Americans Abroad

Whatever your political persuasion, you may find it occasionally challenging to be an American abroad.

The United States wields tremendous influence over much of the world. Cultural exports, such as movies and television, shape the way that people in other countries think about Americans. Economically and politically, the saying goes that "when the U.S. sneezes, the world catches cold." And with the U.S. military engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many countries question our motives.

Although it is unlikely that you will be held personally accountable for actions of the U.S. government, you may find that people in your host country can be fairly direct when discussing the role that America plays in the world. Americans tend to avoid the topics of "religion and politics," but most of the rest of the world does not. Political discussion, including animated disagreement, is more frequent abroad than in the U.S.

As an American abroad, you have a fantastic opportunity to learn how the rest of the world views your country. Take advantage of that. Remember that one person's point of view is just that -- one person's -- and don't over generalize. Instead, work to form a mosaic out of your conversations and experiences. You will end up with a more complex and nuanced understanding of your country than you could have if you'd never studied abroad. And you will learn a great deal about your host country by listening carefully and respectfully.

Be informed.

It is reasonable to say that, in many countries, the average citizen has a fairly sophisticated understanding of the role that the United States plays in shaping world events.  Students studying abroad should inform themselves about these matters and be prepared for lively debate.  Citizens in your host country will respect your opinions if you are well informed and able to articulate your point of view, whatever your political persuasion.  Likewise, you will gain respect if you take the time to learn about your host country’s political climate.

Don’t take criticism personally. 

You may feel that you are forced to act as a “representative citizen” from the United States and defend your country’s social, political, and economic policies.   Recognize the role that the mass media (here in the U.S. and also abroad) play in shaping opinion.  You may be treated as a stereotype.  Such behavior is the result of media manipulation and ignorance.  The person leveling criticism at you is unhappy with your government, not you personally.  In some cases, you can expect television and the press to be critical of the United States.  Be prepared for this.

Avoid large political rallies, leave situations that threaten to escalate. 

If you find yourself uncomfortable in a conversation or social gathering, excuse yourself.  You do not have to defend personally the actions of the government of the United States.  You do not have to explain your position to someone who is abusive.  You do not have to “convert” foreigners to your point of view, or demonstrate that there is another side to an issue.  Trust your instincts, and if you believe a situation is deteriorating, leave it.