‘Real Americans’: Five Widely Held Stereotypes Debunked

The Griswold's made an impact during their European vacation. (WB)

The Griswolds are over-the-top American tourists in European Vacation. (WB)

As with most groups of people, there are stereotypes galore about Americans. Although stereotypes exist for a reason (no smoke without fire, and all that), this particular stereotype is either the American on TV or on vacation overseas. In short, not your typical American. Let’s break some of them down:

Loud? 
OK, you have a point. In my experience, American conversation levels are generally louder than their European equivalents. Years ago my husband and I were in a hotel lobby in Paris. While people-watching, we noticed that the Japanese guests in conversation were barely audible as they passed us, the French and Brits you could make out as they got within about four feet, and the Americans you could literally hear before they entered the hotel! Most of the time they’re not shouting, their voices just carry. It’s all about the back of their throat, but yes, they can be loud. Loud, however, can also be happy, joyful and enthusiastic.

Rude?
On the contrary, here in the Midwest at least, Americans are very polite. Every sneeze is met with a “Bless you” even when you’re alone in the dairy aisle; “Thank you” is always acknowledged with “You’re welcome”; heck, even when they’re confrontational, they’re also polite. And where else are people of a certain age addressed as Sir and Ma’am (rhymes with “ham”) by complete strangers?

Sneaker/plaid-wearing?
I was going to point out that the sneaker-wearing Americans we see are usually trekking round tourist traps and large cities, where sneakers (trainers) are eminently sensible; however, a quick walk round my neighborhood confirms the fact that yes, a lot of Americans wear sneakers – a lot. But by golly, they’re nice and clean. Fortunately, plaid is usually restricted to golf courses and the occasional cruise ship; most regular Americans wear khaki and/or a lot of what looks like workout clothing. (East Coasters wear black of course, and West Coasters wear beachwear and roller skates.) Having seen the state of some Brits this summer though, it’s very much a case of “people in glass houses…”

Geographically ignorant? 
Actually, about 39% of Americans have a passport, which is a lot higher than the mythical 20%. Here’s a fascinating breakdown of those numbers by state, if you’re interested. Just think, if the U.K. had guaranteed summers and the huge scenic variety of the U.S., not to mention cheap petrol, how many Brits would be popping over to the Continent for their annual holidays?  The fact that there are chip shops wherever there are Brits in Spain, rather suggests that they’d prefer to stay at home. Obviously in the U.S. there are groups of people who don’t care to know what goes on around the world, but you find this type everywhere and they don’t represent their fellow countrymen.

Materialistic?
Americans are no more more materialistic than Brits, they’re just not coy about it. Glance through most U.K. newspapers and you’ll not only read the news, but incidentals like the value of the subject’s house (Middletons anyone?), school fees they’re paying (Middletons again) or, in the case of footballers, how much they make per week. People who come from modest backgrounds and make it really big, like Simon Cowell (and the Middletons), are positively loathed for being “jumped up,” “show-offs” and worse. Many Americans I know have great-grandparents who came here with fifty bucks and a bag full of clothes at best. Having money in your pocket was not only a symbol of success, it represented safety and security. More than anything, these people wanted their children and grandchildren to do well, and that meant having the money to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, preferably a big roof. Present-day Americans are still saying, “Look Ma, look how well I’ve done”; they celebrate each others’ success as well as their own. There’s materialism on both sides of the Pond, it’s just a different animal.

See more:
10 American Habits Brits Will Never Understand
10 British Habits Americans Will Never Understand
A British Houseguest’s Guide to the American Home

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Nicola Dhane

    I always find it funny when I read articles about American stereotypes, because most foreigners forget and fail to grasp just how much our country and culture is influenced by others. With so many immigrants from almost every country, we have adapted and evolved from YOU. And it constantly changes because we get more immigrants still! I would say as a good rule of thumb, when in doubt, be polite and a little bit formal. Remember, we were founded by the Puritans so our sense of dignity and shame are strong. :)

  • Kaz

    I found this article interesting. I was born in London and raised in NY. I’ve been going back to London since I was little, so I am familiar with certain things that might be considered “veddy British”. One thing I will say is Americans (not all – and NOT ME) can be loud when in another country. I remember my first time to the Eiffel Tower. There was a school trip of high school seniors from the US singing at the top of their lungs “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”. I was embarrassed to say the least. I turned to my girlfriend (best mate in British speak) and said “this is one of the reasons people don’t like Americans visiting their country; they can be obnoxious”. I couldn’t say Americans are rude on the whole – anyone can be; it’s how one is raised. I mean you might not get a “bless you” from a stranger in NY but one isn’t expected anyway. Also, I find rudeness isn’t about where one is from but more how “higher up on the financial scale” one is. At least here in NY.

