What Americans think of Europeans

I wrote a hugely popular post on what Europeans think of each other, and we all know what Europeans think of Americans (that we’re fat and stupid – well, it’s a bit more complicated than that; I’ll delve into that in another post). In this post, I’ll write my experiences with my fellow Americans think about Europeans. Keep in mind, though, that the diversity of knowledge and opinion in the US is far greater than just about anywhere else in the world, so I’m not going to capture everyone’s sentiment.

At the outset, it’s important to understand this about Americans:

  • a lot of Americans live by the “if you can’t say anything nice about (something), then don’t say anything at all” adage. So most Americans, who generally have a vague positive feeling about Europe, will only say vaguely positive things about Europe, if anything at all. (“I hear it’s nice over there.”)
  • Most Americans are profoundly ignorant of geography and don’t give much thought beyond their immediate frame of reference. Before you think that means Americans are chauvinist, keep in mind they don’t give a shit about the next state over, or even next city, much less another country. Americans may be brilliant when it comes to technology, innovation and business, but they fail when it comes to geography. They are simply not interested. (This is why, I think, America assimilates foreigners better than Europe. They don’t know where other people come from, and soon forget; their foreignness ceases to be a liability, unlike Europeans who always remember that China had the Tiananmen Square massacre, a Serb killed Archduke Ferdinand and Serbia gave the world Slobodan Milosevic, etc.)
  • the last few years have seen politically-active Americans attuned to world affairs much more than they have traditionally been, because of the wars, antagonism towards US foreign policy, propaganda by the Bush administration, etc. Growing up, I can tell you that no one ever cared what was going on outside our borders, other than to think the Soviet Union was a miserable shithole, and everywhere else was OK (but not as great as the USA).

That said, let me get down to the specifics, country by country. Remember that I’ll only include those that the average American has heard of and actually knows is in Europe (you ask the average American where Albania is, and you might be surprised at the variety of answers; I expect fully a third would say “Antarctica”). I’m being a little harsh on my fellow Americans, but, as an American, this is something we tend to do:

