There are a lot of stereotypes out there. They're not all about Americans, but there are, in fact, many about Americans. Besides the fact that we're loud ;) there's a reason that so many eyes are on our country. Factually, we're influential, powerful, and represent a world that many people long to be part of. I don't say this in an elitest way, for we have plenty of problems. However, I do strongly argue that our July 4th birthday is infused with deep meaning.
Next week, we celebrate that 241 years ago, a group of people knew that they could do things differently - better even - than their previous society had permitted. I'll say one more time that this new structure brought its own set of issues that must be acknowledged. But I believe that the underlying idea in our founding fathers' heads and hearts was, "We can do better."
For most of my life, I'd been in my own world with my own unconscious biases. I didn't realize just how, well... American some of my favorite personal traits were - until I worked in London and studied in Paris. While I acknowledge that we Americans have plenty of room for improvement, in honor of Independence Day, I wanted to share three American stereotypes that my European colleagues have been all-too-eager to articulate to me. But in the end, I don't mind them all that much:
1. We are positive. Reflecting back on some of my HEC memories associated with this one makes me chuckle. I had a couple Lebanese and Norwegian colleagues who would give me suuuuch a hard time about this. After long days in the classroom, we'd often unwind over dinner and deconstruct the day's content and professors. Without trying to, apparently even if I couldn't stand a professor I'd share my constructive criticism but would always end with something like:
"But the benefit was..." One time I even resorted to, "At least he showed how not to interact with an audience. I know what not to do in my presentations..."
After my colleagues drew attention to my positive style, it cracked all of us up. I admit becoming nervous that I wouldn't be taken seriously, so I'd try to balance my positivism with constructive cons and feedback. However, it felt like we had a group breakthrough when during a class trip to San Francisco, one of these men (who was visiting the US for the first time) said, "Oh, I get it now. All of you Americans are like this. It's kind of nice, I guess."
2. We're self-promoting (refer to article title). Back in London I had volunteered to create and take on a big project for my boss's organization. His business had what I would call a: "traditional London mindset." Essentially, his team waited for new business to flow in, instead of going out to hunt for it. I argued to him that each business unit needed to articulate its value proposition and where it excelled, then go out and ask for that specific business to meet our growth goals.
I conducted one-on-one interviews with key people from each of the units and discovered that it was difficult for them to tell me what they did well. I asked them to look at their data, analyze trends, and say, "Here's where we win." I was shocked to find that this seemed insurmountable at first. My colleagues kept asking me, "What do you mean, 'success story?'"
Then, someone finally shined a light on what was unsaid: "Americans are good at this sort of thing. You're positive, and you're good at self-promotion. British people don't talk about their successes." Interesting, right?
3. We see a need to change. And then... we change. If you know me IRL, you know that I'm all about action plans. A couple years ago, a friend was lamenting about his job and was talking about a career shift. My husband quickly jumped in to warn him, "If I were you, I'd stop talking to Julie about this unless you're serious. She will follow up for your action plan."
Frequent interactions like this made me think it was just me until last year a French colleague teased me, revealing that he thought it was an American thing. I was explaining to him that I was miserable in London and unhappy with the direction of my job. I kept my reasons why crisp and clear, then matter-of-factly concluded, "Therefore, in the next year I'm going to move to a new city that is sunny, athletic, and entrepreneurial and change my job." He laughed at me, and once again I feared that my positivism wasn't taken seriously. So I asked why he was laughing, and he replied,
"You Americans! It's just amazing. You're unhappy with something, so you just... change. We French are unhappy with something and complain. And that's it - we just complain. We would never actually do anything about it." French stereotype much? ;) He said it, not me!
I found that in each of these examples, my colleagues coupled sweet self-deprecation with a well-intentioned American stereotype. Although they sound light, these have made a powerful impact on me. They both make me thankful that I benefit from these characteristics (which I personally like, if I do say so myself) and understand Europeans' perspectives on both Americans and themselves. They've helped me have more successful personal and professional interactions with other global cultures. How great to get this deeper insight into others and their view of the world.
I will be off to my happy place next week - New York!!! - to celebrate Independence Day.
Have a restful and present week if you too are on holiday. See you back here soon.
Image from Better Homes & Gardens