March 2, 2010

Why Do Some Europeans Call Americans Dumb?

When I was working in Saudi Arabia, a British co-worker once told me:" Let me sing you the national anthem of the country of dummies!" He then proceeded to sing "the Star-Spangled Banner" with the following lyrics: "dum.b dum.b dum.b dum.b dum.b du-uu-mb ". Another British co-worker said that Americans were "the dumbest race of people on the face of the Earth".

I asked him why? He said that he once made a phone call using an ATT&T operator and inquired her if he could place a call to London. She asked him " Where is London? Is that in Europe?" Later he told him that whenever he switched the TV channel to see a rugby or a cricket match, American co-workers would simply leave the room, totally uninterested in the game. In his eyes, these incidents made Americans "dum.b".

America is the largest economy in the world and Americans call themselves the richest country in the world. American leads the world in technology, space exploration in other such areas. So, why is this accusation of being "dum/b"? And if Americans are so du.mb, why is the country so rich?

America is rich, there is no doubt about it. And it owes its riches to many factors. The main factor is probably the culture built on Protestant work ethics and solid North European common sense. People work hard and they work smart. They know how to solve problems. While some may call modern Americans "wastrels", the past generations had been very thrifty. The country was built on free enterprise and for hundreds of years the government had a laissez fair policy towards business. The culture is forward looking with a "can do" attitude. People are enthusiastic and believe that they can achieve their individual dreams through discipline and never giving up. Add to this the fact that education is much more accessible to many more people than how it was in Europe and the fact that the society has a much less rigid class structure and you've got yourself a rich country. And don't forget the fact that the country has lots of natural resources and unlike the European countries there have not been any major invasions for the past 200 years or so.

So, where does this "dum.b" thing come from? I think what is happening here is a classical case of intercultural misunderstanding. It occurs when foreigners visit the US and when Americans go to foreign countries. The people that call Americans d.umb for the most part are Europeans. Latin Americans sometimes call US people uncultured, but not necessarily dum.b. So, what is going on?

There seems to be a difference in education. Europeans believe in being informed about the world outside. Being a well-rounded person is seen as a virtue. In the US, according to Europeans, people are very good at their individual professions and a few of their hobbies. However, studying anything that does not lead to practical results, is seen as a waste of time. That for some reason seems to include Geography and World History. So, as long as a conversation between an American and a foreigner runs along a specific topic such as business or the American's chose field of expertise, everything seems fine. Problems start when a European wants to have a broader discussion on international culture or current world events ( the ones that do not cover America's involvement in some war). Once a discussion like that starts, an American tunes out. He gives his conversation partner a blank look and starts feeling uncomfortable. Some Americans will even say with pride "I don't know anything about ( insert the topic).” You might be talking to a five-year-old for all one cares.

The neglected areas of Geography and any knowledge of the world outside the US- a subject that many Europeans take for granted and learn at an early age which seems to go largely uncovered in the US causes the impression of 'dumbness'. Brits complain that when they were in the US, MIT graduates would ask them questions such as : "Is there a bridge between England and Scotland or do you take a ferry? One Brit was fuming ”Do you know what that American asked me? He asked me ‘So what language do you guys speak in England?’" Australian TV once ran a program where an Aussie went to some American city and stood there with a map, asking people to show on the map where Australia was and no one, allegedly, could do it.

And these are American reactions to people who come from fellow- Anglo-Saxon countries! Things get worse when other countries are involved. Numerous foreign students who go to the US to study complain that most Americans have never even heard of their countries to begin with. One Malaysian girl studying at a college in New York was almost hysterical " No American has even heard of Malaysia". They keep asking me " Where is that?" One Saudi Arabian official once told me this story: He was studying in the US in 1980ies and once he was picnicking with his friends when a man walked up to them and said " F*** you, Iranian!" They promptly left the place but later decided to go back and explain to him that they were not Iranians. Upon approaching the angry man and telling him that they were not Iranians, the question that came their way was " So, what the f**** are you?"." We are Saudis!" to which the man replied " Same f****ing s**t!" In Latin America tales abound of US presidents calling Brazilians "Bolivians" and being surprised that Brazil had Black people. White South Africans are asked " You come from Africa, how come you are white?"