  • UK – This is the only European country (and, like the Brits, Americans don’t always consider it part of Europe, even though it clearly is) that Americans tend to have largely uncritical views of, regardless of whether they’re at the political right or left (actually, let me add the neighboring Irish to that list). Brits are considered “polite”, “dignified” and “cultured” by virtue of their speech, which Americans, through decades of inculcation through movies and television, have come to ascribe values to. The only negative is of those with posh, elite accents to be thought of as devious or cunning; many Hollywood thrillers aimed at a middle-class audience have some greedy British villain who’s just too smart for his own good (stupidity is equated with a lack of guile, which middle-class Americans admire). I don’t think most Americans, until recently, have known that there is a substantial, vociferously anti-American contingent in the UK; many on the far left think it’s all directed at Bush and his policies (it isn’t nearly that temporal nor partisan), so they tend to think of the Brits as being “on our side”.
    There is a perception, poked fun of in popular media, that Brits have bad teeth, but it’s one of those stereotypes that is not really taken all that seriously, like that Poles are stupid or that Italians don’t bathe.
    Among younger people, the UK is synonymous with London, where it’s imagined everything is cool, edgy, rock. For many young women, having a English rocker boyfriend has substantial cachet.
    Other than that, I think most Americans are completely oblivious to the stereotypes that the English and Scots endure by Europeans (that they’re cheap, two-faced, etc.)
  • France – Mixed feelings, mixed feelings. Most Americans have known that the French enjoy criticizing the US and Americans; they know that Parisians are rude the minute you say something in English. But they still go there. Except for the minority of hard-core right-wing Americans who choose travel destinations on principle alone (they usually stay home), most Americans want to visit Paris.
    But, the average American is going to use the following word when describing the French: “snob.” And by most accounts it’s probably the most offensive word you can use in America, where “he’s a regular guy” is one of the highest compliments you can pay to someone.
    On the positive side, “cultured”, “sophisticated” and “thin” betray a certain jealousy that even the most hardened anti-French have towards this country, our oldest ally in the world.
  • Italy – American perceptions of Italians are shaped by Italian-Americans (who are mostly from Sicily, and are quite different from most contemporary Italians), the food, and, of course, Hollywood. Italians are considered laid-back, stylish, loud (in a good way; remember, we Americans are loud), and know good food. Think about it – if there ever were a universally-liked cuisine, it would be Italian. Italian women are considered very sexy – think Sophia Loren and Monica Bellucci. The men, too, are loved by American women (and gay men). The only negative stereotypes are that they’re mafiosos, and don’t bathe – very old stereotypes that made them the butt of jokes about 100 years ago. No one takes these sorts of jokes seriously anymore.
  • Germany – Unlike the Brits and other Europeans, Americans don’t have anything against the Germans. This is probably due to the fact that a plurality of white Americans have Deutsch blood coursing through their veins, and because Americans have fantastically short memories. Of course, if an American hates any particular German, he’s going to call him a Nazi, but Americans don’t think of them as the humorless, stiff, nazionalsocialistischer automatons that your average Brit, French or Czech does. Beyond that, the only perception of Germany is beer, sausage, sauerkraut and Oktoberfest. And maybe lederhosen.
  • Spain – I’m sorry to say this, considering Spaniards’ enormous sensitivity around it, but most Americans are going to conflate the Spanish with Mexicans. They’re going to assume Spain is poor, the people eat tacos and burritos, and they pay with worthless pesos. They’re going to assume Madrid is a suburb of Mexico City, and Barcelona is an island near Cancun. If they have fantastic memory, they might remember the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, those famous Mexican ships sailed by that Mexican explorer, Hernan Cortes.
  • Scandinavia – I’m throwing the Netherlands in here, too, because for whatever reason, most Americans think “Dutch” applies to Denmark, and that they speak Danish in Holland. (I tell people although they’re all tall blondes that speak Germanic languages, Dutch bikes are routinely stolen while Danish ones aren’t.) Scandinavia is considered advanced technologically and blonde, blonde, blonde, but beyond that, there’s no reason to ever visit any of those countries. And most Americans might think Scandinavia is a country, and they speak a language called Slavic.
  • Ireland – Considering a happy, beautiful, green country full of shamrock-covered meadows and cheery little leprechauns. Maybe not too far from the truth, actually. The negative stereotype is that they’re drunks, but in America, that’s not really an insult anymore. Most Americans would be floored if they knew the per capita GDP of Ireland was higher than that of the US, and that Ireland has only 4.6 million people. Most Americans think it’s a huge, poor country.
  • Portugal – Part of Puerto Rico.
  • Greece – Based on the popularity of the 2002 film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greece is probably considered a quaint, colorful country full of charmingly nationalistic bumpkins. But the reality is that the country doesn’t cross the minds of most Americans whatsoever.
  • Countries completely ignored except by some ethnic descendants – Poland, Czechoslovakia (that’s right – it’s still one country), Yugoslavia (v.s.), Hungary (most Americans will think you’re joking if you tell them this is the name of a country; they might even believe you if you tell them it’s near Thirstary), and anything eastward, until you hit Russia.
  • Russia – Large, poor, cold, angry, gray. Again, not too far from the truth. Russia includes places like Moscow, Ukraine, all the -stans (sometimes even Paki- and Afghani-) and just about any other country with a majority white people that speak a language that’s not English that they’ve never heard of (Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, etc). Like the other former Iron Curtain countries, considered cold, depressing, nothing to see. They wouldn’t believe that St Petersburg is as beautiful as it is, as are Prague, Budapest, Krakow, etc.

