Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Good Manners and Foreign Relations

Although people are all different, every culture has characteristic attitudes and habits. In Mexico, life is a fiesta; hard work and fun go hand-in-hand, and people see no reason to interrupt one for the other. Ireland is full of citizen-poets who can recite long passages from W.B. Yeats or Seamus Heaney and tear up at a good turn of phrase. The Swiss are remarkably well informed about history and world affairs and tend to discuss these topics like ambassadors over lunch.

Although all generalizations are wrong (including this one), there’s always some truth to caricatures. That’s why there’re funny. That’s why we laugh at cartoon characters, like Pepe Le Pew and Yosemite Sam. Somehow, without being real, they personify elements of “Frenchiness” or the outrageous, larger-than-life audacity of the American “Wild West.”

So what qualities are characteristically “American”? For over ten years, I attended meetings of a group who met weekly to speak French. Members and guests were originally from many different continents and countries—Belgium, England, India, Hong Kong, Viet Nam, Africa. Through their eyes, I gradually came to see America as others see us.

Americans speak loudly. In conversation, they can be rude and abrupt. Unaccustomed to rubbing shoulders with people of other cultures, they can be oblivious to things that are offensive to others. They tend to dismiss the sensibilities of guests in their country, taking the attitude, “They’re in America, now.” Abroad, they tend to have an attitude of entitlement, assuming that others can just “take us or leave us.” In a word, Americans tend to be arrogant.

On the other hand, people from elsewhere tell me that Americans can be very generous—eager to help someone in trouble or lend a hand if work needs to be done. Although they may be uncharitable, they tend to be kind. Others often see us as sensitive, emotional, and sentimental—traits that can sometimes be endearing, as well as exasperating.

Elected leaders tend to reflect the traits of the people of their country. Where other countries are concerned, recent American presidents have been arrogant—quick to criticize, condemn, and interfere with other governments. Perhaps that hasn’t always been bad. However, arrogance tends to make us blind to our own shortcomings and limitations. And over time, arrogance doesn’t wear well with other people.

We live on a rapidly shrinking planet where, as in a crowded office or apartment building, it’s increasingly important to learn to get along with others. Picking fights is clearly not the best way to get things done. We need to cooperate. We need to look for common ground. We need a leader who’s strong but can listen, explain our positions on things, respect others’ customs and values, and avoid stirring up unnecessary anger and resentment.

At this volatile and dangerous point in history, diplomacy has never been more important. A reader reminded me recently that at another critical time, we had a president who saw the need to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” Now we have another.


Idna said...

Dear Jane,

I ordered a book the other day that I heard about which deals with the topic of this post. It hasn't arrived yet .. looking forward to it. Sounds interesting!

The Character of Nations, by Angelo M. Codevilla, who teaches international relations at Boston University. Prof Codevilla sets out to show that different forms of government differently shape the lives of those who live under them, giving rise to distinctive habits in every realm from the economic, civic, and military to the familial and spiritual.


As far as the end of your post ... I will resist commenting on what I believe to be the most arrogant, power grabbing, unqualified president this country has ever had the misfortune of electing.

Idna said...

And another thing ... I know it's fashionable these days to criticize and apologise for the U.S. To resurrect the Ugly American image. But statistics will prove that Americans are a most generous & charitable people.

So they speak loudly. But they don't have public stonings for adultry or behead a young girl for being raped.

Grab-assing a female walking down the street is not a national pastime as in Italy. Talk about RUDE.

Have you ever stood in line for a bus, train, bank teller in some other country where the concept of "the line starts at the back" is unknown? Talk about poor manners.

Americans don't demand that other countries have signs, offical documents and class room instruction in English like so many immigrants to the U.S. demand that this to be done in THEIR native language. Talk about entitlement!

How many people have you seen drop dead on the sidewalk because we have such a horrid health care system. On the contrary, no other country gives so much charity care to people who can't pay as the U.S.

There will be rude and disgusting people from any country. But I will take the "sins" you assign to the citizens of this country and happily and proudly declare that I am an American.

In full disclosure to those who may read this, I am an immigrant and naturalized citizen. I embrace this land as my home.

To those who were born here, have lived here all their lives, complain about and apologise for their country, I say, like the song lyric, "You don't know what you've got til it's gone."

OK - I'm ready for your mockery for my being a mindless flag-waver. Do your worst!

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Idna,

I don't see any of the "statistics" of which you speak. But in any case, can't we be proud of our country without feeling like we have to be better than everybody else?

As to your status as a naturalized citizen--I'm glad you're here!

We both love America--we can certainly agree on that! But loving our country is like loving our children. We can love them and still hold high expectations for them! We can be proud of them without having to pretend they're perfect.