It’s a frequent meme both on the Internet and elsewhere, that cultural imports from other countries, whether television show concepts, food, or something else, are “dumbed down for Americans”, apparently because we’re collectively a short-bus riding nation.
“Indian food? Oh, they dumb it doen for Americans, but everywhere else in thwe world it’s authentic.”
“The British version of The Office is so much better than the American version. Besides, they had to dumb it down for the US market.”
“See the Guardian’s new US-oriented Web site? They dumbed down the news coverage for American readers.”
Is that really true, though? Are things"dumbed down" for Americans, but not for other English-speaking countries, because the powers that be think we’re a nation of mouth-breathing dolts with short attention spans? Are things ever “dumbed down for Canadians” or “dumbed down for Australians?”
I don’t know about dumbed down per se but since the US is the single largest Anglophone market for cultural products I’d imagine a lot of work is done modifying foreign cultural products to make sure they fly in that market. I’d call bullshit on the Indian food comment, Indian food isn’t as popular as it is in Britain but I don’t find the American versions of Indian food I’ve eaten significantly different from the Irish or British versions. Maybe we’re all eating inauthentic slop. There’s the odd film with a difficult title that is modified for the US market, for example Pret A Porter was released as Ready To Wear in the US and the modified Harry Potter title, philosopher to sorcerer if I recall correctly. Whether these are examples of dumbing down I don’t really know, is sorcerer really dumber than philosopher?
Automatic transmissions are the norm in america, manual transmissions the norm elsewhere. You can’t rent a manual transmission car in the US if you want to, while you may find it difficult or expensive to hire an automatic equipped car elsewhere.
Roads: In much of Europe drivers keep right except to pass, in the UK they keep left. In the US they piddle along for mile after mile in the left lane. Rather than enforcing traffic laws, and educating drivers, the government response is to construct wider highways with additional lanes. US traffic lights are normally timed with a delay between the red in one direction, and the green for cross traffic. This because US drivers won’t be bothered to heed the yellow. Capacity of the roads is thus reduced by a few percent. Similarly, few US drivers know how to deal with a 4 way stop, or a traffic roundabout, thus capacity reducing signals are installed to compensate.
Coffee and beer. This is changing (thank Og) but still the case that “normal” US versions of either are watered down, bland versions of those enjoyed in the rest of the world.
The Office is “dumbed down” for every country it’s shown in (there are French and German version, too) – by making the show fit better in the culture of the country it’s shown in. Here’s an interesting discussion of the differences.
I think the stated reason for changing the name was that Americans wouldn’t get the alchemy reference and that parents might think a book with “philosopher” would be too advanced for their kids.
One oft-quoted example of something being dumbed down for the American market was changing the title of “The Madness of George III”, fearing Americans wouldn’t see it, not having seen the first two movies. Wikipedia claims that’s an urban legend. IMDB claims that the only place it kept the original title was Australia.
From reading US media I don’t recognize much in the way of dumbing down. A few things stick out, though:
The “Paris, France” thing, in a minority of instances with further overexplanation heaped on: “The Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre museum in Paris, France”.
I suspect that’s more a matter of communication conventions than of the writer suspecting the reader needs dumbing down, though. If I used the TMLPITLMIPF phrase towards another German it would be a deliberate insult, because the subtext would be “You are lacking in education”. As between US writers and readers this is obviously not the subtext.
a few other instances of overexplanation. For example, almost every time Nazism is referred to, it is identified as being Hitler’s movement.
a tendency to transliterate proper names in latin script to [a-zA-Z] (e.g. author Frank Schätzing being published as Frank Schatzing)
Exactly why I did this is a long story (we have sort of a music club or whatever), but I recently played a Whitesnake tune for some friends of mine. I said it was from the “Slide it in” album, but my brother (rock’n’roll expert) said it was the “1987” version. I didn’t believe him because I listened to Whitesnake at the time and figured I should know: The “1987” was made for the American market, which meant they went commercial, grew big hair sprayed hairs, Mickey Moody left, and no Whitesnake fan listened to contemporary Whitesnake anymore. So I should fucking know whether a song is from the “Whitesnake era” or the “Whitesnake 1987” era.
But he was very as-a-matter-of-fact and said, “Can’t you hear the handclaps? They put in those handclaps so the Americans should know when to clap their hands.”
I realised I was wrong, and it hurt.
Every American I got to know somewhat has been nice, verbal, smart, so I’m not sure why Europeans “dumb things down” or why the American market believes it’s necessary, though.
Bear something in mind about TV shows like “The Office”: in England, a TV show doesn’t have to be popular with the masses to stay on the air. The BBC makes its money from fees more than from advertising. Hence, it makes money whether anybody watches or not, and can be far more elitist in deciding what goes on the air.
Depending on your point of view, that may be wonderful (“Good, MY favorite shows stay on the air, even though I’m one of only 20 people watching”) or deplorable (“Why the hell should I pay to put crappy shows that I hate on the air???”).
In America, a show has to attract a small, highly loyal audience that’s willing to pay to see it (cable TV) or a mass audience large enough to attract advertisers.
So, a “quality” TV show that appeals to only a few people can survive a long time in the UK, but it won’t last here. A small cult audience isn’t enough to interest advertisers… unless that small cult audience consists largely of affluent white suburban teenage girls!
Since a TV here show needs a mass audience, yes, there’s some inevitable movement toward the lowest common denominator.
