Ugly No More

The American charm offensive


Several of the students I accompanied on a recent trip to London found the people there to be rude. True, many of those who served us in restaurants or traveled alongside us in the Underground were brusque, but I would have thought nothing of it had my students not pointed it out. Maybe it’s not so much that the British are rude as that we Americans are trying not to be. We have, over the past 30 or so years, been schooled in politeness—a reversal of the Ugly American stereotype, which may itself have been the impetus for changing our behavior.

When I visited Europe in the early 1970s, the image of the Ugly American was still in full force. Americans were believed to be loud and full of themselves. Knowing this, I made it a point to not behave that way—and was rewarded by being told that I was an exception. But now I think I was less an exception than part of an emerging trend. In general, Americans going to Europe in the 1970s worked overtime to overcome our country’s negative image. A negative stereotype in this case spurred an impulse to correct it.

Another reason for the change may be a heightened understanding of diversity that has become part of American culture. This is the result of a pedagogical initiative, where children, starting in kindergarten, are taught to be tolerant and open to difference. Americans now, as much as any other nationality, seem willing to try local foods, learn at least a few words of the local language, and be sensitive to foreign customs.

As the world becomes more Americanized—or globalized, depending on how you look at it—other countries are bound to follow suit. In France, for example, where people are famous for having their noses in the air, the government has been encouraging its citizens to be more considerate. America has had many dubious exports over the years, but politeness is one that nobody can quarrel with.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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