Saturday, December 05, 2015

American Arrogance - Part I

A stray comment at Quora digest claimed that Americans actually are modest about some things, despite their reputation for arrogance. Bragging about one's own accomplishments was specifically mentioned as somethings Americans consider rude. As I had been in an argument over at the CS Lewis site with a man from England and one from Holland, both of whom I thought were arrogant without being conscious of it, it set me wondering. Is there some cultural difference in which certain approaches are innocent in Europe but Americans find arrogant, and vice versa?

First, I get why Europeans find Americans arrogant.  American movies, TV, songs, many publications and Americans themselves announce how great we think the country is, and how much we like our way of doing things.  True, there are also many American products which take the opposite tack, dwelling on our evils, and perhaps those should be considered as balancing items when we are being judged as a group.  Yet leave those aside for the moment and note that the first claim is true.  Americans tell each other what a great place this is and what good people we are, and we do it a lot.

Notice my wording.  We tell each other this. Lee Greenwood didn't write "God Bless The USA" in order to stick it to Belgium or Turkey.  (In fact, he also wrote a "God Bless You Canada" version.) All those American hero movies that strike others as so jingoistic and offensive - you weren't the intended audience.  No one made you import those. If you like our movies and you bring that in and suddenly start getting offended by Americans winning and waving flags, that's on your own head. The ubiquity of American arts and culture since WWII seems to give people in other cultures that they should have some sort of vote in this.

I don't think Americans find it all that bothersome when other countries do this. The bravest and most intelligent characters were all French.  Well duh.  The movie was made in France. So long as you don't single Americans out as being especial villains (and even that is okay in some situations, such as when it's historically true), we aren't offended by the idea that you think your guys are the best. In fact, if you made us the bestest in your novel, we would immediately suspect you were trying to suck up to us, or criticising your own government in some way.

The exceptions would be our portrayals of Germans up until about 1970, and the Russians until 1990.  We did make random villains conform to those nationalities even when there was no reason to in the TV show. We had to pick someone, and you actually did deserve it, dudes.

The thing to notice is that we don't tend to go up to others and tell them off just because we think our way is better. (There is a large exception, which I will treat later.)  We don't go to London, strike up a conversation with the man next to us at the bar and say "You English are always whining about the economy. I think it comes from having a monarchy and a House of Lords..."  We would find that quite rude, and we don't tend to it in online conversations either.  We don't go into your house and start insulting you.

Yet Europeans do this to Americans all the time.  They do it personally and individually, and they do it in their newspapers. They do it when they visit us here and when we visit them there.   America should stop saying... the trouble with Americans is... The reason you have problem x is because you don't do things as we Swedes do... Unsolicited. I think they don't notice that it is terribly rude because it is so common and natural when talking with each other that they don't hear it talking with us.  there's this entitled sense that they have the right.

Now, once they've done that, they are going to get it back double-portion, and American arrogance will be on full display.  Don't like out sports, and think we should get with the program and care about soccer like the rest of the world?  Who asked you?  Let me tell you the problems with soccer and why I don't care...  You don't like our gun laws, and think those are what cause our homicide rate?  Okay, mac, let me tell you the reality here... We don't go into your house and insult you.

So there, I thought, is a cultural difference. It's a misunderstanding perhaps, which can be worked around. Then I wondered if Europeans do this to each other? Do Scots go to Paris and pop off about how the French do things?  Or if the French visit, do they take them to task about Le Pen or French movies?  The Swedes are notorious for telling everyone else, including even other Scandinavians, how much better they are managing things. They say they prefer to mind their own business and not interfere, but apparently, it always comes up pretty quickly, like the jokes about being a pilot or people who do Crossfit. Still, I am guessing here, and would appreciate hearing from people who know better.  Staffan

And the next question that would just naturally arise is Hey! Do Americans do this to each other?  What are the rules when it's in-house? That led to some very surprising speculations. What does New England say to California?  What does Georgia say to Minnesota - how is it delivered, and what is considered rude?

I arrived at some odd locations after following that. 

To Be Continued.


james said...

the last quote (fictional, I assume)

Texan99 said...

A general pattern, though, is that people notice who's in the ascendancy. Whoever's "up" is expected to behave graciously, and whoever's "down" gets carte blanche to blame and hector. It's a bit like "speaking truth to power." The Fool is supposed to jab at the King, but not vice versa.

Anonymous said...

As Texan99 points out, there is a power perspective in this. America has been the only Western economic and military superpower for as long as most people can remember. This inspires a stick-it-to-the-man attitude among all other Western nations.

But attitudes vary with time and differ widely across nations, as well as groups within nations. For instance, in the 1950s, Swedish working class adored America. But in general, Sweden is a extremely liberal country and it has many of the attitudes of extremely liberal people in other countries. It's in fact fairly similar San Francisco in many ways. Technologically advanced, environmentally concerned, LGBT-certified, and so on.

But all that humbleness creates a false alibi with which arrogance can grow uncontrollably, leading the former Swedish prime minister and others with him to refer to Sweden as a "moral superpower." This is of course the infamous liberal smugness, which many liberals aren't even aware of but think of as being licensed to "educate" others. So Swedes never say that Sweden is the best country in the world. In our humble-braggy way we say that America pollutes the environment and starts war everywhere, so we need to stand up against this and be an informed and educating voice in the international community.

