Top 8 Prejudices about Americans

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When traveling abroad it is difficult to go with an open mind. Despite our best efforts we bring with us an excess of prejudice shaped by our own culture and view of the destination country. So to it was for me when I visited the United States. When coming back, people at home are very insistent that you play into their prejudice regarding where you’ve been as well, perhaps as a means of reinforcing their own identity.

Let’s look at some of the top prejudices about Americans, and see whether they have truth in them. I must emphasize that I have been mostly around the Pittsburgh area, and my observations may or may not extend to the rest of the United States.

#1 Americans are very friendly, but it’s “fake”
This is one of the most often heard things about Americans: that they are ‘fake’. What most people refer to when they say this is that they are friendly, but they don’t really mean it. This is not entirely true though: from their perspective they probably do mean it. It’s not that they are putting up an act, it is simply a different social etiquette.

I believe the initial friendliness of Americans, which contrasts somewhat with northern Europeans, has evolved as a means to deal with the high economic mobility in the country. This is probably inherited from the frontier days when the United States was still forming, but even today it is common for people to move around quite a bit in order to find jobs: economic mobility. An open and friendly attitude towards strangers, and a quick means that facilitates social assimilation into groups is a necessity in such an environment.

#2 Americans are superficial
This is related to #1, but at a slightly later state in interactions. Americans are more open to banter than the average Dutch person for sure. Striking up a conversation and getting an interaction going is easier in the United States. People familiar with the east of the Netherlands will find it similar in some respect to the difference with the more densely populated west of the country: conversation are faster and their content more fleeting. However, if you actually get to know a person you can take the conversation as deep as you want, just as about anywhere else in the world.

#3 Americans are materialistic
It is true that Americans have a lot of `stuff’ and like to show what they have. This desire may not be specific to Americans by definition. However, showing your wealth prominently through materialism is more accepted in the USA than in other societies. One plausible reason for this is that the United States was founded as a place where status was not to be acquired by being born into a particular social class, but rather by working hard to distinguish oneself. Hence, the only way to actually measure the status of others in such a system is through observing their acquired wealth.

This is not a bad thing per se. But there are few mechanism to curb the excesses, which leads to a rather larger divide between poor and rich people. Additionally, I have been told repeatedly that the American Dream, a large part of which revolves around wealth and independence, is no longer reachable for many young Americans.

#4 Americans are nationalistic
One of the things that is pretty much true. Although national pride is nothing new, America is one of the few western countries that infuse their kids with a strong sense of national identity. Their proudness can be viewed as a positive thing since it keeps them together. However, I think it mostly works against them, as it strongly affects international relations and is also an often used argument in debate: when Americans criticize their own country their patriotism is often questioned. Something which seems irrelevant to me.

#5 Americans are overweight
I believe about one in three Americans is significantly overweight. This was also roughly true where I was. It’s a sad thing, but as I have reported before, there’s little incentive to eat healthy or stay physically fit. If you want that, it has to come from you, as the country’s regulatory authorities and commercial parties hardly provide any incentive for living a healthy life.

#6 Americans are conservative
This is certainly true for a part of the population. However, this is not specific to the United States. The two-party political system polarizes people into either being a republican (conservative) or a democrat (liberal). This forced binary option makes the political orientation of people very visible. It seems somewhat awkward for a country based on market economics to have so little choice in its political system.

#7 Americans are not knowledgeable about the rest of the world
This strongly depends on where you are. In a university setting they are probably no less knowledgeable, and interested, in the world outside of their country. However, that’s a very narrow part of the demographic.

The truth is that Americans don’t have a lot of reason to travel outside their own country, since their huge land covers many climates, and has many beautiful sights. You can enjoy yourself there for a lifetime without having to ever travel outside of the country. That’s not to say that Americans don’t like to travel abroad: they certainly do. However, it’s probably true to some extent that their limited direct exposure to other cultures in terms of customs and language does not make them as aware of the world outside their country as the citizens of smaller countries in Europe.

#8 Americans are hard workers
As I understand it this depends a bit on where you are in the United States. The people in the southern states having an apparently more relaxed and laid back attitude. However, in Pittsburgh life is fairly rushed. People frequently complain about the long hours they have to put in. There’s a fair amount of shops open the whole day, every day, or something close to that.

It seems like they are good at what I call “making each other crazy” with few vacation hours and long working days. Whether that is actually beneficial overall is fairly doubtful. The increase in working hours is probably offset by a decline in productivity during those hours. Americans work a lot, that doesn’t make them hard workers.

Conclusion
Overall there is some element of truth in all of the items mentioned. However, the reality is less black and white and has many more shades of grey than many people are willing to believe. This isn’t helped by the vast amount of documentaries that serve only to reinforce the common stereotypes. Americans also, in part, owe this to themselves, as they seem more than happy to reinforce their image in media. When you visit the United States yourself, I would recommend trying to keep an open mind, even if that may be difficult sometimes.

