At the outset, it’s important to understand this about Americans:
- a lot of Americans live by the “if you can’t say anything nice about (something), then don’t say anything at all” adage. So most Americans, who generally have a vague positive feeling about Europe, will only say vaguely positive things about Europe, if anything at all. (“I hear it’s nice over there.”)
- Most Americans are profoundly ignorant of geography and don’t give much thought beyond their immediate frame of reference. Before you think that means Americans are chauvinist, keep in mind they don’t give a shit about the next state over, or even next city, much less another country. Americans may be brilliant when it comes to technology, innovation and business, but they fail when it comes to geography. They are simply not interested. (This is why, I think, America assimilates foreigners better than Europe. They don’t know where other people come from, and soon forget; their foreignness ceases to be a liability, unlike Europeans who always remember that China had the Tiananmen Square massacre, a Serb killed Archduke Ferdinand and Serbia gave the world Slobodan Milosevic, etc.)
- the last few years have seen politically-active Americans attuned to world affairs much more than they have traditionally been, because of the wars, antagonism towards US foreign policy, propaganda by the Bush administration, etc. Growing up, I can tell you that no one ever cared what was going on outside our borders, other than to think the Soviet Union was a miserable shithole, and everywhere else was OK (but not as great as the USA).
That said, let me get down to the specifics, country by country. Remember that I’ll only include those that the average American has heard of and actually knows is in Europe (you ask the average American where Albania is, and you might be surprised at the variety of answers; I expect fully a third would say “Antarctica”). I’m being a little harsh on my fellow Americans, but, as an American, this is something we tend to do:
- UK – This is the only European country (and, like the Brits, Americans don’t always consider it part of Europe, even though it clearly is) that Americans tend to have largely uncritical views of, regardless of whether they’re at the political right or left (actually, let me add the neighboring Irish to that list). Brits are considered “polite”, “dignified” and “cultured” by virtue of their speech, which Americans, through decades of inculcation through movies and television, have come to ascribe values to. The only negative is of those with posh, elite accents to be thought of as devious or cunning; many Hollywood thrillers aimed at a middle-class audience have some greedy British villain who’s just too smart for his own good (stupidity is equated with a lack of guile, which middle-class Americans admire). I don’t think most Americans, until recently, have known that there is a substantial, vociferously anti-American contingent in the UK; many on the far left think it’s all directed at Bush and his policies (it is, only partially), so they tend to think of the Brits as being “on our side”.
There is a perception, poked fun of in popular media, that Brits have bad teeth, but it’s one of those stereotypes that is not really taken all that seriously, like that Poles are stupid or that Italians don’t bathe.
Among younger people, the UK is synonymous with London, where it’s imagined everything is cool, edgy, rock. For many young women, having a English rocker boyfriend has substantial cachet.
Other than that, I think most Americans are completely oblivious to the stereotypes that the English and Scots endure by Europeans (that they’re cheap, two-faced, etc.)
- France - Mixed feelings, mixed feelings. Most Americans have known that the French enjoy criticizing the US and Americans; they know that Parisians are rude the minute you say something in English. But they still go there. Except for the minority of hard-core right-wing Americans who choose travel destinations on principle alone (they usually stay home), most Americans want to visit Paris.
But, the average American is going to use the following word when describing the French: “snob.” And by most accounts it’s probably the most offensive word you can use in America, where “he’s a regular guy” is one of the highest compliments you can pay to someone.
On the positive side, “cultured”, “sophisticated” and “thin” betray a certain jealousy that even the most hardened anti-French have towards this country, our oldest ally in the world.
- Italy – American perceptions of Italians are shaped by Italian-Americans (who are mostly from Sicily, and are quite different from most contemporary Italians), the food, and, of course, Hollywood. Italians are considered laid-back, stylish, loud (in a good way; remember, we Americans are loud), and know good food. Think about it – if there ever were a universally-liked cuisine, it would be Italian. Italian women are considered very sexy – think Sophia Loren and Monica Bellucci. The men, too, are loved by American women (and gay men). The only negative stereotypes are that they’re mafiosos, and don’t bathe – very old stereotypes that made them the butt of jokes about 100 years ago. No one takes these sorts of jokes seriously anymore.