These have been my perception of what the average insular white American knows and thinks. Here are some variants for different subgroups based on my conversations:

  • African-Americans (black) – Love France. Neutral on the rest of western Europe. Have absolutely no interest in, knowledge of, or desire to visit Eastern or Northern Europe.
  • Latinos – Love Spain. Positive on France and Italy. Have absolutely no interest in, knowledge of or desire to visit any other European country.
  • Asians – Indians adore Britain. The Vietnamese adore France. Filipinos adore Spain. (Are we beginning to see a pattern here?) Other Asians are not particularly interested in Europe (unless they’re very “Americanized”).
  • Gays – Europe is London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Ibiza. The Mediterranean is hot. So is Eastern Europe, paradoxically (so much Eastern European gay porn comes Stateside). Very, very confused on which city goes where; a widespread perception that London, Paris, and Prague are an hour-long train ride from each other.
  • Lesbians – The only lesbians I know have gone to Amsterdam and loved it. Too small a sample size for me to form an impression.
  • Hipsters – Love London, Paris, and slightly more “edgy” capitals like Copenhagen, Prague, Helsinki and Barcelona. They tend to be relatively well-off and educated, so they might buck a lot of the stereotypes I’ve laid out here.

This will, no doubt, make more than a few Europeans fume in indignation, or nod smugly that Americans really are as ignorant as they’ve thought. Remember that there is a small but not insignificant (maybe 5-10%?) number of Americans who are widely travelled and know a ton about Europe and its geography, national temperaments and culture. They tend to live in the “urban archipelago”, esp in coastal cities like New York or San Francisco.

Update: If you want to see it quantified, here are Americans’ sentiments towards other countries (not just European). Unsurprisingly, the current bugaboos harped on about in the media are at the bottom of the list.

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  1. As an American i would like to say that the US is different based on the region you live. I am from Minnesota a State that borders Canada.. Midwest people in this country are generally more laid back and nice and family oriented. On the coast and in the south it seems as if those people are more concerned about money and getting what they feel they deserve. Not all of them, but most of them.

    Comment by Andrew — June 30, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

  2. A lot of these are inaccurate. No one thinks Spain is Mexico, that one is the most glaring. I think the biggest way Americans are ignorant about Europe is not realizing how different Western and eastern Europe are from one another and that most eastern European countries are second world.

    Comment by Cory — November 20, 2018 @ 9:47 am

  3. Eastern Europeans are poorer than western europeans but don’t think that we are second world xD it was quite bad in the 90s but now in Poland we have on average 70% of British salary. It’s not like in Switzerland where you have 3 times better salaries than in US but still we don’t starve xD

    Comment by Wojgek — December 17, 2018 @ 1:37 am

  4. I find too many Europeans tourists are arrogant towards and ignorant of America and Americans. It’s like they created a silly narrative made up of nonsense and fiction they got from stupid movies and the idiotic talking heads of that fraud called the “news”. They seem so perplexed to find out that we can read and write and even wear shoes.

    Comment by Robert — January 26, 2019 @ 9:29 am

  5. >Unlike the Brits and other Europeans, Americans don’t have anything against the Germans

    Unless you’re Jewish, then it’s all about what the Nazis did during WWII. I come from a Jewish family and it’s borderline impossible to them or their friends be discussing Germans and not have a reference to Nazis, Hitler or WWII come up. I think on some level many of them actually think most Germans are secretly Nazis. I’ve been living in Germany for the last few years and I have family members who refuse to come visit.

    Comment by A — February 14, 2019 @ 2:37 am

  6. Speaking from personal experience, Black Americans love of France comes primarily from how the French treated Josephine Baker, James Baldwin et al. at a time when they were largely rejected in their country of birth – the USA. The typical person recalls these individuals as being celebrated in France at a time when White Americans detested blackness, and segregation was in full swing. If I recall, neither individual wanted to return to the USA, anymore than a black American would decide to move to South Africa during apartheid. Understandable. While the reports are true, we should remember that these two were far from ordinary citizens, having both fame and money, and thus, the ability to choose where they lived and insulate themselves from ordinary citizens.


    For Baker, that was 100 years ago, and Black Americans would do well to look more at contemporary France (and contemporary USA, for that matter), which has made improvements no doubt. The story of racism, however, is better examined by viewing black African and Maghreb people’s experiences in France, who indeed share similar struggles of systemic racism as ethnic minorities in the USA. It is against the law for the French government to keep records related to race (much to the chagrin of many a CNRS social science researcher, who sees the trends, but must sidestep them for funding purposes), but figures produced by other institutes inside and outside of France still show that black African and Maghreb people, even if French born, are still over-policed, discriminated against, live in worse neighborhoods and constitute the majority of people in prison. I understand the desire not to see everything through the lens of race, but when there are real social issues present, this could seem like sticking one’s head in the sand. It is also interesting the taboo regarding race when no taboo exists regarding sex — in the end, neither of these categories are chosen by the people themselves.

