The Ugly American

Recently, I read an interview with an American entrepreneur who stated that the US is now “destroyed” and that he has moved to a South American country with the intention of creating several businesses.

He goes on at length at his irritation that the only problem with Uruguay is the Uruguayans, who are, almost uniformly, “fools” who seem to be incapable of getting out of his way so that he can get on with his business ambitions.

The plight of this entrepreneur brings out great sympathy in me… for the Uruguayans.

In the 1960’s, Marlon Brando famously starred in a movie called, “The Ugly American” in which he portrayed an aggressive US businessmen abroad. Although those of us outside the US understand that the majority of Americans are not like the Brando character, we still encounter this American stereotype periodically. Typically, a successful American comes to a foreign country and sees “potential”, as there is no one else in the country who is as aggressive as he is. He then tries to set up a business and hires locals to do the donkey work. Early on, he dismisses the locals as “fools” who can’t get out of their own way to get things done. If he can do so legally, he replaces them with Americans whom he brings in.

However, he cannot escape the fact that he deals with local bureaucracy and other local businesspeople daily. He becomes increasingly frustrated over time and even begins to think that it is getting steadily worse, not better (he is right about this, but that will be explained later.) Finally, in anger and frustration, he leaves, swearing never to return to this country of incompetent fools.

Some of us call these individuals “two-year wonders”, as 1) they seem to be under the mistaken impression that they somehow possess the ability to mold the country’s existing mindset to suit their personal ambitions and, 2) typically, it takes about two years before they leave, usually having wasted a fair bit of investment capital.

Here in the Caribbean, throughout my business life, I have seen streams of expats come to my country to live and, hopefully, to prosper. They are welcome, but with a modicum of caution. Over the years I have found that some nationalities seem to adapt quite well to the Caribbean approach to life. Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Irish and those from Western Canada do especially well here – and all for the same reasons. First, they are easy-going and enjoy getting along with others without wishing to impose their own backgrounds on anyone. Second, they understand that, in order to succeed, they must adapt to local mores and customs. Third, they do not have a chip on their shoulders that either they or their home countries are somehow “better” than the adopted country. This last one is by far the most important qualification for success in the Caribbean (and in many other countries in the Third World.)

There are, of course, nationalities that typically are not a good fit here. Also, worldwide, people from cities sometimes tend to be more aggressive and are therefore less likely to fit. Perhaps “I’m from New York” is the phrase that would most engender some level of suspicion in West Indians.

Years ago, an architect from New York applied to me for a job, stating that she simply couldn’t bear New York anymore. She had vacationed in my country several times and concluded that it was the only place where she was happy; that she could no longer cope with people snapping their fingers and expecting her to get things done faster than was humanly possible. She practically begged me for the job. I spent a long time talking with her and advised her to imagine actually living in the Caribbean. Yes, she loved the fact that, when she was here, everyone was courteous and no one pressured her unreasonably. However, if she lived and worked here, she would find that, for example, each day when she went to lunch, she could not get a sandwich at the amazing speed at which one can be produced in a New York deli. In time, it may begin to irritate her that others from whom she required service were not delivering with the speed she had become accustomed to. She assured me that this was not the case.

She was hired and, at first, she was as happy as a clam. Then she began to grumble that the “fools” that she had to deal with in government departments were so stupid that they couldn’t understand that, when she needed something, she needed it now. She also complained increasingly about plumbers, hair stylists and a host of others whose efficiency was not up to her standard when performing tasks for her. She was often heard to say, “I’m paying for service and I expect to get it!”

She lasted eleven months.

Now, for the useful information. If you are an American and are hoping to expatriate yourself to the Caribbean, Uruguay or, for that matter, any other destination with which you are not fully versed, it would be very helpful to learn how the locals see you. By understanding this, you will be more likely to succeed.

First off, we in the Second and Third World do not assume that all Americans are “Ugly Americans” by a long shot. We do, however, recognize that some are. What we typically do when we meet any expat is to leave it up to him to demonstrate who he is as an individual. Americans are, almost invariably, a bit over-friendly initially and this is not a problem. Then one of two things generally happens. In a few months, he has either softened as he has become more relaxed with the locals, or he has become more demanding and aggressive. With the former group, locals tend to let them into their lives and their hearts, a bit at a time until, eventually, many of them become “family.” Conversely, if they have become more aggressive, locals begin to “freeze them out.” We don’t set out to destroy them any way, we simply make no personal effort to make things easier for them. This is also the case in Uruguay, and in many other countries.

