'Ugly American' image is under attack and the target of reform effort

‘Ugly American’ image is under attack and the target of reform effort

AMERICA, we’ve got a situation.

“We the People,” it seems, are an arrogant and brash bunch. We are self-serving and insensitive. We are exploitive and quick to take but slow to give back. We exalt a culture of decadence and consumerism. Our social mores? Woeful.

That, at least, is the global reputation the United States has built, according to a worldwide survey by a nonprofit organization whose mission is to repair the United States’ sullied image and regain international respect.

In its aim to overhaul this unseemly public image, the organization is tapping one of the country’s most powerful, if unlikely, resources: the American traveler.

“Americans take 60 million trips outside the U.S. a year,” says Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action, a nonpartisan collective of business leaders. “Sixty million trips is 60 million chances to make an impression. And they can be good, or they can be bad.”

Guide published

To boost instances of the former, the BDA has published a World Citizens Guide for Americans to study before setting foot on foreign soil. One-part reminder to be on one’s best behavior, one-part tip sheet on navigating unfamiliar cultures, it’s a booklet the organization wants in the hands of all American travelers. The group is lobbying the State Department to issue one to every U.S. passport holder, but no decision is imminent. “They haven’t said yes,” Reinhard says, “but they haven’t said no.”

For now, BDA


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is targeting smaller segments of the population as would-be ambassadors, equipping them to present a more attractive face of America. It began with college students, a group inclined to international travel, publishing the original 60-page, passport-size guide in 2004. Now the organization is launching a condensed executive version for the business traveler, distributing it to a host of major U.S. companies this month. Next up could be a children’s edition.

The executive booklet’s 16 tips read in parts like a chirpy etiquette guide — “you’ll never go wrong with a smile; listen at least as much as you talk” — but don’t mistake the effort for a lecture in minding your manners at the global dinner table, Reinhard says.

World citizens

The project is about becoming better world citizens, about tempering the swell of anti-American sentiment overseas. And it’s about strengthening foreign and business relations, which Reinhard worries could seriously erode if these negative impressions persist.

“This is not about etiquette or Miss Manners or trying to make things more enjoyable as a traveler,” explains Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide Inc., a prominent advertising agency with 206 offices in 96 countries. “This is about mobilizing American citizens to be better ambassadors of our country,” because, he says, “in marketing, we know that if you do not define your brand, somebody will define it for you.”

No sleek marketing campaign can debunk the ugly-American stereotype better than the grass-roots business model, this veteran ad executive contends: building one’s reputation moment by moment, one interaction at a time.

Enter the American tourist, the friendly soldier Reinhard has dispatched to the front lines of this campaign.

Among his organization’s suggestions: Take pride in the American way, “but remember, it’s not the only way.” Soften boastful talk of job status and wealth — what might be standard conversation in the United States is considered rude in other cultures. Avoid debate on politics and religion. (“Show a willingness to understand other viewpoints.”) Slow down; be mindful that most cultures aren’t as hurried when they eat, talk and move as in the United States.

Ditch shorts

And would it kill you to ditch the Bermuda shorts for a pair of dressy slacks?

The spark for the project came just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush, and Americans at large, seemed baffled that deep disdain for the United States could be bubbling in pockets across the globe.

Reinhard, head of a company with offices worldwide, was familiar with the sentiment. He worried about its long-term implications, particularly on the health of U.S. business. He conducted a survey of his agency’s 200 international offices, asking this question: If you could advise Americans on what they could do to be a better global citizen and reduce resentment toward them, what would you say?

Admittedly unscientific, the research returned intriguing results, Reinhard says. Among the positive impressions were what one might expect: Respondents lauded America for its “can-do” spirit and cultural diversity, viewing it as a land of opportunity, a country brimming with enthusiasm.

As for the negatives, the firm was able to pinpoint four root causes of resentment: U.S. public policy; the negative effects of globalization; America’s pervasive popular culture; and its collective personality — all this before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Said one respondent, from Germany: “How can they pretend to lead the world when they don’t know anything about the world?”)

Our ultimate arrogance?

“The assumption that (other countries) all want to be like us. And they don’t,” Reinhard says. “They said, ‘We admire much about American life, but we also cherish our own culture. And it might be a good idea that you learn something about us.'”