Everyone Has an Opinion... on the U.S.A
Before you head abroad, I just want to let you know that coming from the U.S. means that everyone you meet will probably have an opinion about you—and they will want to tell you about it—before they get to know you. Now, you might tell me that the U.S. is a huge country and is fairly diverse but this really hard to see from an outside perspective. Add to that the fact that people mostly know what they see from t.v. or movies and you have a really small but super strong perspective on how things work in the country.
To give you an example, I had an interesting experience when I was out with a coworker recently. Now, this coworker and I get along really well but she has her own, strong opinions about the U.S. and hasn’t been shy telling me about them. For Saint Patrick's day we were selling raffle tickets for our Gaelic Football team and everyone was curious about where we were from. While she got some fairly generic comments (neither exceptionally good or bad), everyone had an opinion about me being from the U.S. Afterwards, she expressed her shock to me because while she has some pretty intense feelings about the country, she didn’t expect that everyone else in the bar would too.
Now, after living abroad for almost a decade, I consider myself to be pretty international and I feel that I will probably never consider myself 100% American again—people even question if I am native based on my accent (or lack thereof). However, I would argue that when you are questioned and pushed, you are more likely to go back to your cultural roots and in these moments I become even more ‘American.’ And while I try to control my reactions, sometimes things get a bit away from me. At the same time, with the comments I get on a regular basis, you might not blame me. Some of my favorite, non-aggressive comments are along the lines of:
“You are smarter than I expected.”
“You seem nice.”
“You are not fat.”
“Why do you like guns?*”
Now, I would not argue that I am especially intelligent or nice and I have never been a ‘gun person’ (however, I will admit that I am genetically slim and athletic) but people seem consistently surprised with these things. And, while I was born and raised in a small U.S. town, surrounded by wonderful people and had a very positive upbringing, I will admit that it can be difficult for me to talk about political questions when my beliefs are fairly out there for the States (although I would say I am quite a conservative European), but I like to support people I respect and a country that I believe in. If you meet me, you probably wouldn’t think I would have much in the way of problems incorporating into European life—and, in general, I haven’t—, but there are still some opinions that are hard for me to deal with.
Therefore, if you are planning on spending time abroad, there are two things I want you to prepare yourself for when it comes to these opinions so that, hopefully, you can react better than I did when I first left the U.S.:
1.) It’s not necessarily going to be all bad
I don’t want you to be conditioned to expect bad things. Opinions can be positive too! In fact, a common comment I get from people who have visited the U.S. is how friendly everyone is. I am not totally sure what people expect from us, but quite often those who have spent time traveling around the States have a positive perception of the country and its people. In addition, most Americans who travel abroad are open to new experiences, ideas, and people, making it easier to relate to them. All this positive energy is likely to contribute to a semi-positive perception of the States.
Another source of positive opinions comes from popular culture that people love. Things like sports, t.v. shows, and music have a huge impact on the rest of the world and, while some people don’t like it, many people follow cultural happenings from the U.S. In fact, most of my European friends probably know more about all these cultural things from back home than I do. This means that most of the time, the U.S. also makes a good impression abroad!
2.) But it’s probably not going to be all good either
For every good thing people see, they will probably see at least one thing that they perceive negatively. That hardest thing for me is that all of the expectations and stereotypes are often applied generously to everyone—that is, I am often told things ‘about myself’ that I didn’t previously know. Now, I understand that this is fairly normal and that we all do it. In fact, I often get stereotyped for things that have nothing to do with the country I was born in. However, it can also be frustrating when people constantly have opinions about things that I don’t really care about.
In addition, I am personally the kind of person who does get bothered by people assuming that certain things—whether it be that only idiots vote for certain candidates or that everyone carries around a gun in their pocket—are things I am personally for or against. This can be exceptionally bothersome because they automatically expect you to support or oppose them without getting to know you. Now that I have had more conversations and am more aware of the different perceptions, it is not unusual for me to play devil's advocate and support a point of view that I would not normally call my own. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this method as it does tend to rile people up, but it can make for some interesting conversations.
All in all, my goal with this article is to help you become more aware about the fact that people might try to label you just because you are from a certain country and, while we all do this for all people of different background, the stereotypes will probably be strong if you are from the U.S. Some of these opinions will be positive but others will be negative and I would say that more than half will probably surprise you. However, if you try to understand the situation from someone else’s perspective and have been working on your cultural competences, you shouldn’t have any big issues.
What is your experience with people’s expectations of you while abroad (from the U.S. or otherwise!)? Let us know down below!
*Note: I would like to touch on this subject going forward, but it is not without its controversies either.