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From ugly to just plain American

Diversity stateside, the weak dollar and the rise of other global powers have changed how U.S. visitors act overseas and how Europeans see them.

January 10, 2011|Gregory Rodriguez

The ugly American — the stereotypically brutish, ethnocentric, bumbling traveler abroad — is dead. He's gone the way of global U.S. hegemony, the strong dollar and mid-20th century American naivete.

Thirty years ago, the streets of major European capitals were awash with wide-eyed, culturally entitled, middle-class American tourists who were members of the first generation to take advantage of foreign travel. Once the exclusive province of the elite, the Grand Tour (albeit scaled down) suddenly became available to the average suburbanite, supported by modern transportation technology, a strong U.S. currency and America's unparalleled international status.

But if global dominance produced a certain type of traveler, it makes sense that what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed the post-American era would produce another.

I've spent the past three weeks in Britain, Germany and here in Spain, and I've been struck by how unexceptional the American has become in Europe, as well as how the perception of us as a people is shifting.

Far from projecting an image of narrow-minded superiority, Americans abroad today are more reflective of the country's expanding diversity and cultural sophistication. They come from a broader array of backgrounds and traditions. Many still have strong ties to homelands around the globe.

That diversity partly explains why one recent survey of hoteliers found that of all Western travelers, Americans were most likely to speak the local language.

Linn Peterson, a Vermont native who has lived in Spain since 1977, says that 30 years ago, American tourists and expatriates were mostly interested in replicating the comforts of home abroad. "The people who come now," he says, "are looking for something other than America."

It also stands to reason that we are less "ugly" abroad because more of us confront and negotiate all sorts of cultural differences in our lives stateside. From small-town Indiana to suburban Atlanta, Americans are bumping shoulders with people from many backgrounds and negotiating cultural difference every day.

This cultural openness also comes at a time when the U.S. dollar is losing its dominance. That fact alone could easily be behind the change in attitude.

"Americans were more rude when the dollar was strong," said a longtime waiter at Madrid's landmark Cerveceria Alemana bar. Today, he told me, they are más suave — more mellow.

This more diverse, culturally fluent and easygoing American tourist also meets a world that knows a lot more about the United States than it did a generation ago — and it can better match the new tourist to the new image.

No more cowboys and Indians, for example. "Spaniards no longer ask how big our ranch is back home," Peterson says. "Thirty years ago, most of their knowledge of us came from movies and TV shows."

Not only is the world getting smaller, but changes in the United States also have given foreigners more opportunities to identify with us. The historic election of President Obama two years ago is the example that many Europeans point to.

Jeff Dayton-Johnson, a California-born economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, tells the story of giving a speech the day after Obama's election to a largely African-born French audience.

"People were crying," he said, "and thanking me as if I had personally delivered the White House to Obama. The election really gave people a bigger sense of our population's diversity. I don't think they see us as a people so vastly different from everyone else anymore."

And we aren't. In the 1980s, I lived in Madrid for a year, and I can attest to the fact that since then the cultural distance between Spain and the U.S. has clearly narrowed. The Spanish are more like us and we are more like them — in the clothes we wear, the way we spend our leisure time and the size of the cars we drive.

A week ago Sunday, for example, much to the chagrin of this country's ardent smokers, a public smoking ban almost as strict as California's went into effect. Likewise, the global rise of English and the mass-media-fueled international youth culture has made it a lot harder to tell who is or isn't an American at restaurants, clubs and bars.

The end of the exceptional American suggests that we're not only more invisible, but we're less of a target of outsize hope or disdain.

Just a decade ago, in the days after 9/11, I was in Berlin, where I was easily picked out as an American, and strangers on the street offered me their condolences. Not long afterward, a fellow diner at a restaurant in Rome recognized me and my friends as Americans and started yelling anti-U.S. slogans at us. Admittedly, in 2011, the timing is less fraught, but no one picked me out as if I were wearing the Stars and Stripes, or made me a stand-in for U.S. politics.

I suspect that America's post-imperial angst and the rise of other global powers will have the world projecting less and less powerful feelings on the U.S. and its casual ambassadors abroad. For better or worse, we're just not so special anymore.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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