Stereotype – “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”
I strongly believe that it is important for people to realize that most stereotypes stem from the truth, however giant or minuscule that bit of truth may be. The only way that, in this case, a country can rebel against a particular stereotype is to change and re-adapt. As Einstein once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; and this is exactly the way that the US has reacted to stereotypes for a very long time.
I am a 15, almost 16, year old, exchange student from the United States currently being hosted in Sicily and I have gained a lot of experience dealing with stereotypes about where I come from over the past few months. These stereotypes have ranged from silly to kind to pretty accurate and to slightly offensive depending person to person.
The silly stereotypes that I have come across usually deal with food/eating habits or personal hygiene, and these ones usually make me laugh because of how ridiculous they are. I’ve heard that “Americans eat hamburgers every single day” and that “Americans have really smelly feet because they never wash them,” more often than you would think. But these two stereotypes are funny, simple, and are not really debatable or controversial like some of the more complex ones. Stereotypes like these can be laughed off and easily disputed without any sort of actual conversation about why anyone might think that.
I have also heard a few kind stereotypes about the United States, most of which come from Northern European or Scandinavian people. These generally seem to play off of the idea of “Southern hospitality” and they way that Americans tend to be more casual in their interactions with strangers. And these are pretty accurate as well, Americans do tend to be more welcoming and helpful to foreigners than other nationalities, particularly in Northern Europe.
Then of course, there are the hard hitting stereotypes that can stir up some drama. These are the ones that can be discussed at length, proven and disputed, and can make for a pretty awkward confrontation between two people that both believe they are right. These stereotypes are the ones that nearly everyone is consciously or subconsciously aware of. For example, one of the most common stereotypes in the world is that Asian people are all geniuses in math and science; no one has to say it out loud but people think it anyways because it is a stereotype that we have grown up listening to. Nobody consciously comes to the conclusion that all people with oriental heritage are automatically good at math and science, because that would be a gross exaggeration, instead it’s just something that we subconsciously, and somewhat ridiculously, assume.
When I think about the biggest stereotypes that I have had to combat while traveling and living abroad these three immediately come to mind:
- Americans all own guns.
- Most people in the US are obsessed with fast food, and have weight/health issues.
- The US is an ignorant, arrogant, and overly patriotic country where most people believe that the US is an invincible, super country.
After a quick discussion with some of the other American exchange students we all agreed that these are the top three stereotypes that we deal with regularly. And now I want to take a moment to clear them up and determine how factual they are.
Is it true that all Americans have guns and take them everywhere with them? No, according to an ongoing study at the University of Chicago, only about 32% of American citizens own a gun. This number is surprisingly low considering how almost every day on the news there is a new story about a shooting or some sort of violence using firearms in the USA. And that depends, the laws about where you are allowed to carry a gun depend on the state. Indeed, in some states, such as Arizona, guns can be carried nearly everywhere, the exceptions usually being schools and municipal buildings; while in others laws are much more restrictive, like in Connecticut or California. The gun laws debate is an extremely heated one and has been going on for years now, so obviously you will find people that are on either side of the spectrum, supporting or completely rejecting the use of firearms.
Are all Americans junk food obsessed and overweight? Not all, but roughly ⅔ of adults in the US are overweight. In this case, it is important to remember that obesity is dependent on a variety of different variables; income, genetics, illnesses, etc. In the US, obesity has a relatively strong correlation with poverty; primarily because cheap and healthy produce and food can be hard to find and so the faster, easier choice is to turn to fast food or cheaper, less nutritious options. There are many other factors related to this as well, for example if a person is living in a shelter sometimes they are not able to keep perishable items with them, ie. fruits and vegetables, so the alternative is nonperishable items that are less nutritious. Of course, there are middle and upper class people who are overweight and obese as well, and this has more to do with diet, exercise, and choice instead of situation and condition. And still, there are others who struggle with weight because of physical or mental conditions. And yes, many, many of us do enjoy eating at fast food joints, it’s a strong part of the culture in the US. Fast food places are everywhere, even in the smallest of towns there is usually at least one or two options to choose from. And lastly, we have a very different diet from many other countries. We eat meat, both red and white, regularly; we eat small portions for breakfast and lunch and a larger portion for dinner; we use butter instead of oil in most situations; and we constantly snack.
WHY are Americans so patriotic and ignorant about any countries besides their own? I think that this stereotype is better phrased as a “why” instead of as a yes or no question. It is a fact that most Americans are extremely patriotic. It is also widely known that many Americans know very little about world events, history, politics, and geography of other countries. But this is a fault of our education system, so please, don’t blame the individual for something that is not entirely their fault. In public schools (in Arizona) we study US history for three or four years, and world history for only one, two if you decide to take the advanced course in high school which is optional. We say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning, and we are never taught that the US is anything but the best. We are taught that no other country can match the beauty, wealth, force, and intelligence of our country. So how could we be anything but patriotic? I love where I come from but I don’t think that it is the best country in the world, I mean can there even be a “best” country? Help to educate Americans about the different countries, cultures, and religions instead of considering them all to be purposefully ignorant, because chances are they are not.
A lot can be done to help demolish or clarify these stereotypes, and it has to start with the country of interest. As a nation, the US, should strive to get better laws and regulations for guns, and aim for a decrease in all violence using firearms, so that eventually it will not be known as a gun-crazy nation and instead as an intelligent and safe country. The US has been actively working towards having a healthier overall population for years, especially now with the support of Michelle Obama and her many contributions towards this goal, one of which being the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in schools. And as for having little knowledge about other countries; students should be encouraged to travel, research the cultures and practices of their ancestors, and learn to speak new languages. It starts with the country who has been stereotyped, but it takes everyone else to realize that changes are being made, to accept them and create newer, better, and more positive stereotypes.