Are Americans really that stupid? On cultural differences and the danger of stereotypes

By Marisa Laios

I’ve never really wanted to go to Japan. Simply because I don’t like eating fish. And I know that’s very popular out there in Africa.” – Britney Spears

There is nothing wrong in questioning the content shown on TikTok, but if certain topics show up multiple times there must be something going on. In my case, it included Americans confusing Europe as a big single country and trying to warn their fellow citizens about (untrue) cultural circumstances. Although I was and still am fascinated how others perceive our little continent, it is not the first time that I stumbled over those confused commentaries. The problem first started in 2016, when Donald Trump delivered one of his most famous lines during the election campaign for America’s next president: “Belgium is a beautiful city”.  One of the next highlights in media culture of the past years has to be the Netflix series “Emily in Paris”; while some people took the series with amusement, others busted out into harsh criticism on the producers’ and writers’ cultural ignorance. These famous incidents make me ask: What is true about the “Stupid Americans”-stereotype? And why is it so despised around the world, especially in European countries?

First of all, a stereotype defines itself through repetitive behavior and statements of a certain group, which lead to a common image. This rigid perception is often noticeable in everyday life, but not always linked to a negative prejudice. Nationality wise for example, Swiss people are known for their punctuality. (Is every single Swiss person actually on time? Probably not.) In this case, Americans are known for being talkative and friendly, for example at the cash checkout of the supermarket. But despite these qualities, Americans are not that popular – especially in Europe. The problem in stereotypical thinking is that it aligns in over-individuality. We notice and remember political actions (the Vietnam War or the oppression of the Native Americans for example) or statements by famous people (as you can see above) and apply them to every American person we (will) potentially meet. This can lead to a hostile and awkward attitude.

Over-continental differences are normal, but can also lead to misconception. According to articles on Americanness there are values and aspects of living there, which are just not that big in Europe: Glorification of capitalism and money making, stylization of junk food, guns, certain values such as individualism and nationalism. The openness to other cultures and languages definitively differs from European standards, which can also be led back to the dissimilar education systems (they differ in Europe, too, but generally put a bigger focus on language learning). Many of those differences are rooted in the history and the geographical situation of each party. While most of the US citizens never left the country, it is almost impossible for Germans to avoid travelling, at least to other parts of Europe. Also, most European cities and regions can look down on a thousand year old history, while American independence is not even 300 years old. In many cases, tourists from the U.S. or countries with similar size proportions expect to travel through Europe within days and to see everything this part of the world has to offer. This is simply not possible and is also really disrespectful towards small subcultures and not-so-famous countries, which also have outstanding history and work to show.

But what really provokes those differences on a global level is the one-dimensionality and ignorance in (social) media. Especially on TikTok or Instagram “smattering” or superficial knowledge is common. Making assumptions about each other’s culture without even glancing at a Wikipedia article leads to feeling attacked on both sides. When news is being published, for example about the new abortion law or gun violence in schools, people are shocked and judge the political and social system as well as U.S. citizens for “allowing” those situations. In reality, a lot of the citizens themselves are oppressed by the political system and try their hardest to protest against those given conditions and occurring situations. The political system does not treat all citizens equally.

This can lead to a reinforcement of anti-Americanism. People use superficial statements on America (especially political issues) to emphasize their own nationalism and justify racist statements, for example by addressing the discrimination that POC face in the US on a daily basis just to stress the country’s qualities and legitimate xenophobic commentaries on immigration in Germany. “America” functions as a bad example in this case. Especially after the Cold war anti-American feeling has grown

No, Americans are not completely stupid. Just because of certain viral moments or news on social media we should not condemn every single U.S. citizen. Due to the different social and cultural history, events and development it is often hard to understand the values and habits of others fully. Also, these values and habits are not always the result of a certain nation or culture. After all, it would not be beneficial to judge every German after watching a street survey at the central station in Frankfurt either.

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