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.