For us, everything is personal. The phrase, “It’s just business, it’s not personal” simply does not apply. Business is personal. We take our time and try not to raise each other’s blood pressure. We consider it uncivilized and backward when those who are overly ambitious expect to bully people or push them out of the way in order to achieve their goals. Conversely, if an expat becomes “one of us”, it is again personal. We want him to succeed, so we begin to go out of our way to make things easier for him, often doing things that are not in our job description and for which we do not get paid. We are not seeking a bribe or looking for “a piece of the action,” we are simply doing what, for us, is culturally normal. To us it is a better way to live. It is civilized. This is a point that is sometimes missed by Americans, but those who get it, thrive.

Typically, we, of course, regard our philosophy as being “better” than the American philosophy because, as we see it, it allows for a better quality of life. However, Americans can justifiably say that their system is better, as it results in greater efficiency. The purpose of this article is not to judge one system against the other, but rather to provide insight for those who may wish to leave their present home and create a new one. This publication seeks to assist in the success of those who are newly expatriated and guide them away from any actions that may result in them falling into the dustbin of “two-year wonders.”

Returning to the man from the beginning of this article who was interviewed in Uruguay, I should advise readers that I live part of each year in Uruguay and, like him, conduct business there. Uruguay, like most of the Third World, is unquestionably “inefficient” by American standards. Uruguayans are nowhere near as ambitious as Americans and they plan to keep it that way. Uruguayans go way out of their way to help others (expats included), but at their own pace. However, once they sense that they are being looked down upon as incompetent fools, the inefficiency increases. The greater the arrogance of the expat businessman, the less support he receives. It is a system constructed primarily of personal willingness to assist. Therefore, an expat who ignores (or, more accurately, fails to understand) this fact eventually fails in his business and leaves. He is “culled from the herd” and an opening is created for another expat who will hopefully be more suitable and will receive appropriate support.

When American businesspeople travel abroad with the intent of doing business, they (whether they personally deserve it or not) carry a national reputation with them. In many countries outside of the US, when locals learn you are an American, an eyebrow goes up slightly and they wait for you to demonstrate whether or not you have the personal traits that will allow you to fit in. They will give you every opportunity to do so and they will be unlikely to lecture you if you do not.

The upside is that any American can do well abroad, merely by bringing with him a little humility and patience. Over time, he will be rewarded in spades. He should not, however, ever be so presumptuous as to assume that he will change the entire country to become “more American.” Most Third-Worlders have no desire to become more like America with regard to attitude. As an illustration, I once overheard this conversation in a local restaurant:

American diner: “Where the hell is the waitress?!!  I have a meeting to get to. I don’t have time for this crap!”

Restaurant employee: “I’m sorry, sir, she’s at another table. She’ll be with you soon.”

American diner: “This bulls**t would never happen in the States.”

Diner at the next table: “Sir, if you are more at home with the way things are done in the States, there are flights out tomorrow. We didn’t invite you - you’re free to go as soon as you wish.”

American diner: “Yeah? Forget it. It’s over in the States.”

Diner at the next table: “Yes, that seems to be true, so you’ll forgive us if we’re not eager to emulate the way it’s done in America.”

This conversation is useful, as it typifies the Third World attitude about culture. We do not see ourselves as backward people who are hoping to become more American. Quite the opposite, we value our culture and are decidedly protective of it.

Some American readers may interpret this article as a diatribe against Americans. It is not. While it doesn’t pull any punches, its purpose is to help to prepare American expats (and indeed all expats) to be sensitive to the values, habits and even quirks of the people of the country being considered for residence. Accept from the outset that we unquestionably will not be changing these traits to be more in line with the traits of another country. Then assess your own priorities. If you are by nature impatient or aggressive, you will find greater success in, say, the Philippines or Hong Kong, where locals readily accept subjugation and function well in it.

Whatever your choice of country, before you take up residency and invest, be relatively certain that the cultural landscape suits your temperament. This one factor will be a deciding factor in your ability to succeed.

[While we certainly know to avoid pushing a Western way of thinking onto alternative cultures, there is still much preparation to do before making the move overseas. The International Man Network offers a variety of tools to help make the process easier including in-depth briefings on a variety of topics relevant to those considering internationalization. Learn all the details about the IM membership here.]

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