Automatic transmissions: These are now about as efficient as manual, so this is weakening the argument for manual transmissions. Could driving habits also be affecting the change in preferences? I don’t think this can be attributed to differences in intellect. Also what is the additional cost for automatic transmission in other countries, and what effect are national governments having on auto vs manual?
Roads: I think America has more traffic/less effective mass transit, and this contributes to the number of lanes on any given road. It’s not just Americans not wanting to keep to the right.
Food in general: America is a large country with many diverse subpopulations. If you want to sell a ton of food in the US, it has to be bland enough to appeal to all those subpopulations.
I can’t say the same for coffee, but for beer this is the biggest elitist BS around. There are more flavors to beer than bitter. The latest microbrew american beers are nothing short of disgusting to some of us. Not everybody wants a meal for a beer either. Drink what you like if that’s what you want, but don’t you dare call other taste preferences “dumbed down”. The lack of appealing microbrews is exactly the reason I got into brewing. I know my beer, and I know what I like.
Though I never saw the American version, I did check out the original version before the U.S. series came out, and the thick accents and British slang made quite a bit of the dialog very difficult to understand.
It works the other way, too. Harold and Kumar was retitled for a British population that had never heard of White Castle.
Licensing is an issue. Take a test in an automatic in Britain, and you’re not licensed to drive a manual. One reason for parents to stick with a manual (pun not intended ) when choosing a new car which their children may be using to learn in.
In any case, I’m pretty sure the main reason for the different habitual choices simply comes from much of the early development of automatic transmissions having been done by American manufacturers, in cars designed for the American market.
‘Elitist’? Experimental might be a fairer way of describing it. And certainly is applicable to the original The Office, which was not launched in a blaze of publicity, but was a slow-burner. This also explains why there was no concern for making the language particularly foreign-market-friendly.
A couple points:
Paris, France: When I was in Urbana, IL, a colleague took a pair of glasses to an optometrist for some repair. The optometrist asked him where he had gotten them. He replied, “Paris”. The optometrist then said, “Why don’t you get them repaired in Paris?” Paris, IL he meant. Ok, this is peculiar to IL.
Philosopher’s Stone: Yes that was asinine, Everyone I know knew what a philosopher’s stone is and no one had ever heard of a sorceror’s stone. For the rest, the translation to American usage was reasonable. For example, in the Canadian version (identical to the British) Hermione was always “revising”. In my dialect “revise” is transitive. The American edition replaced it with “study”, the normal word in North America.
Four way stops: I have never seen one in Europe, anywhere. Stops signs (2-way) and traffic lights are much rarer than here. Traffic is controlled largely with yield signs and right of way rules. Here is Montreal, there a stretches where there are stop signs every 100 feet. Nearly all 4-way. So if you come to a 2-way stop sign, you tend to think it is a 4-way sign, which can be dangerous. I think these stop sign forests are at least partly responsible for everyone giving up on manual transmission. It was my reason when, after driving stick shifts for over 50 years, I finally gave up and got an automatic last May. This is all a tremendous waste of gas and source of CO2.
There is a general failure to enforce traffic laws and replace them with attempted controls. But there is a lot of traffic and little public transit.
Food: try a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo if you want to see an example of “dumbing down”. On the other hand, Japanese restaurants here seem to be very close to those in Tokyo. The main difference will be that restaurants in Tokyo will often specialize in one or two things: sushi, or shabu shabu or, in one case, an eel-only restaurant, while here they will cover several kinds of cuisines. I have never been to India but the Indian restaurants I’ve eaten in here don’t seem that different from the ones in London.
I’ve already gone on record about hating the change from “Philosopher’s Stone” to “Sorceror’s Stone”. Heck. I knew what the “Philosopher’s Stone” was before I was ten. Anyone who doesn’t can learn. It’s significant to me that it’s not the readers who requested that it be “dumbed down”, but the publishers who did it, apparently expecting little of American audiences. And this was Scholastic Books !! You’d think they’d know better. But the conservatism o9f American entertainment firms is well-known.
They didn’t change ALL the British references in the American editions. They still use “Spell-o-Tape”, which is a joke on “Cellotape”, a name not used in America.
In many cases it’s not “dumbing down”, but making things intelligible. Compare Anthony Schaffer’s play Sleuth to the film, script. Besides trying to move the action outside that single, confining set, it’s pretty clear that Scaeffer was striving to make the references intelligible to Americans, who otherwise might not get a lot of the poi nts. (It’s probably significant, though, that the Broadway script seems to have been the same as the london version. no need to translate for New York “legit” theater audiences, apparently.)
Definitely cars. Not just the transmission but the lack of other options available in other parts of the world: city lights, rear fog lights, lack of driver-adjustable headlights, parking lights, and in-dash television receivers among other functions. Not to mention the lack of engine choices and trim packages, almost no cars with RDS built-into their radios, either, and the restrictions on importing cars from other parts of the world, even if the safety features, emissions levels, tyre and headlight standards, etc are superior to what the Federal or local laws dictate.
Also, it’s not so much of “dumbing” down by the American preference for automating things, especially in the kitchen, which explains the plethora of gadgets. Automatic orance and apple peelers for example, toasters with built-in sausage warmers, microwaves and refrigerators with built-in tv receivers and internet access, etc.
But Budweiser et al are dumbed-down beers. Drink Budvar or Pilsner Urquell sometime (if you can find a fresh bottle) and you can see what the original was, and what a pathetic excuse the American versions are.
There are plenty of American craft brews that aren’t hop-monsters. You just have to look around. Hell, Shiner Bock is nationally distributed, and it’s very lightly hopped (and quite delicious, to boot!).