24 March 2014

Oh, Well, Of Course . . . You're Americans

It’s hard to get beyond stereotypes, isn’t it? Even if you were brought up to respect other people, and not to make assumptions based on race, religion or national origin. Even if you pride yourself on being politically correct, you’ve got stereotypes in your head. Otherwise all those nationality jokes wouldn’t be so funny, right? You know the ones, they start out, "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. . ." Each national type has its (stereotypical) characteristics. The Irish are drunks, the French are snobs, the Italians are womanizers, the Swiss are organized, the Mexicans are lazy, the Japanese are courteous, the Americans — well, here the list can be quite long. Off and on — though thankfully more off than on — Mark and I are told, "Oh, well, of course . . . you’re Americans. That explains everything."

national stereotypes in a word

Here in Brazil there’s no getting around the fact that we stick out in a crowd as foreigners. There will always be something un-Brazilian about the way we hold ourselves, the way we walk and the way we dress. But at least Mark and I are both thin, so if people just look at us they don’t immediately take us for Americans. (Sorry, America, but your growing obesity has preceded you around the world. Stop drinking those free soda refills, just stop!) No, if people just look at us they often guess that we’re French, which I accept as the highest of compliments. It’s only after people get to know us that our "American-ness" shines through.

"I told you to control your dog!"
And just what are the characteristics that define us so obviously as Americans? I’ve often wondered, because in my mind we don’t fit into the usual stereotypes: we’re not always in a hurry, we’re not stressed out, we’re not consumerist, and we’re not loud, angry or rude. Many years ago we were standing outside our house, on the street, with several of our neighbors. Somewhere nearby a dog starting barking furiously, and a guy — a big, heavily-muscled, thick-necked former Marine type — appeared from across the street (was he renting the house?) shouting, "Control your fucking dog!" Just like that, in real American English, although the only people on the street at the time who understood English were the two of us and our caretaker. And we don’t have a dog. Our caretaker turned to us and said, "That’s what I always thought Americans were like, until I began working for you."

Get out the manual!
However, there are American characteristics that do fit Mark and me like the proverbial glove. For example, we plead guilty to being punctual. It never fails but that Mark and I marvel at how empty a Brazilian movie theater is until the movie starts, at which point the Brazilians start arriving, and climbing over us to get to their seats. We are also guilty of being very, very organized. We make lists. We keep files. We remember birthdays (and did so way before electronic calendars). My recipes are in alphabetical order within their respective food categories. And to the astonishment of our friends, we have a written maintenance manual for our house, which we prepared so that the various infrastructure systems could be kept running smoothly from one caretaker to the next. No other house in all of Búzios has one, except perhaps one of the German households (Oops . . . talk about stereotyping!)

There have been times, thankfully few and far between, when the words, "You’re so American!" are not said with a wink and a smile, but rather with a jeer and a frown. I admit that those times make me a little nervous, because it means I’ve crossed over some line I can’t see. Was I too arrogant? Too aggressive? Too standoffish? If so, I apologize right here and now. I mean to be a good guest in this country. Please believe me, Mark and I don’t think we’re the best, or the smartest, people in the world. We have not been sent here to spy on anyone. And we never, ever, use the word awesome.


  1. Just wanted to say thanks for your blog. My husband and I were asked to come to Brazil for a week so he could interview with a company and we could "check it out." I used your blog to prep on cultural stuff, and the people hosting us were impressed with my knowledge from Carnival to party timings to shopping adventures.
    Now we will be moving from L.A. to Sao Paulo (he has since accepted their job offer) so we'll be in the thick of it very soon. Thanks again!

  2. Well, thank YOU, Cap2VA! Always happy to hear that I've been of some help. Congratulations on your impending move! I wish you and your husband the very best. Do give us a shout if you come to the Rio area!