I am about as stereotypical American as you can get. I grew up in a small town in Maine, where everyone knows everyone else’s name, most people all went to the same church, and where national and local tragedies brought everyone together to support and console one another. Such an upbringing is great in many ways – you learn the value of community, empathy for others, and the importance of family.
On the flip side, such a small community upbringing can be both a blessing and a curse. It can become a curse, because a small community can become closed off from the reality of the outside world.
I remember, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I had my first taste of the outside world. An African American family had moved into town – as far as I could recall, they were the first non-white family that had ever lived in our town. Up until then, I’d met two types of people, native Franco-American folks with deep, Canadian-french accents, and people from “away” that had either gone away to college and come back home, or had moved up to Northern Maine for the first time for one reason or another. They were almost always white.
I honestly didn’t think much of it at first. Then the problems started. There was news one weekend that on a Friday night, some local kids had lit up a cross on the family’s front yard. A burning cross. I remembered learning about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s in school – and wondered how something like this could happen in the 1990s. But it did. The family eventually moved away. That event was my first clue that I didn’t want to live there for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t until the advent of the Internet – and coming in contact with some of the most amazing people I’d ever met from many different countries – that I realized just how much the world had missed prior to the amazing invention of the world wide web.
The Blessing and the Curse of the Global Internet
College brought me in contact with people of different nationalities, but I found that it took me a long time to evolve and understand how to interact with people from other far-away lands, and to understand how they viewed me. I remember making a great friend from Vietnam, and working together with him on engineering lab work. He told me amazing stories about his parent’s escape from Vietnam on a small boat following the war, and how his father had died during the escape.
By the second year of college, I started using the IBM-mainframe based computer system to start playing “MUDDing”, as it was called. A MUDD was a Multi-User Dungeons and Dragons game – a text-based virtual game environment of the sort that I’ve described before here at MUO. That experience put me in touch with some of the first folks on the “Internet” from other countries. It was great fun chatting with those players during our in-game “quests”. Simple text-based adventures often turned into hours-log chats about their lives in foreign lands – and of course they learned a few things from me about what it really meant to be a young American kid – things that TV and movies often got wrong.
The launch of Netscape and the adoption of the Internet was something I had the pleasure of experiencing while I was transitioning through college. Those “nerdy” computer clusters filled with IBM dumb-terminals quickly transformed PC labs with computers hooked up to the Internet and running Netscape browsers.
Being online was suddenly “cool”.
However, being online was also bringing together cultures and nationalities that had previously never really interacted very much. The introduction of bulletin board systems and forums brought a platform for anyone at all that wanted to spread their own personal prejudices and hatred toward people of other cultures – on both sides of every ocean. It didn’t take long for the Internet to become a battleground of people heatedly “debating” issues like the conflicts in the Middle East, tensions between Israel and Palestine, international terrorism vs. the Muslim religion, and many other hot topics where there were burning emotions and opinions on both sides. You know what else seemed to be prevalent on both sides? Prejudice about the other side.
Many of the forum debates that I observed where an American was debating someone from another country, each side clearly carried preconceived notions about the other country. The following are some of those notions that I realized people from other countries believe about Americans, and how Americans sometimes feed those beliefs through their online behavior.
Americans are Big-Mouthed and Opinionated
I personally have always behaved in a certain way online that reflects my personal belief in freedom of speech – a principle that I think most Americans hold near and dear to our hearts. It’s part of our heritage to protect the right to say what you believe without being persecuted for it. Because of this, Americans are usually quick to share their opinions – and to anyone outside of the U.S., I think this can easily come across as someone being overly-opinionated.
The problem is that in American culture, everyone is expected to feel welcomed and open to stand up and share your piece. Say how you feel about the situation without fear. However, there are other places where decisions are made with a different process – where there are individual roles that are important to a community, where self-sacrifice for the good of the group is more important than individualism, and where “success” is measured using different values than how it’s measured in America. This isn’t to say one is better than the other, only that it’s different – and those differences can lead to conflicts in the faceless, electronic exchanges so commonplace today on the Internet.
What’s a solution? Enter into dialogue with people from other countries with a more careful tone. Sharing your opinion is fine – but seeking out opinions from others will become more important, because they won’t be so fast or willing to open up so easily until they feel that you won’t judge them for having different values than yours.
Americans are Fat and Lazy
The myth that all Americans are fat and lazy is spread by documentaries, news organizations and other media outlets that cling to this meme, regardless of how true it really is. However, according to the World Health Organization, the countries with the highest percentage of overweight adults are Nauru, the Federal States of Micronesia, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Samoa, Palau and Kuwait. The U.S. makes number 9 on the list. Egypt number 14. Greece number 16. U.S., Egypt and Greece are actually only 5 or 6 percentage points apart.
This isn’t to say that obesity isn’t a problem in the U.S., but that the problem of health and inactivity isn’t primarily an American problem. In fact, generally speaking, I’ve found that my colleagues and friends from around the world have the exact same health and exercise issues and problems that many of my friends in the U.S. have. I can’t find much of a difference, yet throughout the Twittersphere and on Facebook, on Forums and even in email exchanges, the reference to Americans being fat and lazy constantly rears its ugly head again and again.
What’s a solution? There really isn’t much, except as a country to collectively exercise, get back in shape, and share those exercise experiences and your health successes on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Once America starts getting on the top 10 lists of healthiest countries in the world, that’s the only way to shed this particular prejudice.
Americans are Ethnocentric
There is one last perception about Americans on the Internet that I’ve seen very often when communicating with friends and colleagues from other countries. That is that Americans are, in general, very ethnocentric. This is the one perception that I personally find to be true more often than it’s not. I think it stems from the fact that America had the highest Internet adoption rate at the very beginning.
Now, as a greater percentage of Internet users join Americans at the table, we tend to continue talking about things as though America is the center of the Universe. Cool online services and mobile applications are often only available to U.S.-users only. This creates a greater sense of us-vs.-them that only serves to grow the chasm between America and the rest of the world.
Not only that, but it leaves the rest of us with good friends in other countries, feeling guilty and apologetic about the fact that we can access those services, when they can’t. It’s beyond unfair – and hopefully it’ll be something that changes quickly as more and more companies become aware that the Internet is a healthy mix of every nationality.
If you’re American – what are some of the prejudices that you’ve encountered from users in other countries? If you are from outside the U.S., are there any prejudices you formerly held about Americans that you realized were completely untrue – or true?
Share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.