The Ugly American

Reuters today tells us of a guide to overcome the stereotype of the ugly American. It's distributed by Business for Diplomatic Action, a non-profit founded to help overcome a single contributing factor of increasing anti-Americanism: our "collective personality" abroad.

We are seen as loud, arrogant and completely self-absorbed," said Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the advertising agency DDB Worldwide. "People see in us the ultimate arrogance — assuming that everybody wants to be like us."

This is a worthy project, yet a look at some of the principles shows an obstacle. Talk slower and lower: fast talking is seen as aggressive and threatening. Listen at least as much as you talk; talk about America and your life, but ask about their country and their lives. Dress more conservatively. These are the stuff of common courtesy. It seems that we can overcome the stigma of the ugly American by not being ugly Americans.

It's not that easy to do. The savvy business people among us have used their hardcore personalities to get to where they are. Business is business, and why should they change for anyone? Better others should change for them. That involves no loss of personal pride; that keeps the other folks on the defensive, which is how you advance your goals. Acting in a polite, respectful manner puts us in the defensive. We set ourselves up as chumps and easy marks.

Ever since I visited the pyramids of Giza, I've thought that any aspiring sales company would do well to take their sales force there. The hawkers and moneygrubing on display is a tribute to the mechanics of the deal. Speak low, ask about their families, and you will pay through the nose.

It didn't help that I had a hangover. The magnificent thrill of actually being in this spot had almost balanced out the difficulties of the trip. We'd driven an hour and a half from Alexandria to Cairo. The bus was barely airconditioned, and the sun through the windows had put half of us down for the count. But now we were here. These buildings had been constructed over three thousand years ago. It was a sight many on Earth never see but in photographs, and we were here.

We drove up the hill to the gate. There stood the Great Pyramid. We waited while the tickets were purchased and then wound our way past the pyramids to a parking lot back behind them. This, we were told, was the best place for a panoramic view of the spectacle.

As we got off, we saw many things. The pyramids, backed by the city of Cairo. A huge amphitheater, built for the opera Aida, waiting for the season to reopen. A long row of vendors, running along the back end of the lot. And as we disembarked, the vendors swarmed to us as we tried desperately to escape.

"Hello! Welcome to Egypt!" "Welcome to the Pyramids, my friend, what is your name?" "Hello!" "Excuse me, sir, hello? Hello?"

One man focused completely on me. I found this to be a pattern in many places. I'm in my thirties, I dress nicely, and I have a nice digital camera on my arm. To the sharks of this world, this evidently means wealthy more than not. For myself, it means I've spent all my money on clothes and cameras. It's not an easy place to be in.

"Hello, sir? Hello, welcome to Egypt, hello? My name is Mohammed. (Every person in a Middle East country that ever attached themselves to me was named Mohammed) Hello? I wish to show you the site, welcome to Egypt!"

I can see the pyramids fine. I don't have any money.

"No money! No money! Please, hello!"

He was late forties, white turban, tan colored robe. He had his security badge prominently displayed. I kept walking towards the line of tourists taking pictures. He followed doggedly.

"Hello? My name is Mohammed. What is your name?"

Mine is Joseph, I say. He gets it – Joseph in Egypt. "That is a good name, a very good name. It is one of the prophets!"

I stop to get my camera ready. He remains by my side, though I do my best to ignore him completely. He offers me his hand. I react – I don't want to buy anything, I say.

He is wounded. His hand is empty. He turns it over to show me so. "You will not shake my hand?"

And there it is. The fisherman sets the hook. You are the rude ugly American I've heard so much about. A lifetime of snatching a dollar or two from this pack of ingrates who flock here day after day, it has weathered this man but he still possesses the ability to express his wounded pride. I look at him across the cultural gap, knowing exactly what he is doing. He has no real concern for this transaction. For whatever reason, I appear to be an easy mark, flush with cash, and he's not letting me close him. He is going to close me.

I shake his hand. It's rough, but the hand doesn't grip mine tightly. Every chance to display weakness, that's his strong point.

I surprise him then. "Ma'salaami." I turn and move closer to an unobstructed view. I hear him say "Ma'salaami" as well, but he's turning over his next approach in his mind. It's not usual for the tourist to have any kind of Arabic. He follows me. I suppose he considered that learning any part of his native language means I want to talk – i.e., I'm still the weaker party.

He makes a pest of himself. He asks to take a picture of me. I refuse; I have friends that will do it for free. He's frustrated. "No money! I am proud of my heritage! I show you the site." He wants me to take his picture. He moves down, blocking what view I have. "Please! No money! No money! You take my picture."

Finally I relent. The picture is taken. On the instant, he moves up, thumb moving across his fingers in the universal sign. And I am undone. "Please," he says, "please, a gift for my family."

The heat is splitting me open, the moment of being with the pyramids alone is rapidly escaping, and the never disguised sales tactic reminds me of past jobs. I lay into the man. "I told you I have no money, you said no money, and now you are ASKING FOR MONEY!" I hit Review and began to erase the picture. "You see, I'm erasing the picture. It's deleted. It's gone. I owe you nothing." And I cut through the crowd again, the ugly American, what can you say, they're all like that.

I move to another place. I get my pictures. I sit staring out at those massive structures. For a few minutes I am there.

Another vendor approaches me. This one is in his late teens. He smiles. "Welcome to Egypt! My name is Mohammed. Will you shake my hand?"

I look at him calmly. "I've already shaken the hand."

He gets it. He moves on. He'll learn.


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