The European view of America has been of increasing concern to me. What’s going on? I am actually moving to Paris (from the US) in the next year or so and I am concerned about the perception Euros have about Americans. It seems like we are viewed as bullies and gung-ho war mongers. I can understand this to a degree (and even agree with it a little) but where does 9/11 fit in all this? Is this all about oil? And what happens with the war on terror if the UN and EU refuses to back us? Any insight from abroad?
The people who make assumptions about you just because you’re American aren’t worth knowing.
I doubt you’ll come across very many people like that; the majority should realise that surprisingly you personally don’t dictate US foreign policy.
Or do you?
Certainly I can tell you that Americans have a reputation for brashness and isolationisim over in Europe - to the extent that Canadian friends of ours took to displying a prominant Maple Leaf wherever they went on a recent backpacking tour so as not to be confused with Americans.
Part of this attitude (toward US visitors at least) can be explained by a general continental attitude toward anyone who only speaks English (most noticable in France). In addition, it is also due to some Americans relative lack of knowledge about the world outside thier country - I am thinking about the number of times I have been asked “Which country in South Africa are you from?”
And then, there is the resentment to the pervasive influence of the worst of US culture that is occuring across the world - the MTV/Hollywood/MacDonalds effect - resented by those who feel that thier own (traditional) culture is going to be brushed aside by this “invasion”.
As I am preparing to move to France, I have been told to learn the language!!! I was told this is the most respectful thing I can do. It shows I am not trying to push my culture on the French.
Please say it ain’t so!!!
I am fairly confident that you’re not going to have a problem.
You are correct that there are a few people who have a negative perception of Americans. IMO there are three major things that make some Europeans anti-American:[ol][li]US foreign policyIgnorance of some touristsThe assumption of some Americans abroad that the US does everything better than everyone else[/ol][/li]
If you avoid these topics/modes of behaviour, you are going to avoid falling into the stereotype that some people may create for you.
Having said that, this negativity would probably only be expressed in terms of ragging on you - not actual hostility.
9-11 is a tricky one; I would hope that most people would be sensitive about it, but bear in mind that people are willing to talk about the event and its aftermath more openly than they might in the US (because it happened ‘over there’), so you might find that people say the occasional thing you may find offensive.
What happens if the EU and UN refuse to back the US? In Europe, nothing. You’re not going to be in ‘danger’.
Good luck with the move; you’ll enjoy it.
NOTE: when you find that Parisians are being rude to you, don’t get paranoid that it’s because you’re American. They’re like that to everyone, including other Parisians.
This is precisely the type of in-your-face, flag-waving jingoism that has made Canadians so disliked throughout the world.
If you step onto the campus of a liberal university or something, you might come across a few bores who will berate you for being fanatical about the death penalty/guns/bombing muslim civilians/consuming too much gas/creationism etc etc. Otherwise, you’ll probably find most people think much the way you do.
In the (unlikely?) event that you’ll talk politics, religion, etc to natives, it’s always best - if in doubt - to agree with everything they say. The stuff I agreed with back in my hitch-hiking days makes my hair curl. You’re a visitor/guest, not a missionary.
Walking up to a non-English speaker and speaking English in continental Europe is kind of rude - put yourself in their shoes. At the very least, look pathetic and ask (in their language) "“do you speak English?” (In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, you can ask that in English.) A phrase book is a good prop. A lot of younger French people are actually very happy to speak Anglais.
That said, don’t look too pathetic. As in any big cities, there are pickpockets and similar in Paris who love people who are obviously lost.
Enjoy it. Stunningly beautiful place.
I don’t think ummm…yeah was asking about what treatment to expect personally, rather, European attitudes about the US in general. Let’s have some more Europeans could weigh in with some specifics and perhaps give some idea as to what the US should be doing instead.
You are correct. I appreciate all the advice and it’s great to hear it straight from europeans instead of a book. But I was referring more to the overall tensions between the US and Europe.
Because Europe is a large collection of diverse countries, there isn’t a single “European” view. The EU itself is also diverse in terms of opinion. Therefore there isn’t a simple answer to that question. What do you want to know specifically, and with reference to which country?
