I remember the first time I read The Ugly American. It opened my eyes to the complexity of human behavior in relation to culture. The novel has not only been a reference point in my understanding of personal and political dynamics ever since. It has also served as a challenge to reframe my thinking.
For the unfamiliar, the classic 1958 political novel written by Edward Burdick and William Lederer during the Cold War centers on the fictional nation of Sarkhan in which a power play is underway between the powers of democracy and communism.
Written as a series of interrelated vignettes, The Ugly American uses fictional narrative as commentary about why the U.S. was losing its fight against the Communists in Southeast Asia. Although unstated, most recognize Sarkhan to be a fictional Vietnam.
Burdick and Lederer highlight the devolving U.S. capabilities in the region through two fictional Americans.
The first, U.S. Ambassador Sears, isolates himself and his team from the locals by occupying himself with meetings, social events and visiting dignitaries.
In one anecdote, the authors tell of a Burmese journalist who comments, “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to cover over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.” 
The second, a plain-mannered American engineer named Atkins, enters the local culture, connects with the people, and involves them in the development of small-scale projects.
Burdick and Lederer’s intent was for the actual “ugly American” to be Atkins. By implication, the communists were successful because they employed tactics similar to those of Atkins.
The novel caught the attention of President Kennedy and his contemporaries. In time, it joined the ranks of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as powerful political and social commentary cloaked in fictional narrative.
Over time, the term “Ugly American” came to refer not to Atkins, but rather to the pompous, loud and ostentatious approach of Sears.
Why Our Approach to Culture Matters
The Ugly American may be a fictional account. But it illustrates how lack of cultural awareness, an isolated mindset, and ethnocentric behavior can have grand consequences for our world.
Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves when interacting with people from other cultural backgrounds:
- What blinders, preconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes do we bring to the table?
- How might these color our interactions in unfavorable ways?
- How can we turn these around to produce win-win outcomes?
- In what ways do our interactions make a difference overall?
- How can we use what we learn to help others?
One American friend of mine told me about her first extended time in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region of the world. She confesses, “I thought they’d all be angry at me just for being an American. So I thought they would hate me.”
What did she find? Just the opposite. She connected with women who struggled with many of the same concerns she did. She found people to be friendly and helpful.
“This experience really turned my thinking around. I realized that, at the ground level, ‘others’ are at first human beings. We find we have more in common than we realize.”
How Can We Change?
We change as we are honest with ourselves. We ask – and discover – the answers to questions like those above. Doing so in a group helps bring out more subtle elements and enables us to grow.
We keep our eyes open for both natural and intentional opportunities to reach out to others who differ from ourselves because, like my American friend above, most times we discover that we benefit from the experience as much as – and sometimes more than – the other.
Taking The Ugly American analogy a step further, which “Ugly American” do we truly want to be?
Being Ambassador Sears may be our default reaction. After all, extending ourselves beyond our comfort zone challenges us. It is hard.
But in the end, being Atkins proves the winning strategy.
Can you share about an “Ugly American” experience you’ve had or observed? How do you think it could have been resolved better?
Image Credit: Victor Ramos, “Reframe” on Flickr, Creative Commons