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A Brief Guide for the Dutch

Since I’ve spent some time in the United States, what follows are some ideas for shopping and eating that could save fellow traveling Dutchmen some time. Some of these may be specific to the Pittsburgh area, but others may also generalize to other parts of the country, particularly medium to large sized cities. Use to your advantage.

  • Cheese: there’s a lot of cheese around: different kinds from different countries. This large selection reduces the number of cheeses per country, so most Dutch cheese that you’ll find is Gouda “goo-dah”. Most of that is not Dutch import, but produced elsewhere in the US. Cheeses are notably less salty, but certainly no less fat. I recommend trying Pepper Jack if you’ve never had it and like spicy stuff.
  • Sprinkles: these are available in small packages for decorating cakes. Hence, putting this on your daily slices of bread will quickly turn into an expensive hobby. However, if you scout around you may find a local chocolate shop that imports Dutch products from de Ruijter “de-ruter”.
  • Potato Chips: I’ve found only the plainly salted potato chips to be comparable to their Dutch counterparts. You will find many familiar brands: Lays, Cheetos, etcetera. However, this is a deception, since most of these have a different ‘taste’ and texture. Bell pepper “paprika” potato chips are nowhere to be found, but there are a lot of oddly spiced chips if you’re into experimenting.
  • McDonald’s: if you’re looking for the typical yellow ‘mad sauce’ you won’t find it in the United States. Strangely it is marketed in Dutch supermarkets as an “American” sauce. Fries are generally served with ketchup and mayonnaise is available on request.
  • Big American Pizzas: thick crusted pizzas are not popular in the United States as far as I could tell. Yet another marketing ploy …
  • Teeth: if you want to keep them buy a good, preferably electrical, toothbrush as they will have to endure a sugar overload.
  • Tipping: unlike in the Netherlands this is expected in the United States: not tipping is considered rude. However, tipping is not expected if there’s a tipping box on the counter. As a rough guideline to what you will be signaling with your tipping amount: ten percent is bad service, fifteen percent okay service and twenty percent is excellent service. Remember that barbers and taxi drivers also expect tips.
  • Brands: In grocery stores expect to find a wide range of unfamiliar brands. Notable exceptions to this are Unilever brands and a broad range of personal care products. It’s fairly obvious what most things are though, so don’t be afraid to experiment (within reason).
  • Rental Cars: try Hertz or Avis.

While you may be familiar with many large American (fast) food chains, there are fairly large competitors that do not operate in the Netherlands. For example most people will be familiar with Starbucks, but not with Caribou Coffee. Similarly, everyone knows the sandwich shop Subway, but not Quiznos. If you like Bagels & Beans in the Netherlands, you will also like Panera Bread in the United States. Looking for a burrito or taco? Try the Chipotle Mexican Grill. If you want any type of quickly prepared food: your options are virtually endless.

Here’s a list of companies found in the Netherlands with United States alternatives. This list is not exhaustive, and it’s certainly not exact as many stores in the United States offer a wider range of products in a wider range of categories (and of course: Wal Mart really has everything, hence it’s not included).

  • V&D, Bijenkorf: Macy’s
  • Blokker, Hema: Target
  • Albert Heijn “To Go”: Seven Eleven, CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid
  • Albert Heijn: Whole Foods, Trader Joe
  • C1000: Giant Eagle (East-US Regional)
  • Makro: Costco
  • Ice cream!: Ben&Jerry’s, Baskin-Robbins, Frozen Yoghurt
  • Wolff, Pathé: AMC Theatres
  • Mediamarkt: BestBuy
  • Ikea: Ikea 🙂

In general I recommend just walking around and going in and out of shops to get a feel for what is different. You will probably quickly get the ‘hang’ of it.

Update: a pointer from a friend for those interested in purchasing Dutch products in the United States: www.hollandsbest.com.

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10 Kilometers

… or roughly 32 000 feet above the ground, that’s where I am now, as you are reading this. In about six hours I will land at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, back where I started hundred and twenty-three days ago. It doesn’t seem that long when you are at the end of it, but that’s still a good third of a year.

It’s been a mostly fun and rewarding experience, but I have to say it was also frustrating at times. Nevertheless, I’ve quite gotten used to being able to drop in at the Starbucks around the corner, biking down Squirrel Hill into Oakland, having all kinds of conversations with Americans, hanging out with film club people, going to Pitt games with my landlord, et cetera. So, although I am quite excited to go home, there will definitely by things that I’ll miss.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my stay in Pittsburgh, and there will be some final US related articles coming up in this category as well. Keep reading 🙂

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