    One other note is that black Americans might find it refreshing that the French apparently seem to focus less on race than Americans. Well, it seems that so does many a Scandinavian resident, yet the focus is primarily on France (Baker and Baldwin effect?). That may be true, given their history (I’d urge a read of The Black Count, by Tom Reiss, an excellent documentation of the experience of General Alexandre Dumas, the author’s father, who was half black and white in France during it’s slave trade). However, a black American might come to France and realize that they’ve “traded the devil for a witch”, a saying from one of my elder family members. At the end of the day and even if you are fluent in French, you are still American and a foreigner (immigrant). At the moment, it seems that no one likes immigrants and from personal experience, I can say that being discriminated against based on another identity is still an psychologically taxing, regardless of what that identity is.

    Who was it who said “some countries have issues to overcome, while others have limitations to endure”? I think that is true to an extent for every country, including France and the USA. It’s important for anyone to remember that while big problems remain in both countries, both countries have made absolutely astounding progress in the last 100 – 50 years. Perspective and information is key, not old stories and rumors.

    Comment by Jade — July 10, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

  7. As a Brit who lived in New York in 70/80s but did travel a lot around to other States, I did find American people quite ignorant on other countries… one even asked me how did I learn the language so fast!! Also they felt there was no need to travel abroad as have everything in their own country. Having said that Americans out of the capital cities are more friendly and hospitable.

    During the Second World War black Americans felt more accepted in England and surprised they would be able to even dance with a white woman, let alone date one.

    Comment by Sandra Johnstone — July 11, 2019 @ 6:23 am

  8. People are basically the same in any country. Show respect, courtesy, a smile, and a little humor and give them space.

    Comment by Ron Ellis — June 25, 2020 @ 3:09 am

  9. Hmm. Don’t think you can say all countries are the same … I certainly wouldn’t want to live in N. Korea, a lot of Middle Eastern and Asian countries who treat women especially bad,

    Comment by Sandra Johnstone — June 26, 2020 @ 1:36 am

  10. I think that statements pertaining to most Americans and their in-depth knowledge of geography is SPOT ON! Used to watch Jay Leno’s “Man in the Street” where he’d mosey up to an unsuspecting pedestrian w/ mike in hand and ask them the most BASIC of questions. Major Fail most of the time! Scary as hell – person knew nothing about geography, let alone who the Vice President of the United State even was despite seeing their photo even!
    Had a friend who was a journalist living across the street who had to cover stories pertaining to the USA. Went to all sort of meetings, discussions on Capital Hill, traveled to World Bank, United Nations in NYC to keep abreast of what the USA was up to, etc. Americans – had NO clue on who the PM of Finland was, no idea of how Finland came to be, their relationship w/ Russia.
    Hell, NOTHING about Finnish culture or geography. Blew my mind.

    Comment by Andrea — August 7, 2020 @ 7:59 pm

  11. My DNA comes mostly from Ireland and the United Kingdom, so I have always been more interested in those two places over the rest of Europe. I am very interested in the so-called Celtic lands: Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I love their literature and music. I have been to all of those places, and I found the people very kindly. England has given us Shakespeare, the Beatles and so many other wonderful cultural treats. The English, by and large, are a very decent group of people.

    I was stationed in Germany when I was in the army forty years ago. It’s a beautiful country with great beer. I guess I still was very aware of the two wars we fought with them. I guess when I think of the rest Europe I think of beer, castles and museums. I can’t say I have any great interest to visit them.

    Europeans probably do judge Americans more harshly then we judge them. Americans aren’t big travelers. Heck, we don’t even travel much in our own country, or our own states.

    Comment by Steve — October 23, 2021 @ 4:20 am

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