I guess if you’re hitching rides you’ve really got to go out of your way not to offend your host. I had Canadian roommates when I lived in Texas and I met quite a few other Canadians when they came over to our place. I didn’t notice any of them going out of their way to agree with me on matters of politics and religion. And as a host I wouldn’t pressure someone into agreement with me.
I lived in France for three months this year on a foreign exchange. While I was there I went to various cities throughout France as well as well as parts of Ireland and Amsterdam. Here’s a random list of things that I noticed in terms of cultural differences.
In three months I met less than half a dozen Europeans who liked President Bush. (Which isn’t to say that I talked politics with an awful lot of people, but it happened often enough.) If you watch Channel 1 news, you can tell just by the tone if you don’t understand the French when the anchor talks about Bush as opposed to the U.S. in general- he’s a lot more frosty about it.
There will be people who ask you immediately about September 11. Lots of them- it’s a big topic of conversation and people are curious as to the American opinion.
When you become immersed in another language the first month or so is exhausting and frustrating. And when you do obtain a reasonable level of fluency, sometimes people will attempt to swich to English when you speak French better than they speak English. A little frustrating, but hey.
Don’t be an “ugly American.” They exist, they suck, and the stereotype is surprisingly powerful. I endured a barrage of “Mac Do’s” jokes.
When you find a place that has good pizza, cherish it always.
I did spend a couple weeks in Amsterdam about 2 months ago. I was really surprised at the level of fluency with English. While I did get some smart remarks, overall the Danish are very pleasant. I asked a Danish fellow about Paris. He told me all the stereotypes are true: Rude and extremely proud of their culture.
I guess France. I am going to be right in downtown Paris. It seems that France is the epicenter of a lot of the negative press about America too. And they seem not to like Israel too much either!
Mac Do’s is the french version of Mickey D’s. “do” is pronounced “dough.”
And it is certainly true that the US is more pro-Israel than most everywhere else.
Just say “Don’t blame me, I voted for Gore.”
That’ll get you (a) respect for your smarts, (b) sympathy for not having your vote counted, and © understanding that you don’t condone the current Administration’s policies.
I have friends in Austria. Ewald and Sonja. I met them in Mexico while on vacation. I can’t say how they might have received me in Europe but on neutral ground they were most friendly, curious, as was I, and eager to work on their english in conversation. I speak French and Spanish and so did they, but they kept coming back to english. They criticized Bush at every opportunity. Sonja was disturbed mostly by our lack of environmental concern as compared to alot of Europe.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there are many, many Americans who DO speak another language in addition to English. But that other language may not be French.
When I was taking a train in France a few years ago, I got into a conversation with my seatmate. She told me that I spoke better French than any other American she had ever met. And my French is not that great! I know lots of Americans who speak it far better than I do.
But as far as languages in general are concerned, most American citizens I know well have at least a passing acquaintanceship with another language.
With a somewhat motley background (I usually describe myself best by saying that I am legally and paternally Swedish, of French Origin, definitely European but with an American soul) I might be able to clarify matters a little here… Paris was also the city that I called home for the better part of my childhood.
Pro primo: ummm… yeahh… I am afraid that you are about to go straight into the lion’s den of European anti Americanism by moving to France (more on that below). Fear not however, this will have little impact on your enjoyment, resent, love, hatred or whatever that you will experience from the lovely, but somewhat enigmatic and sometimes unbearable land of the French… Moreover, Paris is the lovely lion’s den of anti anything so it is likely that resentment of America might drown in the squalor. In the same time the French often express a certain fraternity to the Americans mainly dating back to the days of the revolution(s) when France and the US were the twin bastions of freedom and democracy (well…that’s what people felt anyway, but that’s another story).
Pro secundo: Your fears of how the ‘general’ European view is of Americans is unfortunately not too far off. Note however that Europeans in ‘general’ are not oafish brutes that generalize more than any other given member of the species not caught up in political frenzy, religious fanatics, or some other form of mass psychosis, and usually the way you’ll be treated will have more to do with your personal manners and mannerisms than your origins. You should however know that sooner or later it will impact you…knowing will make it easier to deal with.
