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There is a book entitled The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Although it was written five decades ago, it seems very much like it could have been written yesterday. I’ll give you the “super short” version now, and I’ll put up an “official” review of it at a later time. For now, just know that it talks about how Americans and our government are often perceived overseas: in short, not very well.

Back in the fifties, we thought that big money and big projects were the key to developing third world nations, and we only interacted with their governments on a very snobbish level. We didn’t want to connect and help the common folk because of several reasons… that would require actually talking to them and we nor their government really wanted that to happen. What do ignorant peasants know, right? We know what’s best for them. I did say this was back in the fifties, right? Nothing at all similar to today…

Americans Overseas

I’ve spent several years living overseas and have traveled a good bit on the side, as well. I try not to stand out too much wherever I go. I always say please and thank you, and I try to do it in the native language, if possible. I consider it to be common courtesy. Spend any amount of time in a restaurant that may be happened upon by Americans, however, and you’ll see one form of “Ugly Americanism.”
I’ve actually seen scenes in movies that came close. Basically, the American comes in with an attitude. They appear “haughty”, if you will. The symptoms vary, but they can range a great deal with phrases like, “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?” (Note the assumption that they should speak English). “Run along and get my ____ for me now.” In short, they are loud, obnoxious, self-centered, demanding and just plain rude. They think they should have “Hollywood” treatment because they were nice enough to grace these people with their presence. Their actions are such that it makes you want to pop up and say, “G’day mate!” This enables you to distance yourself from them and politely leave.

Can you see a similarity with our government and our people when it comes to going overseas?

Third World Countries & The Iron Curtain

Quick! When I say “third world country” you think of… and be honest. How about dirty, stinky, ignorant, diseased, and uneducated people? Living conditions are horrific. The whole place smells. Oh, and mud huts with animals wondering in and out. They do really weird stuff, too, right? Hey, most people tend to think something similar, too… especially us “cultured” Americans, right? Right!

Well, remember that thing called the Iron Curtain? We (the good guys) were trying to stop them (the bad guys) from taking over and spreading Communism all over the world. Basically, we had our missiles pointed at them; they had their missiles pointed at us; as long as nobody pulled the trigger, we were good, right?

Contractor Hired

Except that in one country, we actually started running into trouble. I won’t mention the country by name (it doesn’t really matter), but it basically comes down to the fact that they were protesting at the gates, yelling “Yankee, go home!!!” That sort of thing. You can imagine that it wasn’t going very well. In fact, we were running into trouble installing our missile base, and having some other problems, as well.

Enter Dr. Robert L. Humphrey. I’ll skip the biography for now (stay tuned, though!). He was a “cross-cultural conflict resolution expert” which is a fancy way of saying he helped people get along. Being an intelligent man – and a good conflict resolutionist – he decided to first do a little homework. It makes sense that if some people are upset that you should find out why, right? Right!

Survey & Results

Dr. Humphrey narrowed down close to 200 questions to only two: 1) What do you want from America? 2) What can Americans do (or not do) to make things better?

Fairly simple, eh? As a courtesy, though, he decided to run the survey questions by the U.S. Ambassador at the time and he went in and told him, “Sir, I’m gonna ask the locals these two question in a low-key manner. I just wanted to let you know and make sure its ok.”

The Ambassador replied, “Doc, I can save you a lot of time and trouble and answer both those question right now. What were they – ‘What do you want?’ and ‘What can Americans do?’ – They want ‘MORE MONEY’ and they want us to ‘LEAVE.’ So don’t waste your time.” Now keep in mind that this was back in the 50’s when we threw “big money” at everything. Read The Ugly American and you’ll see want I mean.

Dr. Humphrey simply replied that, if it was ok, he wanted to proceed with questioning the locals, anyway. And he did. The amazing thing was that he actually got the same answer back to BOTH questions? Keep in mind that this was the era of big money, as well. The questions, again, for you to think on:

1) What do you want from America?

2) What can Americans do to (or not do) to make things better?

Find out more in my next Life Values post!