…Gun control, racism, the United States involvement in…These are all uncomfortable questions to answer even when you are at home. But, rest assured, these questions may be posed to you while studying abroad and they will be harder to answer. Furthermore, as a student from the University of Kentucky, you are a representative of UK and of the United States as a whole, whether you like it or not.
It is also important to keep in mind you may be the only American that the person asking you has talked to and your response could dictate how they feel about Americans for a very long time. So, how do you respond? What answers do you give to someone that may have never been to the U.S. and grew up in a completely different culture from yours? This is a huge topic, but I hope to give you a few tips from my own personal experience on dealing with such a potentially uncomfortable situation.
Number one, never, ever, say “Because ‘Murica.” unless this person knows you very well. While you may find it funny, many others won’t understand it or will think that Americans actually do just think that the U.S. is the best without any thought or evidence. Many countries have stereotypes; One of ours is that we are ignorant of the rest of the world and of the U.S. effect on it. It is important to keep this in mind when responding. Give your honest opinion, but remember that your life has likely been hugely different from theirs. Their country’s history is not ours and it is impossible to know how they feel or for them to know how you feel. Don’t expect to change their opinion right away, just be respectful. Sometimes it is best to just say “I don’t know enough about the subject to answer that.”
This may work, but generally they just want your opinion, which is not necessarily to do with facts, but rather with your feelings. If you do answer, choose words carefully and don’t get offended quickly. If you are talking to someone whose first language is not English, their word choice may sound offensive without them meaning to be. Most of all, answer truthfully and make it clear that not all Americans feel the way you do. The most useful phrase I found was “The US is a very large and very diverse place; it is really hard to say our country always agrees on a topic. We are also not perfect and our Media does not always reflect the feelings of our people.” I think, most importantly, make it clear you are an individual and never forget your opinion matters. If the person is just antagonizing you for where you’re from, walk away; they aren’t looking to learn anything about you or your opinions.
Finally, do not let this scare you. Many people you meet abroad will be friendly and good-hearted, but communication is sometimes hard . Remember that and spend time asking them questions as well. Your opinion of the U.S. may change when hearing an outside perspective.
Photo courtesy of Elden Winkelman.
Elden Winkelman is a senior at the University of Kentucky studying Foreign Language (German) & International Economics. Elden participated in a academic year-long Exchange program in Heidelberg, Germany in 2014-2015.