When my group arrived in Rennes, we were presented with a list of the stereotypes that Europeans hold against Americans. The left column, which contained 40 negative stereotypes, filled up both sides of the page. While the right column, which contained positive stereotypes, barely filled one page. After reading the left column, here are the words that stood out: “racist,” “wasteful,”, “arrogant,” “religious bigots,” “ethnocentric,” “nationalistic,” “rude,” “impatient,” “outrageously capitalistic,” “too bold and abrupt,” “loud and indiscreet,” “extremely naive,” “big children,” “simplistic,” “cheap,” “politically correct to the point of being obnoxious,” “intolerant,” “rigid,” “too casual,” “overweight,” “sloppy,” “anti-intellectual,” “loose and easy.”
I began reading the right column in need of a pick-me-up, but somehow the positive stereotypes about Americans (“They have thick, soft toilet paper!”) weren’t as powerful as the negative ones, and I was left feeling a tad dejected. We had discussed stereotypes in our pre-departure orientation, but we mostly focused on the “fat, lazy and stupid” ones, and here was an articulate, descriptive, and specific list of negative generalizations, written up by Europeans themselves. The worst part was that after weeks of watching and reading world news in France, it was clear to see why they held many of these stereotypes.
Next, we were asked to come up with French stereotypes. But being a beret-wearing, baguette-yielding smoker is less cutting than being rude, intolerant, bigoted, etc. Of course, the point of the exercise wasn’t to tear us down. It was to remind us that we were ambassadors of the United States, whether we wanted to be or not, and our behavior in France would shape others’ views of Americans. It’s been hard, sometimes, to defend America. For instance, when we’re asked why we’re so gun crazy after national tragedies, or why our leaders conduct their business on social media. However, interaction by interaction, I separate myself from the negative stereotypes. Just this week, I shocked a Brazilian classmate who insisted I must like McDonalds. When I told him that I rarely there, he reminded me, dumbfounded, “ but you’re American!”
Most days in France, I try to blend in. I wear neutral colors and do my best to mask my accent when ordering food. But then there are days, in which I feel empowered by the words in the right hand column of that list. Words like “optimistic,” “honest,” “courageous,” “friendly and open” and so forth. It’s days like this that I realize it’s not so embarrassing to be an American. In the states, you can make eye contact on the street or ask a random person where they got their shoes without getting weird looks. You can smile at a stranger without implying romantic interest. You wear bright colors and bold makeup without feeling ostentatious. And of course, there’s always the thick, soft toilet paper.