What is an American stereotype? Read on, friend. And just a warning: don’t call me a fake American.

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American stereotypes

Living abroad is the best way to see and understand where you’re from. You gain an outsider’s perspective of the culture you are used to and can see it for its positive and negative aspects. Despite living in the Netherlands for 6.5 years already, I still find myself comparing Dutch to American culture, but now I find it trickier to compare because I feel like I float between both. And still, I cringe at American stereotypes.

Ask Dutch people what they think is stereotypical American (or don’t, because they will tell you anyway 😉 ) and after they verbally go through the Rolodex of stereotypes (ignorance, obesity, TRUMP, etc) then they likely land on one final word: Fake.

Many people here have told me that they perceive Americans as being fake. Fake nice that is. The first time I heard this, I was really surprised – I didn’t feel like there was anything fake about me.

What about Americans do the Dutch find fake? Firstly, our politeness. We are not nearly as direct as the Dutch. Secondly, our small talk. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to stereotypes, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why we see things so differently.

Being direct vs. being polite

In Dutch culture, especially in the work place, people don’t really beat around the bush about what they mean. They just say it – if they think something is crap, they’ll tell you. If they have a problem with you, it’s more than likely they’ll confront you with it to move past any misunderstandings. To be honest, I really like this approach. It not only saves time, but it also makes you feel that you can trust your colleagues in that they will be upfront with you about how they feel instead of going behind your back (in most cases).

It’s this Dutch way of doing that makes it so hard for them to understand why Americans aren’t more straight forward with their thoughts. Why are Americans so concerned with hurting someone’s feelings with feedback? Especially if it is work related, it’s not personal, so why not be straightforward about your thoughts?

I think here is where the misunderstanding starts. Many Dutch people are direct in their communications which has the benefit of efficiency and getting to the point, avoiding misunderstandings. However, as in all places, there are some people for whom directness = saying what ever is on their mind – even if it might hurt someone else’s feelings. This is primarily where the differences lie. From a very young age Americans are taught if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. 

In general, I agree with this principle, but maybe we’ve gone too far in some cases not to just say what is on our minds. Sweeping something under the rug never really solves the problem.

I’ve wondered lately when people have told me “oh you’ve become Dutch, you’re not as fake as other Americans“, if it is truly that Americans are the only ones who differ from the Dutch on directness – or are there more cultures?

I hear a lot of people here being amused by trying to understand British English – the Brits are even LESS likely to be direct than Americans. But I don’t hear Brits called fake – people just try to decode what the Brits really mean.

Are the Spanish or the Italians really so much more direct than the Americans? I don’t think so, but I guess the stereotypes for Italians (talking with your hands, erratic driving, family bonds) and Spanish (laziness, tardiness) were already taken, so when it came time for Americans to get their stereotype, fake was still up for grabs!

Sometimes though, we do get a bit too over excited. I think this is the case more for people, especially girls, in my generation. Why do we jump up and down about news that doesn’t really excite us? Why scream OMG? Why are we so easily over excited? I’m up for any answers you might have on that one, cause I haven’t solved it yet, but this NYmag article and this video help to explain it.

Why adult women squeal like teen girls 

Small talk

For the Dutchies who have visited the US, one of their first impressions is that Americans are so fake in public toward strangers. Why? Because we Americans are always engaging in small talk. Think about the last time you left your house and went to some shops – how many times did someone you didn’t know ask you how you are doing? If you’re Dutch, that count is probably 0. If you’re American, I’d guess you got asked at least one time at each location you visited.

Everyone in the US asks each other. Doesn’t matter who you are, how long you’ve known each other, or if you’re perfect strangers, we always ask “how are you doing?”

For Dutch people, it is surprising to have a grocery clerk ask you how you are doing. For Americans, it would be rude not to be asked. Dutch people have explained to me that you would only ask someone how they are doing here IF you actually cared about how they were doing. They couldn’t imagine why the cashier at Albert Heijn would care about how they were doing, and when in the US, initially interpret it as a special treatment toward them.

Fake? Maybe not…

Americans ask “how are you doing?” or something along those lines because it’s a greeting. It’s known that you aren’t actually expected to share your inner most emotions with a cashier or complete stranger, rather it’s just a way to recognize that someone else exists.