The other thing that aggravates the situation is that, because of geographical and cultural distances involved, even if Americans know about the existence a country, they have a very distorted picture of how life in those countries must be. Questions such as " Do you guys have electricity or TV?" or" Do you guys live in houses and are there cars in your country?" or "Are there big buildings in your country?" are asked of Thais, Nigerians and Singaporeans, people whose countries are quite modern in spite of poverty in some of them. Movies made in the US about Russia or Korea or Africa notoriously portray poor peasants and countryside devoid of any civilization whose people, nevertheless speak English and who all want to go to the US. Since most Americans have not been to those countries, they blindly believe the simplified Hollywood version of the world.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the Philippines, a country that was once a US colony and that adopted an American system of education. Many foreigners visiting the Philippines or who work with Filipinos often say that Filipinos, even those with BA degrees have not heard of many countries unless they are those from which most tourists to the Philippines come and where Filipinos work : USA, Canada, Japan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Italy, etc. Having a worldly discussion with many a Filipino is quite difficult in spite of the fact that they are a well-educated nation.

Hollywood, too , plays a role by putting America in the center of the world with other countries somehow being "run-away provinces" of America, who one day will want to join the Union and become another state of the US. They think that the world speaks English ( because on the screen most people do) and if some people don't ( actually 75% of people do not) then they should and soon will. Even the National Geographic channel covers only the very modern or the very exotic countries leaving a huge number of countries unmentioned. All these factors contribute to the international "uninformed-ness" of an average American and makes him or her appear "d.umb" when a meeting between an American and a person of another culture takes place.

In all fairness, many Americans also see some other nations as "dum.b". For example, the "Polish jokes" seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon. Few people in Europe think that Poles are dum.b. Countries surrounding Poland actually think of them as astute, discreet and highly cultured people. In Russia, for example, a Pole is highly respected as being intelligent and even aristocratic. Possibly, the Polish immigrants to the States were originally poor and appeared "d.umb" to Americans since they did not function well in the American culture in the beginning. French Canadians whose English was often poor and who also acted clumsy when they first arrived as immigrants in the US, were described as "dum.b". But these adjusted to the country, learned the language and the culture and are no longer referred to as such. However, the "du.mb" American image persists, especially in Europe.

Being uninformed about the rest of the world does more harm than earning the title of being "d.umb". People who think that they live in paradise while unaware of the many social and technological improvements that are always taking place in other countries will eventually fall behind in many areas. They will not be able to adopt many exciting innovations that are being introduced around the world all the time. Japan had video- cell phones as early as late nineties and Singapore solved its race problem once and for all by very ingenuous quota systems that seem to benefit rather than harm. Many countries, such as Slovenia ( Where is that?) have small per capita prison populations and have much better programs to rehabilitate prisoners. However, if Americans do not know about them, how will the country improve?

They will not be able to elect good leaders and will support international campaigns of dubious usefulness which drain US resources by diverting money from home to some overseas ventures in which patriotic Americans always die. They will believe myths about how the rest of the world is a God-forsaken place and if they become just like the US, they will be OK.

Such ignorance creates suffering and death and stalls progress at home and abroad. And changing that requires improving the education at home and creating a new generation of highly intelligent, worldly citizens. Such Americans will probably be the world's most perfect human beings.



Elizabeth said...

You know not all Americans are dumb and not all Europeans intelligent. I've met ignorant people from all nationalities.

rj said...

