Mistakes Americans Abroad Make
“Remember, kids,” I told my three, “when we’re in France, every time you go into a shop, you greet the shop owner or clerk. And when we leave, you tell them ‘au revoir.'”
This is a hugely important thing for American visitors to know. To fail to do this is like walking into someone’s house and not greeting them. It’s why so many French people think Americans are rude and badly raised. It’s actually nothing more than a failure to know the code. I get the impression that this is the rough equivalent of children from outside the South coming down here and addressing adults by their first name. That’s such a deeply embedded part of the social code here — that a child doesn’t do that, I mean — that to fail to observe it is not taken as a sign that one simply doesn’t know the code, but rather as a moral failing, a character defect.
After I talked to the kids about how to conduct themselves in shops, I thought about the mistakes I had seen other Americans make abroad. I don’t suppose you could call this a “mistake,” really, because it’s not going to cause offense, but boy, do Americans ever call attention to themselves by the way they dress. Nothing makes an American abroad aware of the lack of dignity American grown-ups display by the way they dress than to see middle-aged Americans trundling down the boulevard wearing shorts, sneakers, and baseball caps. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to be in a cafe overseas, and to be struck by how the loudest voices in the room are American. Of course, back home I wear shorts (though not sneakers or baseball caps), and I’m sure I talk as loud as anyone else. But over There, one learns to pay attention to how the people behave, and adjust one’s own behavior likewise. To fail to do so really is, I think, a sign of rudeness — that is, an expectation that one should be able to behave like an American wherever one is, and the locals will simply have to learn to deal with it.
When I lived in New York City, without a doubt the most annoying thing about tourists is the way they would fail to observe that the city sidewalks are as important to New Yorkers as the roads are. They are how most people get around. Tourists often line themselves up, five abreast, on the sidewalk, and amble along like they’re at the mall, heedless of the fact that there’s lots of foot traffic around them. If they spent five seconds observing their environment and thinking about what they saw, they wouldn’t do this. But many of them do not.
I see the month upcoming in France as a chance for myself and my children to learn what it’s like to live in another culture, and to live out a different way of being in the world. To that end, I spent an hour last night browsing a few websites looking for do’s and don’t’s about being an American in France, hoping to pick up some tips. It was really interesting.
For example, I learned that it’s considered obligatory in France to keep both hands on the table during dinner. No putting one hand in your lap! I also learned that you never pour your own wine at table. This is what the waiter does, and must do. Also, do not eat the bread until the meal comes, and unless it’s breakfast, or you’re eating oysters, do not butter the bread. Also, don’t put your bread on your plate, and don’t bite the bread and put the bitten piece down; pinch off a bite with your hand, and place that in your mouth.
Here’s something interesting: when you’re invited to dinner at someone’s house, you should bring a gift, but do NOT bring a bottle of wine. To do so is to imply that your host’s wine is not good enough. That makes perfect sense to me, actually. I mean, it’s habitual for polite Americans to bring a bottle of wine as a gift for one’s hosts, but if you think about it, it’s a little weird. I never know whether the guest expects me to serve his wine with our meal, or whether he’s okay with me cellaring it. When I bring wine, I mean for the host to serve it if he wants to, or to cellar it. Doesn’t matter to me. But I see what the French rule is getting at.
So, let’s have a leisurely thread here. Tell me what mistakes you have seen Americans abroad make, or you yourselves have made. I’m not talking just in France, but in other countries. What would you tell others who are going abroad for the first time, about how to behave in specific countries and cultures? Similarly, if you were advising tourists from elsewhere (in America, or abroad) coming to your city or part of the world on some very basic local etiquette, what would you tell them to do, or not to do?
On that last point, the most important thing any visitor to the South should know is that we are, perhaps paradoxically, a laid-back people, but we are also more formal in our manners. If you learn to say “sir” and “ma’am,” you’ll do well (e.g., “Yes ma’am, I’ll have the grits my that omelet.”).
Also, among white Southerners at least, please don’t talk about race, until and unless you know them well. We know all about our history, and we know that for many people outside the South, Mississippi will always be burning. Even though we may actually share all your enlightened opinions about race relations, we are acutely aware of our image, and we hate to have the complex history and culture of our region reduced to the racial conflict narrative. It’s not that we’re not capable of talking about it; it’s that we think you’re waiting for us to put on our white sheets, or engaging in moralistic one-upsmanship. Just don’t go there, in conversation, unless the people you’re talking to raise the subject.
(I say that, readers, not to start a discussion about race and the South — so don’t! — but as an example of a cultural sensitivity that is often overlooked by visitors to the South, but that it would be really useful to know before coming here. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for in this thread — things that aren’t apparent to outsiders, but that can get an unaware tourist in trouble by causing a bad impression.)