By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narration by: Professor David Livermore
As an American traveling to other countries, there is a nervousness about being classified as an “ugly American”. Buying and listening to the Great Course’s lectures titled “Customs of the World” is a reflection of that nervousness.
Americans are generally ignorant of other cultures; partly because of a failure to learn much about American history. Add ignorance of world geography and other languages to American education and the “ugly…” appellation bares truth. This lecture series only scratches the surface of most American traveler’s cultural ignorance. Worse, it fails to make listeners any less nervous about being bad representatives of America.
American cultural ignorance begins in kindergarten and is reinforced by an education system that ignores foreign languages until it is too late for young brains to proficiently adapt to more than one language. Nearly all post-industrial nations require a passable understanding of English before graduating from high school, but not America. To make foreign cultural ignorance even worse, America’s understanding of other national cultures is filtered by English-only’ bias.
Livermore begins his lectures with a statement that “…culture matters…”. He regales American listeners with platitudes about cultural intelligence. He begins by presuming most Americans are ignorant of other citizen’s cultures which is probably true. But, Livermore suggests that ignorance can largely be overcome by listening and not proactively engaging conversation with non-Americans. How is that unique? That suggestion is as true for an American meeting any stranger; regardless of their culture.
Next, Livermore suggests the importance of understanding the predominate religion of other nations. Certainly that is relevant but it is equally relevant in one’s approach to some Americans in our own country. Finally, there is Livermore’s caution of stereotyping people based on what is said to be common in particular cultures. Again, that is a fault that exists in America among people in our own culture; e.g. black American’s perceptions of white American’s, American Latinos perceptions of black or white Americans, and vice versa.
Livermore proceeds by offering stereotypical characteristics of other countries’ citizens with examples of Nordic, Germanic, Eastern European, Latin European, Latin American, Confucian Asian, South Asian, Sub-Saharan African, and Arab cultures. Livermore compounds one’s fear of being classified as an “ugly American” with platitudes like “People from many cultures are uncomfortable talking about themselves with a stranger…” How is that a revelation? The same discomfort exists in most cultures.
Livermore’s admonition to research other countries histories is important when traveling. Having some understanding of a country’s history helps one communicate with citizens of a different country. Research tempers one’s conversation and decreases the possibility of embarrassing oneself or the person being asked questions. Livermore notes some fundamental differences between cultures like that which is collectivist (socialist or communist), another that is individualistic (democratic or egalitarian), or one that is totalitarian. Livermore is quite correct in suggesting cultures are different and can lead to gross misunderstandings but common sense is as likely to ameliorate an “ugly American” persona as these audio book’ lectures.
Livermore’s suggestion that Americans need to raise their cultural IQ-s is certainly relevant but his lectures fail to go beyond common sense platitudes. American cultural IQ-s will remain low as long as research commitments and language arts are relegated to high school and college classes. At best, Livermore raises the issue of American cultural ignorance. He does little to reduce it. The potential for being an “ugly American” is extant both inside and outside the United States.