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March 8, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»usa

The Ambitious Culture

Had an Ugly American Moment the other day.

You know what I'm talking about. One of those experiences where you find yourself fitting the American stereotype, that of the insensitive boor. My favorite example comes from a visit to Mexico when I was in high school. I was on a bus in Cancun with my girlfriend of the time, trying to be unobtrusive, when a southern couple got on the bus and rode for a few blocks. They were loud and obnoxious. Soon enough, they had to get off, and pushed the button by the door to signal the driver, at which point he (like every other bus driver anywhere in the world) took note but did not immediately screech to a halt.

"Push it agin," the woman said to her husband, at a volume that carried through the entire bus. "I don' think tha little guy heard you tha first time." That was my cue to try to look as not-American as possible. Which for me is a range that starts at Kentucky and ends at about Ohio, if we're generous, so I wasn't very successful.

I don't want my international readers to think they are getting off easy here. Other countries certainly have their own Ugly Stereotype moments. I'm just most conscious of the American variety. Surprisingly, considering the breadth of its workers, we have relatively few incidents at the World Bank, I think. Everyone is generally aware that A) at least one person in a given conversation does not natively speak English, B) it is much easier to extend the benefit of a doubt rather than take offense, and C) no-one wants to be that guy.

My transgression wasn't anything offensive, really. We were working on some documents for the conference in Belgium, including the commitment cards. See, one of the really cool things about this conference will be cards passed out to the participants, on which they'll write personal commitments to anti-corruption, ranging from the personal ("I will not buy gas from companies known to use bribery in their operations") to the organizational ("My company will not use bribery in our operations"). This is a brave move, all things considered, since we'll be collecting the cards and publishing selected commitments on the web site (that's part of my job there).

But the language that explains this was somewhat controversial--for example, the word "ambitious" was thought to have heavy overtones, and was cut. So while we're discussing the text, my manager commented on how this is really a way of making the political personal, as the saying goes. I suggested that we actually write that on the front. I think I said something along the lines of "We can get participants to realize how important this could be."

"Oh, that's very American," said another (American) colleague. "To the Europeans, it's going to sound like we're moralizing, and they'll just toss them." There were nods from a couple of people around the table.

I'm not going to say that I was hurt, really, but I guess I was surprised. While I know that Americans are considered "blunt" by many people, I had never really thought of this kind of assertiveness as being American. Or more precisely, it would have never occurred to me that such language was particularly assertive or self-righteous. I think for Americans, that kind of rhetoric is just considered a way to get the topic out for debate. In a way, maybe we automatically go for the hard sell. I had a similar experience with B-SPAN promotional cards that we placed in the cafeteria, one of which read (in reference to our mailing list): "18,000 NEW FRIENDS."

"But I won't actually get 18,000 new friends from B-SPAN," said one person.

"No," I admitted. "I guess you won't."

After we finished the conference card meeting, I mentioned this to a friend--the one with the interesting folk sayings. She compared my choice of language to her university professors in France. "They were very distant," she said. "We would never call them by their first name, or go to have a drink with them, the way that I can here. Americans were much more informal, and I kind of respected that. But it has its down sides, also."

Then the conversation turned to Walter Reed, and I guess we got off topic. The point for me is that, when we discussed this back in my college Communication classes, I had never really bought the idea that (interpersonally speaking) there are communal and individualistic cultures, but this event brought the lesson home for me. When I think about it, most of the writers and role models that I try to emulate share this kind of aggressive, almost hyperbolic use of words--and there's a real implication of individualism implicit in that. This is a new way to think about how I write professionally (or even casually).

Of course, being an American, I tend to agree with my coworker that I find these tendencies to be admirable. After all, isn't the problem with corruption too often that people tiptoe around it? Shouldn't our rhetoric be a little more aggressive?

Probably not, if it dissuades others from joining us. And in this case, that's what really counts.

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