Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Perceptions of the U.S.

This will be a quick one; a response to a commenter's question.

"In the end I would like you to ask all your Arab friends a simple question. What do they really know about the American community, how do the Americans live, their social behavior, and their day to day activities?"

As we are all apt to do when concieving of other groups of people we don't know, people here generalize a lot. I often find myself saying, "Well, not everybody in America does that..." Most people's perceptions come directly from hollywood films, and from that are often exaggerated to a greater or lesser degree. But when you think about it, much of the American definition of our own society has come from the movies, so that's not so very strange. More interesting to me is how people's reaction to that percieved American society defines their own cultural values. For instance, many folks ask concernedly if my relationships (with family, with girls) are really as they see in films -- this is definitely a socially conservative society.

In terms of what people actually know, some know more, some know less. A few people have relatives living in the states, so usually those folks' perceptions are colored by their relatives' experience, which of course varies. Some people have absurdly wrong perceptions, such as that I can just go to the American Embassy and pick up money, since all Americans live off the money they get from the government. One thing that people are generally ready to talk about is the lack of security in America -- of course contrasted with very safe Damascus. Even then I remind people that it depends a lot on where you are, but for the most part, they're right: the security here is unparalled in the US, except in isolated neighborhoods and regions.

Most often, even with those who have some personal connection with the America, I find that people have absolutely no sense the massive size and the astounding diversity (and I don't just mean racial diversity) of the United States. I myself have trouble getting my mind around those two a lot of the time.

And most of the time, rather than asking (notepad in hand) "what do you think about Americans?", I prefer (and I think it's probably more effective) to make relationships with folks where we really get to know each other. This way, any generalizations we make about each others' societies must be limited by our familiarity with this other person, who, naturally, breaks out of those generalizations in at least one way or another.