Maybe the cashiers in grocery stores here don’t ask how you are doing in Dutch, but in every restaurant you go to, they’ll ask how everything tasted at the end of the meal. I have never, not once, heard anyone say anything other than “lekker” or “heerlijk,” (tasty or lovely).

Just like the fake American “how are you?”, lekker or heerlijk is the socially accepted response to a question about how your food tasted in Holland, and trust me, not every meal I’ve had here was lekker or heerlijk, just like I wasn’t always actually “good” every time I told a stranger who asked me.

See also: The truth about California

Being called “fake” is probably my biggest expat culture shock. Generally, I think it’s a misunderstanding, the same way that many Americans might misunderstand Dutch directness.

Ever wondered why we smile so much? Yup, that’s also an American stereotype. The Atlantic has an answer for that:

Why Americans smile so much

Fake, friendly, or American optimism?

One of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten at work is that I’m “so American”. Ok, sometimes people say that in a negative way, but let me explain.

A lot of people have told me this – and it’s meant as a compliment. One trait that is key to American culture and that many Americans carry, is optimism. Another is persistence. Chalk it up to the “American Dream” – I think it’s true. Combine these two traits and you have people in dogged pursuit, who get back up after being knocked down.

It’s really “American” to be excited and enthusiastic – to the point that our European friends across the pond would roll their eyes. But this excitement and enthusiasm might be what keeps propelling us forward, even when things are bad.

Maybe this optimism also accounts for us always answering that we are “good” when people ask us how we are doing. Maybe that positivity is not a sign of being fake, but really a sign of optimism.

What do you think? Are you a fake American? What are the stereotypes about your culture?

 

10 Comments

  1. I am not American but my boyfriend is. It is funny how people assume a lot about him because his American accent. People assume I am American, but I am Canadian. As soon as people find out, people assume I am polite as fuck and will apologize for everything. It’s weird. I don’t get it. But I find it amusing since I live abroad and have been an expat on and off since 2009.

  2. Interesting. I feel like it really depends on the person as I have felt like I’ve fit really well into the Netherlands (but I have always been a bit blunt), however I often feel the opposite: that Americans don’t hold their tongue when it could have been. I had to get out of the how are you habit although I must say, I really do like being able to honest when someone asks me how I am rather than saying good. 🙂

  3. Very interesting, I hadn’t heard the ‘fake’ perception of Americans at all. But we just returned from Thailand, and the widespread impression of Americans there (according to our friends who live there) is that Americans are anxious and worriers! I think we always have to keep in mind that the perception of “American” is so often in contrast to the culture making the evaluation, which actually tells us a lot about them.

    • gab.grow@gmail.com Reply

      yeah that is funny! I think the stereotypes probably depend on the country they come from – so that is probably why the Dutch see Americans as being fake and Thai people might think they are anxious worriers! You are dead on in your statement that the stereotype reflects the country where it originates

  4. Very interesting perspective. I am Dutch myself and I know we can be direct, but I must also say there are cultural boundaries to this directness as well, even in the Netherlands. I know that for foreigners it might look blunt, but we do actually care how we formulate something. We like to call it constructive feedback and we like to frame it in a way we can inspire the person to do something better the next time. It would be considered rude tough to tell your colleague or friend she is fat and unfortunately some dutch people are just rude. Gossip and talking behind someone’s back is unfortunately also happening in the Netherlands, so directnmess is not always used by everyone. There are a lot of written and unwritten rules about Dutch directness.

    • gab.grow@gmail.com Reply

      I like the directness also – of course sometimes people can be rude, but that’s in any culture I’d say. I think it’s a great quality in the culture

  5. As another American expat in Europe I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this post. I wrote about reverse culture shock and American stereotypes in my blog too but I feel like you’ve just hit the nail on the head here. I have a hard time trying to describe exactly what the differences are between American culture and various European cultures and this is IT!

    • gab.grow@gmail.com Reply

      Thanks so much for your kind comment! It is so nice to hear that someone “gets” it. I love these types of topics… you learn so much about your own culture and other cultures. I would love to see your blog post on reverse culture shock if you can send it?

  6. Hi there! I think overall Americans tend to be more optimistic and excited about things than other nationalities and I love that about us. How boring would life be if we all went around thinking everything was ho-hum blah all the time? Enjoyed the read 😉

    • gab.grow@gmail.com Reply

      thanks for reading! I love that about us too 🙂

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