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

      Well they were teenagers and I think teens from any country can be loud whenever they get together.

      When I lived in the UK I honeymooned in Spain at Costa del Sol. My holiday was ruined by loud, drunk Brits everywhere and the ones that were there for the summer and earned money by selling timeshares. I swear at least five times a day one of them came up to me while sitting on the beach. Very annoying! Been to many beaches and had never experienced anything like it. In Europe, British tourists don’t have the best reputation I’m afraid, mostly due to drunken behaviour.

      • http://www.teaparty.org/about-us/ Nixys

        I went to Europe with my mother when I was a 12 year old girl, and I will never forget three loud British blokes standing in line behind us at the airport, talking extremely loudly and in extremely crass terms about some girls they’d “shagged” or wanted to “shag” from their tennis club. In America, speaking like that in public, but especially in front of a 12 year old girl and her mother (and they were perfectly well aware of us) is absolutely unheard of. I will literally never forget it.

        On the other hand, I found the Brits, although less “polite” in their demeanor overall than Americans, to actually be rather nicer on the whole to Americans than almost any other European nationality, maybe with the exception of the Dutch, who I thought were also quite pleasant to us as well.

    • Janey

      Oh no, American teens singing loudly! What a travesty. They were obviously having a great time.

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  • Paul Robinson

    The one thing I noticed here in Tallahassee, FL is that yes, people are far more rude than back in the UK… with exception of London, of course :D

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Can you expand on that? What do they do that is rude?

    • Me

      Tallahassee is full of rednecks and white trash.

    • declan casey

      I found everyone in the UK to be very cold. Plus, the US is known for it’s hospitality.

    • Irené Colthurst

      Well, that’s non-touristy Florida for you.

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

    Thank you Toni. That’s the first Mind the Gap post I’ve enjoyed in a long while. Quite refreshing.

  • Kaley

    And if you think Americans are loud, try the Spanish. I’m American, and I don’t deny that we’re rather louder than some cultures, but Spaniards take the cake!

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  • James Barnwell

    Very good article! Do you suppose that the french policeman is pointing to the Chunnel?

  • dp

    One thing that’s important to note vis-a-vis passports is that traveling outside of this country can be very expensive. Flights to Europe, for example, will run you around $1000 a head on the cheap end- and that’s without worrying about lodging, car rentals or bus fare, and admission to whatever sights you wish to see once you’re there. Looking at the map posted showing the percentage of each state’s residents that have passports- well, the ones with the lower percentages are in poorer areas of the country. It’s not so much people being willfully ignorant homebodies, as it is just not something that they can afford.

    • http://www.teaparty.org/about-us/ Nixys

      It just boggles my mind that people don’t realize that Americans live on a huge landmass surrounded by giant oceans. I think a lot of Europeans really don’t actually grasp this- like they have a neat little box labeled “Americans” and it’s totally equivalent to say, the French. North America is a CONTINENT.

    • frozen01

      This is absolutely true. It’s funny, but flights from Chicago to England and back are almost always $1,000 (at least $900) for me, and that’s picking cheap times of year to fly, but my fiance (when he lived in the UK) would make that same trip in reverse for about £450 (roughly $700). He always paid less, by a couple hundred dollars, sometimes more.

      And Nixys, I think a lot of Brits truly do not understand just how large the continental US is. I had a friend from London who talked about coming to Chicago for a few days and asked if we could go see the Grand Canyon while he was here. Quite the shock when I explained that it’s over a day’s drive away! *lol* ;)

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  • Anglo_Irish

    Why do some Americans always band out the “America has everything, so we dont need to visit other countries” response? These people are missing out on so much, America has a lot to offer, but so do most other countries in the world. Travelling abroad is a great thing, dont be so ignorant and self-centred please.

  • EJM513

    Ha ha! Well speaking as an American I can say there is SOME truth to these stereotype. A lot of people do wear sneakers, but they’re nice and comfortable. As for geography…it varies from person to person. Just like being loud and rude. It all depends on how your were brought up. I live in one of the richest counties in the country (but lord knows I’m not rich at all) and there’s defiantly a little bit of an.. entitlement problem. Personally I’ve been brought up to be polite to everyone, hold the door open say please and thank you all that jazz. Some people aren’t. I think a lot foreigners don’t realize how diverse America and Americans are until they come here. And the accent thing-well okay that’s true. In a lot of cases we just don’t have a lot of interaction with foreigners (depending on where you live of cores) so we’re just… curious I guess. :)