Pro tertio, It is a formidable idea to have a basic command of French when moving there…especially to Paris. Thus, I commend your effort. To illustrate why this is important I give you the following piece of French humor: “A person who speaks three languages is called a trilingual, a person who speaks two; bilingual. So what do you call a person who speaks only one?..American.’ They mean US citizen of course and before anybody jumps me…don’t kill the messenger…I don’t agree and if anything the joke is more on the French themselves, who rarely speak a second or third language (which is unusual in Europe).
About why Europeans sometimes recent Americans:
Wow that I even dare start… intimidating huge issue. I’ll just touch on some phenomena that I believe could be of significance…
To begin with there is a widespread misconception that America has no culture, or only a bland culture mainly thanks to phenomena like McDonalds and Coca Cola, but probably helped on by thousand of GI hicks without manners over the last 60 years (remember that most Americans that Europeans met during the whole cold war were soldiers…I shan’t cast any stones at the men and women of the armed forces who so valorously protect our freedom and safety, but I think it safe to say that the military tends to focus more on efficiency and uniformity than social agility and multiculturalism.
America has no history. Europeans tend to make a lot of the history of the land they live in. This is absurd. France (as we know it) founded in…1792. Norway (The Canadians of Europe…they too carry flags on their backpacks wherever they go) 1909! Germany 1856 (or 1879 as some purists will correct). Italy some time in the late 19th…they’re still fighting about it. Granted that there are some exceptions like England, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Portugal…the forerunners in nation building… My point? National history is no older on any side of the pond and in any case we pretty much share the same preceding national history leading up to those pivotal days on the Potomac.
Religion, well here we touch on the very basis of why the colonies came to exist, don’t we. Europe has been pretty thoroughly secularized since then. Religion is scoffed at in most places even if people continue to believe discretely and their cultural heritage is much based on it. Some places like Ireland and Portugal remain thoroughly religious, but otherwise the general trend is that church going is on a perpetual downward spiral. Tennessee’s ban on Darwinist evolutionary teachings in school, other creationist extreme views and a perpetual ‘God Bless’ at the end of any presidential speech comes across as not only reactionary and fanatic to Europeans, but also somewhat dimwitted. Church and state are mostly separated in both parts, but in Europe it is taken further and politics and religion is not to be equated in any way if you want to be politically correct (again we have multiple exceptions).
Jealousy. The European peoples do not understand the American phenomena of success in the 20th century, because it flies in the face of what is considered ideal in these parts and what ‘should’ hence be successful. The socialist ideals that have sprung out of the class wars, which too the colonists were trying to escape, has left Europe to embrace ideals where the collective good is far more important than the success of the individual. This stands in stark contrast to the American Dream. Hence, Americans are considered braggers and unduly me centric. Ideally in Europe, success is supposed to shared and celebrated discretely…especially in France were it is almost a sin to own something or be rich…or at least it is if you speak about it or show it too much. For the French the jealousy is also linguistic. For hundreds of years they were born with the main world language in their ears, hence ‘lingua franca’…but as we all know the lingua franca of today is English…the French just simply will not accept that and even stupidly enough, legislate against it once in a while.
Uniformity vs. Diversity. The concept of cultural diversity is at the heart of anything that goes in in Europe, both politically and socially. Diversity is an ideal, and often enough a goal in itself…to the point of absurdity. In contrast Europeans often conceive of America as a land of uniformity. Of course most of them haven’t been States side and if so, they have gotten the train ride view of the tourist. America and Europe are just as diverse or maybe just as uniform…what do I know? In any case, due to the language issue and the extremely dense, but yet pretty segregated population cultural diversity, apparent or real is so obvious over here that you cannot escape it. Anyone who has traveled from New Orleans to Dallas to New York to Los Angeles and then ended up in Frisco will know that the same goes for the US. Europeans don’t see it that way. One language and a flood of general audience entertainment form The States reinforces this misconception.