- Germany – Unlike the Brits and other Europeans, Americans don’t have anything against the Germans. This is probably due to the fact that a plurality of white Americans have Deutsch blood coursing through their veins, and because Americans have fantastically short memories. Of course, if an American hates any particular German, he’s going to call him a Nazi, but Americans don’t think of them as the humorless, stiff, nazionalsocialistischer automatons that your average Brit, French or Czech does. Beyond that, the only perception of Germany is beer, sausage, sauerkraut and Oktoberfest. And maybe lederhosen.
- Spain – I’m sorry to say this, considering Spaniards’ enormous sensitivity around it, but most Americans are going to conflate the Spanish with Mexicans. They’re going to assume Spain is poor, the people eat tacos and burritos, and they pay with worthless pesos. They’re going to assume Madrid is a suburb of Mexico City, and Barcelona is an island near Cancun. If they have fantastic memory, they might remember the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, those famous Mexican ships sailed by that Mexican explorer, Hernan Cortes.
- Scandinavia – I’m throwing the Netherlands in here, too, because for whatever reason, most Americans think “Dutch” applies to Denmark, and that they speak Danish in Holland. (I tell people although they’re all tall blondes that speak Germanic languages, Dutch bikes are routinely stolen while Danish ones aren’t.) Scandinavia is considered advanced technologically and blonde, blonde, blonde, but beyond that, there’s no reason to ever visit any of those countries. And most Americans might think Scandinavia is a country, and they speak a language called Slavic.
- Ireland – Considering a happy, beautiful, green country full of shamrock-covered meadows and cheery little leprechauns. Maybe not too far from the truth, actually. The negative stereotype is that they’re drunks, but in America, that’s not really an insult anymore. Most Americans would be floored if they knew the per capita GDP of Ireland was higher than that of the US, and that Ireland has only 3.3 million people. Most Americans think it’s a huge, poor country.
- Portugal – Part of Puerto Rico.
- Greece – Based on the popularity of the 2002 film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greece is probably considered a quaint, colorful country full of charmingly nationalistic bumpkins. But the reality is that the country doesn’t cross the minds of most Americans whatsoever.
- Countries completely ignored except by some ethnic descendants – Poland, Czechoslovakia (that’s right – it’s still one country), Yugoslavia (v.s.), Hungary (most Americans will think you’re joking if you tell them this is the name of a country; they might even believe you if you tell them it’s near Thirstary), and anything eastward, until you hit Russia.
- Russia – Large, poor, cold, angry, gray. Again, not too far from the truth. Russia includes places like Moscow, Ukraine, all the -stans (sometimes even Paki- and Afghani-) and just about any other country with a majority white people that speak a language that’s not English that they’ve never heard of (Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, etc). Like the other former Iron Curtain countries, considered cold, depressing, nothing to see. They wouldn’t believe that St Petersburg is as beautiful as it is, as are Prague, Budapest, Krakow, etc.
These have been my perception of what the average insular white American knows and thinks. Here are some variants for different subgroups based on my conversations:
- African-Americans (black) – Love France. Neutral on the rest of western Europe. Have absolutely no interest in, knowledge of, or desire to visit Eastern or Northern Europe.
- Latinos – Love Spain. Positive on France and Italy. Have absolutely no interest in, knowledge of or desire to visit any other European country.
- Asians – Indians adore Britain. The Vietnamese adore France. Filipinos adore Spain. (Are we beginning to see a pattern here?) Other Asians are not particularly interested in Europe (unless they’re very “Americanized”).
- Gays – Europe is London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Ibiza. The Mediterranean is hot. So is Eastern Europe, paradoxically (so much Eastern European gay porn comes Stateside). Very, very confused on which city goes where; a widespread perception that London, Paris, and Prague are an hour-long train ride from each other.
- Lesbians – The only lesbians I know have gone to Amsterdam and loved it. Too small a sample size for me to form an impression.
- Hipsters – Love London, Paris, and slightly more “edgy” capitals like Copenhagen, Prague, Helsinki and Barcelona. They tend to be relatively well-off and educated, so they might buck a lot of the stereotypes I’ve laid out here.
This will, no doubt, make more than a few Europeans fume in indignation, or nod smugly that Americans really are as ignorant as they’ve thought. Remember that there is a small but not insignificant (maybe 5-10%?) number of Americans who are widely travelled and know a ton about Europe and its geography, national temperaments and culture. They tend to live in the “urban archipelago”, esp in coastal cities like New York or San Francisco.