When Americans arrive in France, jet lag is not the only obstacle they have to overcome. There is a certain stigma that accompanies their passports known as the American stereotype.
When I decided to study abroad in Paris, I knew I would inevitably come across situations in which my nationality would be counted as a fault. I just hoped I wouldn’t spend more time trying to improve the American image than I would trying to improve my French.
Many French people think of Americans as materialistic and culturally void, according to Julian Cruz, a 22-year-old French student. “They have a reputation of focusing on image instead of substance,” he said.
Harsh as this may sound, the stereotype seems to feed off the mainstream television shows and movies that make their way across the Atlantic and paint the picture of what an American is on their screens.
“When I think of California, I think built and tanned. When I think of New York, I think Sex and the City,” said Cruz. “When I think of Florida, I think of sex, drugs and cosmetic surgery, because of Nip/Tuck.”
Julien Debrulle, a 23-year-old French student, believes the stereotype portrays Americans as being uninformed and rich, but with bad taste.
“They seem to know more about celebrities than they do about the world,” she said.
When it comes to culture, Debrulle said, the term “American” implies lower quality.
“French people say they’ll go see an American movie when they don’t want to think,” she said.
Dotti Sinnott, an American student studying in Paris, believes the image works both ways.
“Before I came here, people were warning me that the French aren’t going to like me because I am American,” Sinnott said. She believes that it is part of their culture not to be very open and welcoming at first, and that is the impression American tourists leave with.
“Once you’ve lived here and gotten to know them, you realize they are not really like that – they warm up,” she said.
So, is this a case of one impression feeding another and turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Just as all Americans are not uneducated, fat and loud, the French are not all beret-wearing, baguette-eating snobs.
Neither Cruz nor Debrulle would apply the stereotype to Americans they have actually met, they said. In the same way, I have only experienced cold shoulders and dirty looks in routine and impersonal interactions, such as crowded metros and grocery lines.
When traveling to a foreign country, Americans should keep in mind that their actions formulate their image. Even though there are many negative qualities that accompany the stereotype right now, Americans should not go on the defense. Instead, they should see it as an opportunity and a challenge to improve their image around the world.
As I walk past the crowded Starbucks every morning, or discuss the latest episode of Lost with French classmates, I realize that American culture isn’t being shunned – it is being turned into a guilty pleasure. The stereotype may exist, but it can be shaped and eventually reversed by interactions between the two nationalities – which, despite their differences, have a lot of common ground where the gap can be bridged.