook stereotype.
What about guns? Americans love their guns, right? According to the Telegraph in 2016, Americans do indeed have more guns per person than any other country in the world. The data tells us there are 112.6 per 100 citizens, more than a gun for every person. It’s true that many Americans support the right to bear arms, but it’s also true than many other Americans support tighter gun control or the banning of guns altogether. A recent Pew Research poll found that 52 percent of Americans support stricter gun control, while only 18 percent wanted less strict control. A Gallup poll in 2016 said that 76 percent of Americans said handguns should not be banned for people – not including authorities – but 23 percent said they should.
Another stereotype is that Americans are loud, and sometimes rude? An op-ed in the Huffington Post seems to agree with this assertion. “Awareness of how personal actions impact others seems to be a weak point for Americans in general,” said the writer. “This translates to the perceived ignorant persona Americans abroad present,” she added. There are many reasons put forward as to why this is, especially when abroad, but the main one is that instilled in Americans is not only a positive outlook but also self-importance. People think they should be heard, and this also goes back to embracing freedom of speech and saying what the hell you want to say… goddammit. This has sometimes been taken as rude in a situation where an American will complain about the service or food in a restaurant, but perhaps these people only think they are enjoying their right to do that. In Japan there’s a saying, “Hit the nail that sticks out”, while in America it might be more applicable to say “be sure to make good use of your protuberance”.
This also might align with the stereotype of American patriotism. When British students asked American students questions about stereotypes, one Brit kid asked why Americans were so patriotic. Some American students didn’t deny it, and gave good answers. One student said, “We are a major melting pot country. Rather than history or a common language that unite us, we are united by freedom which is what it means to be ‘American.’” It is, however, possibly a weak stereotype as another student said he wasn’t patriotic at all and another called patriotism mere “mob mentality”. A Gallup poll said that in 2016, only 53 percent of Americans said they felt extremely proud to be American. This compares to 70 percent who said yes to that question in 2003. It said the younger generation was the cause of this huge change, which mirrors the “mob mentality” student’s belief.
Sometimes you’ll notice in Europe there is a certain snootiness that Americans are not cultured. This to some extent could be true as the United States is relatively new, and so we can’t really credit the country for a Renaissance of culture. But hold on, what about the great transcendentalist movement of the 19th century with its poets and philosophers – that is making a comeback today against hyper-consumerist values. This later led to the free-spirited Beat Generation and the books of Jack Kerouac. In music, America gave us the blues, originating from African Americans in the Mississippi Delta; it gave us New Orleans jazz, it gave us, to a large extent, the hippie 60s and the American Kool-Aid Acid Test. In New York in the 70s, we got Disco, and following that came the hip-hop movement. Throughout those years, writers vied to write The Great American novel, some of them, such as Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, wrote literary masterpieces that will go down as books that changed the world. Can we really say that Americans are un-cultured?
So, what do you think of these American stereotypes? Can you name a few that we left out? Let us know in the comments!