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Foreign Exchange 

How to avoid being an ugly American -- or worse, an ugly, stupid American -- overseas

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
Dear Social Grace,

Recently, I was out to dinner with some colleagues during a conference in a foreign country. Also joining us was Anna, a local woman who had been our tour guide and who had become a friend to me during the weeklong meeting. I had wanted to take Anna out to dinner to thank her for her hospitality; however, when the bill came, one of my colleagues, "Anthony," did not handle the situation tactfully. Anthony picked up the check with a statement directed at Anna that showed disdain for the economic situation of the country: "I make more money in one day than you do in a week." Our guest was visibly dismayed. Anthony continued to add insult to injury when disregarding the customary gratuity practices of the country and insisted on leaving a 20 percent tip because "that's the way we do it in America." I was uncertain of how to apologize to Anna for his actions, and I certainly did not want her to associate me with this attitude toward her country. About two weeks later I was out to dinner with Anthony and the matter came up again. This time we were with a few people who had not been present, and he was trying to figure out why she had been affronted by his actions. In trying to explain my perspective on the insult, I found out that he had made other offensive comments to Anna earlier in the trip. What should I have said to Anna? Should I be in another uncomfortable dinner situation with Anthony, how should I explain to him that his attitude, though theoretically well intended, is discourteous?
Thanks for your advice,
Not Wanting to Be an Ugly American

Dear American Madam or Sir,

There are ugly Americans, who don't care that they cause offense, and there are stupid Americans, who don't see why implying that a person's country is backward and her financial situation embarrassing would be insulting. There are also ugly and stupid Americans -- the hardest to deal with, because they not only don't know how to behave but also don't care to learn.

Apologizing for another person's actions isn't necessary in every situation. In this one, since both you and your colleague represent not only your country but also your organization, some expression of regret on your part would have been in order. In your place, I might have given Anthony the chance to prove himself merely stupid (rather than ugly) and to apologize for himself by saying, "I don't think you said what you meant to say, Anthony. Anna, I'm so sorry." If Anthony persisted in being a boor, I would have tried to change the subject and then apologized to Anna later, privately, on behalf of the group I represented. Pressing the point might only antagonize Anthony and embarrass Anna further.

You did the right thing in bringing the matter up with Anthony again -- especially if you will be attending future foreign conferences in his company. Perhaps you could give him examples of disparaging things someone might say about his country. Even if he can't understand why he caused offense, that he caused offense at all should get him thinking anew about how he treats foreigners when he is a guest in their country.

Dear Social Grace,

You've recently covered monogram rules for married couples [Sept. 26, 2001] -- what is the rule for a gay couple? Is the order determined alphabetically (Adam and Steve)? Or is the order determined by how it rolls off the tongue (Roy & Ralph vs. Ralph & Roy)?
Via the Internet

Dear Lettered Sir,

I suppose that exploring new territory, relationshipwise, is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you are less bound by tradition and therefore free to define some aspects of your relationship in a way that makes sense to you. On the other, you are left without the security that tradition brings, and this seems to be especially important when dealing with the minutia of coupledom: envelopes, naming conventions, and the surprisingly ubiquitous monogram problem. If nothing else makes better sense when it comes to names, I turn to the alphabet as a fair, easily applied, and sensible solution. Then again, if Adam and Steve Smith prefer to determine their household-monogram style by a different method, the Monogram Police would, I'm sure, understand.

Dear Social Grace,

If you're at a yoga class, and there's a man in front of you wearing shorts, what do you do if, while involved in a strenuous pose, you notice that he has exposed himself (you know what I mean)? I haven't been studying yoga very long, but the yoga class is generally very quiet, and we are supposed to be concentrating on ourselves, so it would seem like something I should try to ignore. This proved very difficult, though, and another part of me thought that he would want to be told. What would Social Grace do?
Via the Internet

Dear Posing Madam or Sir,

Outside of a yoga class, the response to such a situation depends on the circumstances: Either one tells an exposed gentleman quietly and quickly that his zipper seems to have slipped or one ignores him (and summons the police). In a yoga class -- where, as you say, concentration and inward focus are your goals -- adjusting your gaze seems the easiest thing to do (assuming the second course of action is not necessary). If you can't do this, wait for a pause between poses and then alert the gentleman, as privately as possible, to his predicament. You might also work a bit harder on the concentration aspects of your yoga practice.

About The Author

Social Grace


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