And no, we don't say anything like that about China, because, like any other liberals, we are only slowly learning to adopt a stick-it-to-the-man attitude to non-Whites. Baby steps : )

RichardJohnson said...

While I have never been to Europe, in previous decades I have had a lot of contact with Europeans in Latin America and in the US, as fellow tourists, co-workers, or in living together. I developed certain stereotypes of various nationalities.

Brits, while easy to talk with, were rather reserved and often didn't travel well. Of any nationality, Brits complained the most about Latin America. Germans were excellent linguists and quite compatible to me. They impressed me with being self-critical about WW2. [I worked with a German whose uncle had been interned in the US in WW2- his uncle said he had been very well treated.] French- while some at some times could be compatible, could be rather arrogant at times. The only French Canadian I met I found rather arrogant. He corrected my Spanish when in fact I was appropriately using the past subjunctive tense. I found it amusing to later see him chased out of an open air market by a local who didn't like the French Canadian hitting on his girlfriend.

Scotsman: I will let the opinion of another Scotsman tell it. In this century I was part of a student team making a presentation of our findings to our grad school class. The dean of the school, a native of Scotland, sat in on the presentation. I informed the dean that I had worked in Venezuela with a bunch of Scotsmen. "Bunch of drunks, weren't they," replied the dean. For some funny reason, Scotsmen in the oil field have acquired a certain reputation. [I formed my opinion from the 140 empty cans of beer I picked up from the staff apartment after a party of Scotsmen oilfield chaps.]

The Europeans who were critical of the US were self-professed Communists. Though one critical comment from a female French Communist was more amusing than annoying. She informed me that some fellow Frenchmen, while visiting the US, had done some hitchiking- which at the time was rather common. She informed me that many of them had been invited to spend the night by people who had picked them up. That had also been my experience while hitching. She informed me there was something sick about Americans to be so friendly to strangers. [Given French experience with visiting Germans in previous times, one might understand the French attitude towards strangers.]

In the last decade of online commenting, I was at one time very concerned about the Euro-sneers. A lot of Europeans think they know more about the US than they actually know. A lot of this is because the US is a multi-faceted place: recall the old story about different people having different conclusions about what an elephant was. From my experience with online comments with Euro-sneers, my conclusion was that while some were amenable to being corrected with the facts, most were not. I concluded that it was a waste of time to try to correct them.

One difference between Europeans and Americans is over the centuries, many Europeans who considered religion to be important emigrated to America. Result: a difference in the proportions of Europeans and Americans who consider religion to be important.

European opinions toward Europeans of other nationalities have been greatly modulated in the 70 years since the end of WW2, due the prevailing opinion that nationalism was the prevailing cause of the two World Wars.

Sam L. said...

James: That last quote. Is wrong. The Brits invaded in the War of 1812. The Germans dropped off saboteurs, and the Russkis, spies (they don't really count, but leave us not them forget). The Brits also impressed our sailors.

dmoelling said...

In the UK (specifically England) they tend to put down themselves a lot under certain circumstances. I heard many times "English People do this..." from other English and it was critical no laudatory. A hotel owner told me they once owned a restaurant in London where it was typical that customers would not complain about their meal while dining, but write a nasty letter later. This was one of those "English people do this..." instances.

So in this case, criticizing Americans is normal (but amplified) by British people. I think in general it is proportionate to the amount of conformity expected in your society. You need an outlet. Japanese and Koreans drink heavily after work, Germans and Scandinavians tend to go to the USA to buy a convertible and drive RT 66. But they also have to criticize less constrained cultures to justify their brief rebellions.

In the US New Englanders/Urban Northeasterners seem obliged to criticize Texas in particular for no real reason. I think it sort of embarrasses them to secretly be attracted to a more wild and wooly culture. Southerners and Midwesterners don't tend to criticize the Northeast except in response to insult.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

dmoelling - that's where I'm going...

Thanks for the set-up

Earl Wajenberg said...

On a related note, try this link:

for a capsule summary of American culture, listing points that aren't as much a part of the universal wallpaper as many Americans think. But ahead of that is a long list of links, each leading to a similar little cultural portrait of another nation by one of the nationals.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I read the American one, and thought it interesting, but he's just flat wrong on some things. Things common to his friends he thinks must be common to 90% of us, and the insinuation that they are just right, and modern, is present. Still, it's pretty good.

Donna B. said...

I think if you understood the things, he's right. Those things don't have to be what you or I would prefer, but we do understand them, don't we? In a way that I'll never understand beans and toast or haggis or kippers -- things not really all that far removed from my heritage, yet so not American.

Sam L. said...

We have the tendency to think we are mostly alike, and live in the same way, unless we've either traveled or met people traveling who disabused us of that. I had an hour-1.5 hour-long discussion about that with a guy on a drive in the country about 40 years ago.

james said...

We can be immersed in different cultures in the same town, when we don't share entertainments and news sources and the homes are too far apart to share snow shoveling.