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Happy Talk: Americans vs. the World

Scott Vogel

The problem with traveling, someone once said, is that you take yourself with you wherever you go. We all dream of escaping, but accomplishing escape is far more difficult than advertised.

Which brings me to the following public service message: Are you planning to travel to a foreign land in the near future? Better sharpen up your views of the homeland, because "America" is topic number one these days, at least among foreigners who come into contact with American tourists. However you choose to spin your country's current policies/zeitgeist/economic situation, there's a greater chance than ever you'll be lured into these types of conversations. And there's an art to handling them well.

Another thing I noticed during a recent trip to Brazil: the willingness of foreigners to offer advice, solicited or un-, to what they consider the sick patient of the Western world. I was told that Americans need to learn to slow down, ditch the materialism, revisit our war of all against all, learn to swivel our hips when dancing, etc. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before, but there was something new about the confidence with which the prescriptions were delivered. For whatever reason, the sense is that Americans are finally ready to listen to someone else in the world for a change.

And far be it from Americans to deny it, at least on the evidence of recent books like "The Geography of Bliss," by NPR's Eric Weiner. This intriguing volume, part travelogue and part meditation, takes as its subject the happiest and unhappiest places on Earth, as determined by numerous studies on the subject. Weiner traveled the globe for a year -- to Iceland and Bhutan and beyond -- in search of something he might take back home: the secret(s) of happiness.

Are we in the midst of a tectonic shift here? How foreign are the notions of foreigners to you these days? And have you learned anything new about life -- specifically, what makes a life happy -- by traveling to places far from home?

By Scott Vogel |  January 29, 2008; 11:55 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel , Travel Trends
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I've traveled abroad for decades and people have had advice for Americans on every single trip. Makes sense because Americans love to offer unsolicited advice to people in other countries, generally along the lines that if they only acted more like Americans, they would be better off. Foreigners have always enjoyed cricizing Americans for our failure to embrace soccer and the suposed inferiority of American football. They stick it to us for our embrace of pornography, our obesity, our inferor cuisine etc. Supposedly Americans only eat hamburgers and Coca Cola while the rest of the world is so much more sophisticated. I guess that's the secret to national happiness -- feeling superior to somebody else.

Posted by: Tom | January 29, 2008 4:28 PM

Wow, Tom, sorry your experiences with foreigners have been so unpleasant! Not all advice is an attack, you know. I for one have learned a lot about happiness from traveling to other countries. Even in the prickliest of cities (Paris), with the prickliest of people (the French), I learned the lesson that one should always make time to enjoy a meal, whether alone or with loved ones, at home or out. I got plenty of unsolicited advice on this topic: I'd be walking down the street, scarfing a sandwich or something, and random French passersby would shout, "Bon appetit!" - kind of saying, "Slow down and enjoy that sandwich, lady!" Sure, maybe they're expressing their superiority - that they're not out scarfing food on the run - but it's worth it to drop your defenses for half a second and wonder if it's advice you can use.

Posted by: CubicleChick | January 29, 2008 5:48 PM

Your comments reminds me of a friend who was an exchange student in Germany in the early 1970s and shared a house with some German students who were affiliated with the Red Army Faction, the Baader Meinhoff Group. Although the group was interested in destroying Western civilization, they were even more incensed when my friend breakfasted on hot cereal directly out of the pot with a spoon. That wouldn't raise an eyebrow at any American dorm or frat, but to European radicals, it was just too much. Actually many Europeans get the vapors when they observe that most Americans eat most meals with their hands instead of with silverware.

Posted by: Tom | January 29, 2008 6:52 PM

Oh, geez, my experiences have been a lot like Tom's, and I've been traveling for a long time, too. In fact, I'm sort of dreading the lectures I'm going to get on a trip to Europe next month. Yes, I know. Yes, I hate the war, too. Yes. I agree with you. American politics are (is?) stupid. Yes, many Americans are fat. Ha ha. You are very original. Can we talk about something else now?

Posted by: hh | January 30, 2008 10:23 AM

Hmmm, I (female) travel all over the world -- solo and not solo-- several times a year and I don't ever get unsoliticited advice. Most people I meet overseas just want to tell me how much fun they had visiting Disneyworld or New York. I just returned from Italy and everyone is happy the dollar is doing so badly because now they can really afford to visit the U.S. If someone wants to discuss politics (hardly ever) I just say "Hey, I'm on vacation. Not interested" and they completely GET IT.

Posted by: TravelLady | January 30, 2008 12:14 PM

I'm going to borrow that line, TravelLady.

Posted by: h3 | January 30, 2008 1:54 PM

I'm with Tom on this one. I've been traveling my entire life, and it seems foreigners are just as happy as Americans to offer unsolicited advice on topics they know nothing about. People will generalize and stereotype to a dgree you just don't see here anymore. Just because an Australian or a Hungarian tells you, for example, that Americans are docile sheep controlled by Jewish financial schemers doesn't make it any more true.

Posted by: Andy | February 1, 2008 4:11 PM

You don't have to leave country to get this conversation going... go state to state on advice of which state has better work ethics; financial aid; programs for obesity in children; stronger family unity; which states are leaders and which ones are passively being led...... which states are smart enough to start their own agenda and then the rest of the country follows suit.

Posted by: ChristyElf | February 26, 2008 12:00 PM

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