Tuesday, May 16, 2006

That 'ugly American' image is getting a makeover guide

That 'ugly American' image is getting a makeover guide
By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

We're loud, arrogant and poorly dressed.
Oh, yeah — we're fat, too.

Though it can't solve the U.S. obesity problem, a business group is attempting to beautify the time-worn image of the ugly American by promoting an attitude adjustment among business executives traveling abroad.

The non-profit Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA) will formally launch its program in May, when it will make its World Citizens Guide available online (businessfordiplomaticaction.org). But the group already has distributed the consciousness-raising pamphlet to 50 or so U.S. businesses, including American Airlines, Loews Hotels and Novell, says the group's executive director, Cari Eggspuehler. The guide politely suggests that when traveling in foreign lands, Americans generally should tone it down and dress it up, among other behavioral tips. BDA will follow up with an intensive briefing program for businesses.


Sample advice from the new World Citizens Guide published by Business for Diplomatic Action:

Speak lower and slower. In conversation, match your voice level and tonality to the environment and other people. A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.
Leave the slang at home. (It) means little or nothing in other cultures. .. (and) can make you seem insensitive.
Listen at least as much as you talk. By all means, talk about America.. .. But also ask people you're visiting about themselves and their way of life.
Dress up — you can always strip down. In some countries, casual dress is a sign of disrespect.
Remember that your religion is your religion and not necessarily theirs. Most non-Western cultures have little knowledge of the Bible and will not understand references to it.

Surveys indicate that the ugly-American persona is not only alive and well, but getting bigger and uglier. And research aimed at discovering the roots of anti-American sentiments around the world points, in part, to the American personality. People overseas don't just dislike our foreign policy; they dislike us. And that's unsettling to U.S. businesses with interests abroad, as well as to the U.S. tourism industry vying for a share of incoming foreign travelers.

"Historically, people would separate the American government and the American people. But that distinction is being blurred," says Eggspuehler. "Typically, our people were admired for our way of life. It was a lifestyle that many aspired to, and that's not the case any more."

The ugly American was born in the days after World War II when greater numbers of ordinary, middle-class Americans began traveling abroad, particularly to Europe. They stood out, and not necessarily in a good way. But as global travel becomes increasingly ubiquitous, Americans are, if anything, becoming more savvy in the ways of the world, says Dean Foster, a cross-cultural consultant for business travelers. Nor do U.S. travelers have a lock on ugliness.

"Now that a lot of people are traveling from a lot of places, I see ugly Italians and ugly Brits, ugly Chinese and ugly Germans," he says. "Anyone who's ignorant of the culture they're in is ugly. It's not the provenance of Americans."

Maybe not. But given the pervasiveness of our culture and the sweep of our foreign policy, we tend to get noticed. In man-on-the-street interviews conducted in more than 100 countries after 9/11 by the advertising conglomerate DDB Worldwide, respondents repeatedly mentioned "arrogant," "loud" and "uninterested in the world" when asked their perceptions of Americans, Eggspuehler says. "But the most consistent word in every region was 'respect.' They said we don't respect their cultures. That, and if we had to talk so much, we could at least dial down the volume."

BDA was launched 2½ years ago by Keith Reinhard, former chairman of DDB Worldwide, to help businesses find ways to boost the sagging image of the USA abroad. In 2004, it created a student version of the guide, which went out to 200,000 study-abroad participants. The feedback was overwhelming, Eggspuehler says, and led to the business travelers' version and another program for schoolchildren, now in the works.

Reinhard has met three times with Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, whose key role is to improve the USA's standing abroad, and she's said to support BDA's efforts. But the program has no governmental connection.

The Travel Industry Association of America, which promotes travel to this country, is squarely behind the initiative. The American-image problem is of primary concern to TIA, says spokesman Allen Kay. "But polls show when (foreigners) come and visit, they're much more likely to be friendly toward the U.S."

E-mail: jeclark@usatoday.com


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