Interesting analysis. These are all, of course, broad generalizations but your point is taken. As a bi-racial American in his mid-20s who is well versed in world geography and world events, I can tell you that in a country of over 300 million people, you are bound to find plenty of individuals who don't measure up. However, in our defense, there are many that do. The sad fact is that Americans don't necessarily HAVE to be well-versed in European and world affairs as we are a massive, geographically isolated nation. Size-wise, all of Europe would fit into half of the US. If we had 50 different countries, most with different languages and their own rich history and culture, as Europe does, then I guarantee you things would be different here. Europeans MUST be well-versed because it would be disastrous if they weren't. Think of it this way, in the time it takes me to drive across Montana here, I could have passed through 5 different countries and 7 different languages and cultures if I were in Europe. This mere fact has broad consequences and implications for the United States (or "America" as Europeans seem to call it). I suppose what I'm getting at is that for every "dumb" American, there are 5 others who are smart, hard-working, generous and kind.

Anonymous said...

What a ridiculous article.

I'm sure the AT&T operator (not ATT&T) was working out of a huge foreign placed called center.

"Expatriate Observations, Insights and Comparative Culture Analyses"

What a joke. Another wanna be scholar without a clue.

Anonymous said...

I'm european, and the USA is officially broke right now, and Asia is leading in technology, and Europeans were the 1st settlers, so the USA basically owes their heritage to europe. Of course there are bright Americans, but in general, the USA is a joke to europe.

Anonymous said...

the euro is crashing europe is is worse shape economically than the U.S

Anonymous said...

Right the U.S is broke...Europe isn't currently dragging down the world economy or anything. Funny how we are a joke to Europe yet we invented tons of products you use.

This article is pathetic, Japanese had video taking phones in the late 90s. Who invented the smart phone? Also Japanese companies sell their products in the U.S. almost instantly. Both of you are clowns

Anonymous said...

When i spoke to Thai people in Bangkok, they told me the province they were from. They laughed at me when i asked where it was.

When i told Thai people that im from California in USA, none of them knew or heard of California, except for a few uni students i met. But i never laughed at their ignorance.

Anonymous said...

EUROPE IS A COUNTRY??? What is the capital of Hungary? HOT DOGS??? lmfao

Anonymous said...

You're over-thinking this. You people elected George Bush twice. That is the all the proof anyone needs before you even consider that 1/4 of all high school kids don't graduate high school. And that is the best it's been in 40 years. Anyway I digress, it's the Bush thing. The guy would have trouble tying his own shoes and you put him in charge of nuclear weapons. Not clever.

Anonymous said...

IDGAF about Europeans. Without the Americans the only European countries that would exist would be
Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Finland. To all of you b!tch3s calling us dumb,and saying we wouldn't be here without you remember why your country even exists still.

Anonymous said...

YOU'RE DUMB, the posts proove it...

Vrinda Kanchan said...

To the poster above, what the hell are talking about? The posters here are from the U.S. and Europe.

Vrinda Kanchan said...

To Anonymous from August 6th - I didn't vote for Bush, so stop making assumptions. Europe also has a high dropout rate among high school students, so get off your high horse.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify. There is no way you would be able to fit all of Europe in half of the U.S.
United states is approximately 3.8 square miles
Europe is approximately 3.9 square miles
Besides, most Europeans do not think you are dumb, we just think that you are arogant and ignorant, but still, most europeans countries have adopdted the american culture and thinking.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, i meant 3.8 and 3.8 million square miles :D

Anonymous said...

I looked up this topic because I heard other countries called Americans dumb. I understand why now and it makes sense for those that feel worldly intelligenct is a top priority. I live a meek, uninteresting life. I have no problem with others' ignorance of US and our language as a visitor. If one asks and is interested that's great. We all have our priorities and not everyone cares about being the smartest or most worldly. Just because I don't care about what you think I should, doesn't mean I'm ignorant, it means I have other things I spend my time focused on. I would like to know about every country in the world and maybe one day I will. But if I don't know today it doesn't mean I'm ignorant it just means it's not important to me right now.