“Ja, Amerikaner sind oberflächlich”

My European students — especially the Swiss and German — insisted that Americans are superficial. Irked by this, I finally got them to explain their perception. It was based on something as deep as “Americans say ‘how are you’ but they don’t really care about the answer.” I told them that, in China, a common greeting is “Have you eaten yet?”

I got pretty tired of their complaining about American superficiality when their complaint was based on something that superficial.

Many of the boys always hoped to get a pretty, blonde, California girlfriend and were always disappointed (seriously, I think literally always). A girl would be nice to them and friendly but wouldn’t want to see them again. “You’re leaving the country in two months,” I’d remind them, “she probably doesn’t want to get involved.”

There was. nothing superficial, however, about wanting a pretty, blonde, California girlfriend for two months, right? 😀

But it went deeper. It had something to do with their California dreaming. California was supposed to be a place with palm trees, warm water, friendly people, surf culture, etc. In fact, there are palm trees but the water is usually pretty cold. The people are not any more friendly than people anywhere (see above), and surf culture? It’s there but it’s not all Beach Blanket Bingo by any means. Their complaints about “superficiality” were based on disappointment and the stereotype Americans have in many parts of Europe.

I’m not superficial. I never have been. I have tried, though. I’ve given it a sincere effort for many, many years. It’s probably never going to happen.


10 thoughts on ““Ja, Amerikaner sind oberflächlich”

  1. Every nationality has its character, whether you like it or not. The British are reserved (not if you are a cockney – more black humour), the Swiss have no humour (they do, you just have to take time to find it) and the “Yanks” superficial? You have to take pains to get to know people. We all have our little invisible fences around us. And if we were all the same, wouldn’t life be boring.

    • I think it’s just very difficult to get beyond our cultural idea of “normal.” Young people on their first trip truly WAY beyond the borders of their own countries are more scared than they know. I dealt with culture shock all the time. With the kids who were only in the US for 2 months, there wasn’t enough time for them to actually BE in America.

      I have experienced the other side of that. I was in a restroom in Interlaken, a very fancy hotel. An American tour bus was stopped there and the tourists were eating in the same cafe as Adriano and I. I was in the stall in the restroom and heard the American women complain about Swiss toilet paper. For a lot of Americans it’s a big shock to learn that OTHER countries are ALSO very nice, progressive and successful. So many Americans buy into the “greatest nation in the world” propaganda that it shakes them up to experience any challenge to that. Complaining about the toilet paper was the way these women challenged the reality that Switzerland is — wow — at least as comfortable and advanced as the US. We’re all snails carrying our cultures, expectations and stereotypes with us, I guess.

      • I could write a book about the times I have been ashamed to be a Brit in Switzerland, but it will never change. My English people still have pity on me because I have to “manage” with the Swiss way of life. Go figure.

      • Oh, I know. I’ve had a lot of good laughs over the years with this stuff. Like the young British women in Milan who didn’t speak Italian. We were in the train station, wanting to take the subway but there was a strike (it was Italy after all). The train official announced that there would be no subways or buses or trams until 3. The two British girls were very upset and I said, “You’ll have to take a taxi. There’s no public transportation until 3.” They said, “How would YOU know?” Because Americans only speak English. Then they said to the train official, “We want to speak to someone in charge. Someone who speaks English.”

        Then there was the time on the Italian train that I found it prudent to pass as German because of the war in Iraq. But THEY (the other passengers in my compartment) already thought I was German because I spoke (bad?) Italian. But I have to say that in CH I’ve never suffered much of this, probably because I don’t understand what people are saying 😉

  2. I still am not convinced to believe that a person wears the character of a nation. Rather i believe a man wears his own character and thus responsible for his own.
    What is a national characteristic? Is there any set of characteristic written in the constitution of that nation that we call it national characteristic?
    Or the character of a nation is actually defined by the characters of the ‘Majority’, AGAIN?
    If we can call a whole nation as creepy looking at one creepy guy why can’t we call the same nation as holy looking at one holy person? Umm, have we lost one eye?
    How wise is the idea of majority preference? Take ‘Jesus’ as an example. He was accepted by a minority. Put yourself 2017 years back in his time, as a person who bases his/her confidence or belief on majority preference, and see whether you believe in him anymore. If no, it again means you believe him today only because a lot many other does! But, does that make Jesus any less? Whoever is reading this, No matter whatever your faith is, just put the name of the founder of the faith in place of ‘Jesus’ and discover the base of your faith or confidence.
    Is ‘Truth’ subjected to anyone’s belief,let alone of majority? 🙂

    • I believe we are individuals, and I agree that we are each responsible for ourselves, but I also think there are cultural characteristics and beliefs that are so much a part of the world in which we grew up (and ourselves) that we don’t even know they’re there. A stereotype is really just a theory but it has a basis in truth. Many Americans really do like football. Maybe even most of them. I don’t. Most people get married and have kids — it’s a biological thing with a cultural wrapping. I think there are many things that are like that. It’s not in the constitution of a nation; it’s in the cultural make up of the people except in the case of the US which had a government before it had any kind of American culture.

      I think the more someone travels, the less he is part of his culture. That’s why I think people should travel a LOT and speak more than one language and read scriptures from different world faiths. I think insularity is a big problem. 🙂

      • Yes..I agree 🙂 the more we explore, the more vastness we discover and it also helps us recognize ourselves as a drop of the vast ocean where everyone is equally significant ❤

  3. I spent half in year in England, too and didn’t find it better, worse, or in the end, all that different than the U.S. or Israel. People are, in the end, people. We have different habits, but we are aiming for the same conclusion and somehow, we get there. I remember being furious at how terribly Israeli banks handled money exchange, something that everyone who had money coming from overseas had to deal with. Of course, I never dealt with money exchanges in the U.S. so really, I had no idea how we did it or if we were any better.

    There are a lot of things you cope with in another country you never had to cope with at home, starting with having to manage your life in a different language, different styles for waiting in line, how you talk to a teacher about you child’s progress or lack thereof, buying a car or simply going out for groceries. Each place, it’s a little different and that can be very abrasive.

    But the whole POINT of traveling is to experience differences, so I never understood why so many people complain about it. Why travel if you want everything to be exactly the same as it has been at home? Stay home, take it easy, and eat out. Let the folks who want to experience the differences do the traveling.

    • I think people complain because they no longer feel competent or masterful. I think some feel threatened when they learn the OTHER country is actually pretty nice. And you’re right; it’s abrasive, more to some than others. And, culture shock is real… my ex-husband had it the whole time we were in China. The only time he felt comfortable was when he was taking pictures and I think that’s because the camera and lens allowed him to transform what he was seeing into an image, no longer reality. He hated it, but now he thinks it was the greatest thing he did in his life. :O

      I saw so many American tourists in Italy who had read Rick Steves’ books and were OBVIOUSLY paranoid about thieves at train stations, basically advertising they had something to steal. I always have had a good time watching my fellow countrymen when I’m in another country.

      Imagine me going to a Chinese bank for the first time to send money back to the US ($100/month). They used abacuses an the receipt was hand written on a piece of onion skin paper and, what I didn’t know, is that the myriad pieces of onion skin paper I was getting everywhere needed to be SAVED, so when I wanted to sell my bike and did not have this piece, it was a HUGE problem.

      I think everyone should travel. I agree with Ray Bradbury; every kid in the world should spend one year with a family in another country.

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