Cultural imperialism. Thanks to Hollywood and maybe the fact that one language across almost 300 million people in one nation makes it financially viable, we tend to get more well produced and more affordable general audience media from the US. I shall not go into the more refined reasons for American success in this area (I work in the industry and that would be work, while this is fun HA). Be that as it may, main stream is main stream, both sides of the water, and people pretty much love American film and television. Yet there is a prevailing sense of not having something as cool that is ‘ours’. More importantly it gives the intellectual elite a powerful sword to wield in the debate of ‘better and worse’ culture. Again I find this absurd, but then again I live of the phenomena that there is such a thing as mass consumption of culture.
Jingoism. Europe is very, very war wary after having spent some 2000 years slaughtering each other with a dismal climax some 60 years ago. Nazi-ism’s role in the events back then, as well as the role of the nations states in 300 years of war makes Europeans very cautious to mix up flag toting and arms. Granted that is quite a lot of flag toting going on and even the occasional war mongering efforts…but the two are kept pretty much apart, while as America is perceived as being patriotically militaristic. This is downright scary to Europeans, even the ones born after WW II. We are spoon fed a reluctance towards anything like that for 13 years in school and continuously in public service media. It is after all the foundation and reason for the Union.
Last but not least there is also a widespread feeling In Europe of being unduly indebted to the US thanks to the outcome of two world wars.
There is joke that goes; ‘God created the world. When he was almost done God saw that he had done well. So elated by his own success he took all the best things he had made and put them in one small place, and he called it France. He beheld his work and realized that it was such a magnificent land that it was unfair to the rest of the world. To even things out he then created the Frenchmen.’ There is a lot to be said for that. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place, the people and the culture, but even the French can’t stand themselves in an unprecedented cultural schizophrenia. In many ways it is even my own. However, the French culture can be very difficult to penetrate and the cultural identity of the French can be pretty offensive to an outsider.
There is a certain directness about things in France, especially in Paris, which coupled with an aggressive language and a somewhat negativistic attitude can be very hard to deal with. The general view in France is that all the best things in food, music, film, visual arts and architecture should be French or at least European, but then only so if in the French language. That the rest of the world doesn’t get this is only due to the fact that we don’t know better. We helped them along by happily embracing the better parts of their culture…why shouldn’t we? French food is great after all and they sure make some fancy clothes (the music has lately had much to be wished for and their films and television is pretty cryptic to me…but that’s me). The fact that the rest of the world is catching up in many ways has either passed France by, or in some cases led to a national identity crisis.
What does this have to do with how you’ll be treated as an American in Paris? A lot! To avoid being dismissed as a cultural barbarian you will need to learn how to appreciate what is French as a Frenchman does. Eat French, drink French, love French and you’ll be fine. Also don’t forget to argue. The French despise the rest of the world for not arguing…they don’t understand why people don’t do it…maybe because they do it all the time. Parisians are especially offensive in this way, so much that the rest of France thinks them too rude for civilized company. You see the French don’t mind Americans or any other barbaric foreigners as long as they get the chance to forget that they are not French. By that I do not mean that you have to deny your own personality and culture…just show them the better sides of it and don’t flaunt it. Don’t worry if it takes time to get a grip of things in order to get across the cultural divide, the French are like Heinz ketchup – if you don’t know the tap trick you’ll have to smack the bottle…eventually it all comes out at once. Embrace France and France will embrace you and even if you will never fully integrate you will eventually be received as a cordial guest, and that’s already pretty cool if you ask me.
Living in Paris can be one of the absolutely most amazing experiences in a lifetime, if you just get in under the skin of the city and let it get in under yours.
You’ll either love it or hate it…no one is left indifferent.
By the way you just did it… Amsterdam is in Holland and hence would be the home of the Dutch, while the Danish people would be the inhabitants of Denmark. It’s pretty close geographically, but with European sensibilities regarding culture it is about a continent away… that kind of thing gets you in immediate trouble over here.
Regarding English in Amsterdam, the Dutch and the Scandinavians use English as a second language, expect a lot less English in France…even if they speak they are reluctant to do so as the French attach a lot of value to language and fear to loose face if they speak ‘wrong’.
Holy crap! Great post Sparculees! Sorry 'bout the Danish/Dutch thing. I am an ugly American. I was typing too fast and not thinking. I’m honestly not that dumb. But you have a lot of great info and I very much appreciate your imput!