Monday, January 01, 2007

USA: Fact or Fiction (and Happy New Year!)

"Gott Nytt År" till min vänner från Sverige and Happy New Year to those in the U.S., where I have spent the last two weeks sharing the holidays with family and friends. Pictures above are from the New Year celebration in Seattle as the city's most famous icon, the Space Needle, was lit up for 2007. Additionally, there is a picture of a baseball stadium in New York, "America's game" which shall be addressed below.

As this is the last State-side edition of Linköpinglivin for quite awhile, with Swedish readers remaining the intended audience, I decided to address some of the perceptions, stereotypes and pre-conceived notions I have heard about the U.S. and Americans while I have been in Sweden. My hope is that this could be an enlightening and playful exploration of how we all can be misled, misunderstand or sometimes actually know the essence of another culture and land.

The biggest fault that I am guilty of and that most of us can occasionally succumb to is the gross generalizations about other people and actually believing that everyone fits the stereotype. It would be a surprise to many Americans to meet friendly French people just like it may be a surprise to many Europeans to meet an American who was culturally appropriate and geographically aware. On that note, here's a list of popular perceptions about America that I have come across during my six months (already!) in Sweden:

"Americans are superficial, overweight, money-hungry and don't care about the rest of the world." Okay, I have not actually had anyone say this to me, but it is common knowledge that this is a popularly-held perception about America and it's people, especially in our current political and economic times. While there are some Americans who certainly fall into this, in no way do all 300 million people fit this stereotype. It's been enjoyable for me to meet people along this journey and have them confess afterwards that they were surprised that I didn't display pre-conceived characteristics of an American.

"Americans don't know their geography." Well, while many Americans do have a hard time finding the state of Ohio on a map, much less picking out Belgium or South Korea, many are well-traveled and very aware of world geography and, more importantly, culturally-sensitive. But yes, even I had to make an educated guess about which of the Scandinavian countries was Sweden upon hearing of this opportunity (I guessed correctly, by the way). As a whole, we can definitely become more worldly-conscious and aware...

"Americans only know English." Yep, this one is true. A little French, German or Spanish in high school and that's about it. And with the rest of the world continuing to learn our first language, the need for learning another language seems small, but at the same time, the world is getting smaller and many Americans are waking up to the need for other languages. Spanish and Chinese are becoming critical to know. Jag tyckar om prata på svenska och jag behöver prata mer när jag kommer tillbaka idag! Vi ses snart...

"The U.S. is a dangerous place and if I travel there, I might get mugged or hurt." You might. But I can say the same thing walking down Drottningatan in Stockholm (though the crime rate in Sweden is one of the lowest in the world). If you use the common sense and travel smarts that Swedes are known for, you would have a great time in America. I highly recommend it actually....

"The numerous regulations and laws in the U.S. seem to betray the freedom that Americans proclaim to be their heart and soul." This one is interesting. I didn't hear this in Sweden, but I can understand it from a smaller country's point of view. Laws are created when common civil trust is broken and when you have a country with 300 million people, it gets a bit harder to trust everyone. While there may be lots of regulations and laws, the previously-mentioned common sense and travel smarts (along with good planning) should make an experience in the U.S. irreplaceable (and you can turn right at a red light when there are no cars coming!).

"How can Americans think football (soccer) is boring when their great game is baseball, a confusing and boring sport?" Now we get personal. You can make fun of my country's politics, ignorance and overindulgence, but don't start messing with my beloved baseball. Baseball is a beautiful game of athleticism, chess-like thinking and unparalleled execution, much less the experience of going to a stadium on a nice summer's day and having a beer and a hot dog. Long live baseball. And I think the appreciation for the intricacies of football is similar to the appreciation for the intricacies of baseball--the little things make all the difference.

"Americans are loud and socially inappropriate, constantly drawing attention to themselves." Sometimes. I've found that I, usually somewhat introverted in larger social situations, have become a bit more social and talkative in group settings when those around me are a bit more cautious and quieter, a characterstic common in Swedes. While my typical American characterstics reveal themselves often, I've found that I can be fairly "American" while still remaining appropriate to the social situation.

"America is a great place with so many different types of people and different kinds of places. I can't wait to travel there and the only problem will be deciding where to go first." Much to my delight, I have heard this quite often and I wholeheartedly agree with it! Swedes are a very worldly-aware and well-traveled bunch and many have already been or are planning on going soon to the U.S. Deciding where to focus your travels is important because New York, Florida, Southern California and Seattle are very different types of places. Feel free to ask me if you're looking for advice on how best to spend your time.

There's plenty more perceptions out there, some true and others not at all. Hopefully this can simply begin the discussion. Feel free to comment (or confess) other pre-conceived notions if you like. Perhaps I will revisit this topic the next time I am in the States (July). I fly back to Sweden today and I'm happy to report that I am looking forward to my return. Happy New Year to all of you.


Mom said...

Gott Nytt ar--- to everyone in Linkoping and Sweden. I hope this year is wonderfully full of new experiences which will become treasured memories for you. And to you, Sean--I loved having you home, and you return to Sweden with my love and prayers.
Blessings to all,

Todd said...

Ok, it's time for me to confess my sterotypes of Sweden:

1. There's an IKEA on every corner...similar to Starbucks.

2. Swedish meetballs are eaten every night and found on a Smorgaasboard.

3. All people are blonde haired, blue eyed.

4. Everyone drives a Volvo or Saab.

5. Pippi Longstocking is a national icon.

6. At Christmas, everyone dresses in white and wears candles on their heads.

7. Finally, my brother will go to Sweden and fall in love with a beautiful Swedish woman...who will have a younger, more intelligent and more beautiful sister for his younger, more intelligent and more handsome brother. (Swedes: I'm going to need some help here, please!

Ok, I don't believe ALL of these stereotypes...I know there is more food on a smorgaasboard than meatballs.

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Great blog, I had a great deal of laughs! Common sense should by the way be mandatory for everyone before they speak. And you're brother is funny too! ;) /Linda

Anonymous said...

todd, darling, i work at ikea, and i can assure you, that we would love to have an ikea in every city, unfortunately isn´t the expansion going that fast, but just you wait... =P just kidding... sean; if everbody could have an ounce of your perspective and insightfulness, the world would be a much more peaceful place, i can assure you... =) gott nytt år på dig med / camilla

Caroline said...

Can help you Sean, I think you've already managed to get all of my prejudices into that post. :)

1. There are a total of 16 IKEA's in Sweden, so...sorry.
2. Well, maybe if you're eight years old and won't eat anything else. On a smörgåsbord only on special occasions like Christmas and Midsummer. Most of us like to not eat the same thing every day, though. ;)
3. Yeah. That's because we're all related to polar bears. Oh wait, I was trying to be serious.
4. Many do, but as they are no longer Swedish-owned they are losing popularity. Toyota is the new star rising.
5. Well, yes. Obviously. Seriously.
6. You've got you're december holidays mixed up.
7. Sorry, can't help you.

therue said...

Just a clarification for Swedes who may be apprehensive about travelling to the US because of its violent reputation: Sweden actually has more crime (rape, theft, burglary, etc) per capita than the US. The US is just more public about its problems with crime and the violent content of some of its television shows and movies damages its reputation.

Anonymous said...

I read in the Daily Mail an article called " Is Sweden the most boring country in the world?"

Crystal said...

Sean... these are good stereotypes to being out in the open! Thanks for reminding me of these things.

Ironically, I found Serbs much more attatched to McDonalds than any American... people here joke that it's really a Serb company. I think they can have it.

As for Sweden, Do you think we can trade something for IKEA?

Miss you.