The big, brash, rude American: an unfair stereotype made-up by non-Americans harboring enmity towards a hegemonic culture that has bled into almost every crevice of the world, or an unassailable truth that Americans should take counsel for? The concept of the Rude American has been around a while. Mark Twain wrote about the phenomenon of the loud, gauche American upsetting the locals on his travels, while a novel and later a movie starring Marlon Brando was called The Ugly American. If you are American and watching this, you might take some solace in the fact that the Chinese are making the headlines these days as the world’s most badly behaved tourists. The question is, are the ‘yanks’ really that rude? That’s what we intend to find out in this episode of The Infographics Show, American Behaviors Considered Rude Around the World.
If there is one thing Americans, fairly or unfairly, are accused of it’s being too loud. This has been an accusation going around for some time. Is it actually true? Well, a lot of opinion articles out there seem to think so. There is no scientific evidence, however. A story published by The Huffington Post once blamed this loudness on the fact that, “Awareness of how personal actions impact others seems to be a weak point for Americans in general.” The loud Chinese tourist groups are said to be partly a result of personal space, or lack thereof. But Americans have space, for the most part. Some people take American loudness seriously too. One café in Ireland made the headlines in 2014 because of a sign in its window: “No Bus/Coach or Loud American’s. Thank You.” This sparked outrage in America, but we might ask if all these quiet objectors have a point? American writer and social critic Hunter S. Thompson may have put the alleged loudness down to privilege, pride and too much belief in personal power. But in America perhaps making yourself heard is A-OK; unfortunately for loud folks, in some cultures it isn’t.
What many tourists traveling in the USA don’t realize is that tipping in some situations is not just an act of kindness, but due to low wages the tips are actually expected. Not tipping in some situations would be plain rudeness. It can also work the other way in other countries. Tipping can be insulting in some cultures, just as walking up to someone in the street and handing them a dollar because you thought their shoes were tatty would be insulting. If Americans plan on going to Japan for instance, they shouldn’t tip, rather they should just be polite…and er, not too loud. In a Japanese restaurant, or using a taxi service, if you try to tip you’ll likely get the money back. Good service is something you deserve in Japan, and handing over money might be perceived as charity. Much of Asia – China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and China, is similar, but the same goes for parts of Europe. In the UK it might be ok to tip in a high-end restaurant, but throw an extra “quid” at the barman in a traditional pub and you’ll likely create an awkward moment.
Americans are often complimented for their being forthright and outspoken. This has also been called obnoxious. It just depends where you are. In much of Europe, especially restaurants in France and the UK, sending food back is quite extreme. “The customer is always right” adage doesn’t work so well in Europe, a continent, where according to The Guardian, Americans have been dispatched from posh restaurants for asking for ketchup or salt with their haute cuisine. Surveys have revealed that 38% of British people would never complain regardless of the state the food was in. In Asia, a continent where loss of face is taken with the utmost seriousness, Americans should be aware that if they do complain it should be done in a way that doesn’t cause harm. You could try and say, “Hi, the food is absolutely delicious, but do you think you could put it under the grill for another 10 minutes…” In 2016, online review community TrustPilot did indeed report that Americans are prone to grumbling, stating that a survey it conducted “confirms the American propensity to complain”.
On to matters of a more sartorial nature: There’s a meme making the rounds in which tech billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are complimented for their rather informal and un-showy dress code. Americans like to don a pair of flip-flops and a t-shirt now and again, but do this on a date, in a government office, or at a house party in some countries, and it could be perceived as you insulting the person or people you are meeting with. In parts of the developing world, if you have the money you are expected to wear the money, as some people can’t be that fortunate. Never dress down when you have an appointment in Asia, and for women, remember that showing too much skin could be conceived as impolite. In Thailand for instance, while a backpacker won’t get thrown out of a government office for wearing shorts and a tank top, that person’s breach of Thai propriety will result in them probably just having a harder time than other tourists in that office. If you don’t care, they won’t.
In 2013 the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, was mired in controversy after he apparently disrespected South Korean President Park Geun-hye by shaking her hand with his other hand in his pocket. We already know Gates is not one to stand on ceremony, but his lackadaisical greeting was seen as brazen to the Korean Press. “Cultural difference, or an act of disrespect?” asked one newspaper, and Koreans took to social media to mount a show of dismay. “Even considering the cultural difference, there is an appropriate manner for certain occasions,” wrote one commenter. But to most Americans such an act was not an act of disrespect but just being friendly, or laid-back. Americans value freedom and individualism, while some other cultures value hierarchy, status, and conformity. Speak-up, be who you want, says the American, while there’s a saying in Japan that says, “Hammer the nail that sticks out.” When in Rome do as the Romans do, is probably a lot more relevant to strict Asian cultures than it is to laid-back western cultures.
Turning-up late for an informal appointment might seem like poor form in the USA, and also in northern Europe, but in other countries you are actually not expected to be right on time. In Spain for instance, being on time is not seen as such a big deal at all, and certainly something you shouldn’t balk at. Being fussy about punctuality might be construed as being difficult, off-hand. In Thailand they have what’s called Thai-Time, which means being late for a date or dinner appointment is just accepted as the norm. According to one article, in Argentina if you turn up on time for a dinner party at someone’s house, it’ll be seen as you being rather pushy. The article compares it to being an hour early for dinner in America. Moroccans are equally laid-back about time, according to some people they simply don’t concern themselves with the matter of punctuality. It’s similar in Mexico, India, Indonesia, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, and Russia, but turn up late in Japan or the UK and you’ll nettle someone’s ego for sure. Maybe the most amusing fact is that in Brazil, where punctuality isn’t a big issue, when they want people to actually be punctual, they say things like “3pm, English Time.” Academics state that there are monochronic and polychronic cultures, those that value orderliness and sticking to plans, and those that take things as they come.
Making out in public is probably the one faux-pas Americans need to understand. Kissing, or even hugging, in public spaces in some countries is about as shocking to people as actually having sexual intercourse in public in the USA. The general rule to follow here is just don’t be intimate or over tactile with your lover in public all over the Middle East. In Dubai, a city that might look modern, kissing in public could land you in jail. In Indonesia, a kissing session in the streets could result in a fine of 29,000 dollars. The same goes for most Muslim cultures, but also in non-Muslim parts of etiquette-heavy Asia, public displays of affection are generally outlawed in a non-legal sense. Holding hands might be acceptable, but anything that might provoke a “get a room” response in the USA would definitely be met with disdain. If loud noise is merely irksome in some cultures, getting it on in public could be a serious offense both legally and in the context of propriety. Always be sure to read the cultural Dos and Don’ts before visiting any country.
Follow this advice and you will certainly have a better experience travelling around the world. To be fair to Americans, we might also remember that they could also be the ones upset at having their own boundaries breached regarding behavior. This could happen when the Asian person doesn’t think twice about asking Americans how much money they earn, or asking their age, or telling them that they’ve put on lots of weight and look fat. Ok for them, impolite to the American. Or what about when the Spanish dude turns up one hour late for dinner and the meal is ruined, or when that Chinese girl you started dating got upset just because you showed her some warmth and affection. With this in mind, do you really think it’s fair that Americans are called ‘rude’ or ‘ugly’? Let us know in the comments!