Being an American and travelling the world can be tough. As a people, we’re criticised a lot: we appear to believe that jeans and a t-shirt are appropriate for nearly all occasions, we travel abroad without speaking the language, and we make eye contact, smile, greet and make small talk with complete strangers.
There are plenty of things for which Americans can be fairly criticized, but I think these things are misunderstood. People around the world, and Europeans in particular, take our chosen attire as a sign that we’re lazy and completely without fashion consciousness. They think our lack of foriegn language training means that we’re rude and uneducated, and our friendliness to strangers means that we’re superficial and insincere. Although there may be bits of truth to parts of that, I think, as a nation and a culture, we have a cowboy mentality. We’re from a (relatively) young nation, used to pushing the frontier and surviving by our wits. We’re accustomed to making ourselves comfortable in nearly any environment, and we love to explore. We have a spirit of adventure, confidence and enthusiasm that we take out into the world.
I think we have different priorities when it comes to dressing ourselves for the day, particularly an adventurous day (as when visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language). We’re all like Boy Scouts — we want to be ready for anything that might come up. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you’ll be ready to walk a long distance, sit just about anywhere, be comfortable in a variety of temperatures and weather conditions . . . and even wrangle something, if need be. I do think we tend to be less fashion aware, on average, than a European, but I think it reflects a different focus, not a cultural deficiency.
And yes, we will travel to a far off land with little to no understanding of the language and culture. Sure, that demonstrates some hubris . . . but also a lot of confidence. It’s true that our lack of ability to converse in multiple languages is a little uncultured (and an unfortunate lack in our education) but it also shows our willingness to go forth, into the unknown, whether or not we’re prepared, for the sake of experience and adventure. It’s not an easy or comfortable thing to do (I’ve done it, I know). But, we have a willingness to make things work and take things as they come, anyway.
Here in Austria, people don’t make eye contact with strangers. They don’t smile, or say hello on the street. At home, we look at each other, we smile, we say hello, we ask each other how we are. Europeans find that superficial and fake. They’re disdainful of it. They don’t see why you’d ask a complete stranger how they’re doing when you don’t actually care — why you’d smile without a particular reason. I think that Americans are reaching out to each other. We make that very small effort, and it makes the world just a little friendlier. I think it’s a small way of connecting with each other and checking in — we’re all in on this adventure together, after all.
We have a spirit of adventure, a lust for life and a desire to be prepared for everything. I know, my view is biased. But I do think our cultural perspective is informed by our history: we’re all cowboys are heart, and we like to be ready for whatever may come.