Adventures of an American Fly on the Wall

I’ve come to the realization that Americans get a bad rep abroad.

Something that I have noticed, especially here in Florence, is the massive ‘tourist culture’. Most people have a ‘vacation mentality’ when traveling, often because they are on exactly that – a vacation. Yet, something that seems to fly over the heads those who turn off the processing of reactions don’t realize that behavior that fits in one location, doesn’t ‘fit in’ in all locations. 

There is a thin line between meager cultural differences and more obnoxious and offensive behavior. 

Not going to lie, I feel an irritation towards people who have a similar accent to myself. Haven even muttered the word “Americans” under my breath, tasting the sourness in my exhale as if I was personally offended by their loud laughs, casual conversation, and basketball shorts. Sometimes I seem to forget my own distinctive ‘American’ laugh, constant asking for directions, and – nope, I don’t own basketball shorts so you don’t have me there. 

Are we offended by these different cultures when abroad because we don’t like the uniqueness that is associated with being different? Is there a push towards mono-culture because then everyone is the same, has the same interests, thus there is less friction and conflict between people? 

Why then, however, are humans across cultures desperate to ‘fit in’ yet want to be considered unique at the same time? Accepted but also held in higher regard? Maybe part of human nature, we are desperate to be included in the community by see the ones that are slightly different more powerful. 

I must admit, I have the tendency to want to blend into the locations and places that I visit. Politeness, respectability, and observant eyes were the tools I used in this process of learning or trying to learn how to blend into different environments with ease. To be a sore thumb in a cultural location is perceived as irritating to locals and other travelers alike. I’ve become extremely aware of the hypersensitivity associated with calling attention to oneself, almost especially when abroad. Back in the States, I’ve come to realize that we don’t mind loudness, in fact, we often relish in it. However, it is considered obnoxious in many cultures to call attention to oneself and make a scene. 

Since being here in Florence, I realized the arrogance of my judgements of other travelers. I am hypocritical by offering my judgement of tourists whom are unable to blend in. Have I forgotten my roots? In the education of my school, I’ve become ‘internationally-cultured’ through the diversity of places I have lived in and the nationalities and cultures of my friends. Even my accent becoming tinged with the intonations of my Bhutanese peers, my vocabulary not distinctive of a particular region and my inner ‘valley girl’ (I am from Silicon Valley) has calmed down with the constant “likes” and the “sentences that end as a question?”. 

The ‘global issue’, in a way, of tourist culture is the lack of awareness that some people exude when abroad. It seems that there is an absence of understanding that not everyone in a location isn’t also on vacation  Cultural offensiveness is something that I experienced in all countries that I’ve traveled to, whether it be my own ignorance, the disconnect with the culture of the people there, or observing interactions with foreigners and locals. For instance, I was totally naive in Argentina about dress – still wearing the hoodies, short shorts, and vans that clothed my existence back in California. In India, I was so shocked to be so out of my comfort zone with the chaos and crowds that I eventually became hyper aware of how others were perceived. It was here I realized how culturally offensive I can be as I spoke rudely to a tuktuk driver. Realization dawned on me as I became embarrassed of how I acted and spoke. The past two years of TGS, I’ve been in mostly western-influenced countries and was surprised by how different cultures can be within the western sphere of influence. The conservatism of the Swedes totally juxtaposes the outgoing nature of the Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks or the Italians. Nevertheless, I’ve found that the American culture is the most casual of them all, having a sort of ‘anything goes’ kind of attitude to decorum, a loud politeness that appears rude to the more formal politeness of Europe. Then again, this is all just my perception of the situation 

In all honesty, my conclusion is that the best thing someone can do to avoid the ‘global issue’ of cultural insensitivity is to observe and be patient. Understanding ones place by acting as a third-party on interactions with people similar to you makes you want to adjust your actions. Trying to be a fly on the wall and viewing the situation differently changes the opinion you have of your behavior. 

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