June 02, 2003
Ignorance Of Foreign Countries

Michael Moynihan (The Politburo, scroll down to 5/29) mentions the common assertion that Americans are unusually ignorant of foreign countries, at least compared to Europeans. In so far as this is true, it is at least partly the inevitable side-effect of the difference in size between the U.S. and most European countries.

The average citizen of a western democracy tends to know a great deal about what's going on within 50 or 100 miles of home, quite a bit about things within 300 miles, and not much at all about things over 1000 miles away, unless they directly concern him. (An example of the last would be an Alaskan reading about tax changes decided in Washington.) Middle-schoolers here in Rochester don't know much about the world, but they've all been to Toronto and can listen to Toronto radio stations: it's only 3 hours away by car, and the border's only 1 1/2 hours. They know very little about Mexico, all of it from books or television. I assume residents of San Diego and El Paso would know very little about Canada and quite a bit about Mexico, or at least the parts of Mexico just across the border. Most Europeans are a lot closer to foreign countries, and often have more than one they can reach in an hour or two. Americans may live close to Canada or Mexico, but not both, and usually neither. I imagine Luxemburgers are particularly knowledgeable about foreign countries, since they're only an hour or so away from three different ones.

A related factor is that there's a lot more to know about larger and more populous countries. I strongly suspect that Russians are as ignorant of foreign countries as Americans, and for much the same reason: there's a lot more to know about a country the size of Russia (in area and in population) than about (e.g.) Slovenia or Iceland, not to mention Andorra or San Marino. As with the U.S., or India, or China, there is proportionately less to know about the rest of the world.

To put it another way, if the European Union ever becomes a single country (however defined), the average European's knowledge of foreign countries will instantly drop roughly in half, without any need for a lobotomy. It's not that Europeans will be more ignorant -- at least not until continent-wide educational standards set in Brussels start to work their magic -- but that the areas of the world defined as 'foreign' will be much smaller, while 'domestic' concerns will be that much larger.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 02, 2003 12:46 AM

The other factor at work is our news and entertainment industries, so people in other countries are exposed to a (rather peculiar) view of the US continually. When I was in grad school, several Indian grad students were quite annoyed to find that the US grad students knew next to nothing about India, while of course, the Indian students claimed to know everything about the US. I seem to recall being lectured about this for a good half hour or so. I managed to behave, and didn't tell them that apart from some British enthusiasts, nobody in the world cares about India unless they themselves are Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

The citizens of Luxembourg probably know more than they really want to about the US. By the same asymmetry that bothered my fellow grad students, hardly anyone in the US has even heard of Luxembourg.

Posted by: steevil on June 2, 2003 12:02 PM

not quite, I believe: a common legal, financial etc. space won't increase the average Norwegian's knowledge of the Portuguese culture, let alone of the language

this is the paradox of the EU: the actual populations of its countries are not drawing much closer than they were before (other than through the increased mobility of certain professional groups) -- or rather, not to the same degree their rulers are

Posted by: Miranda on June 2, 2003 12:16 PM

Miranda: But by the same token, the average inhabitant of New England doesn't know much about the Southwest states, and vice versa. I think the good Dr. is onto something, though I still think, even allowing for the Weevil Effect, Americans are excessively ignorant about the world.

Posted by: language hat on June 2, 2003 03:33 PM

How much of this is the disparity in power?

At the end of the day, Uruguay or Guinea have little to no ability to destroy the planet, deploy troops elsewhere, or affect the global market place very much. One has to wonder how much the average Belgian or Pole knows about either country.

But there have been American troops on the ground in Western Europe for over fifty years, American combat aircraft in the sky, and American nukes at the ready. Ditto for the Soviets. American corporations (not just media/entertainment) produce products on the shelves, serve food on the corners, and are a source of the cars and aircraft that people use. Is it that surprising that SOME knowledge of the US would flow through?

Steevil: I suspect that part of the Indian discomfort is the fact that "Bollywood" produces at least as many films as Hollywood (although far fewer reach international audiences).

Posted by: Dean on June 2, 2003 04:50 PM

L. Hat: if an American wants to find out what is going on in a different region of his country, he isn't faced by such linguistic challenges as an inhabitant of the EU is

Posted by: Miranda on June 3, 2003 04:34 PM

I do think the point is valid, you learn what you are exposed to constantly more thoroughly than what you seldom encounter. I'd have trouble distinguishing between a London City accent and a Southhampton - but nor roo much between a Back-Bay Boston Brahmin and a Brooklyn accent.

And little is taught: a few years ago, I surprised a Dutch co-worker by mentioning the Hanseatic League in a casual conversation: most of the US people he knew are at least ten years younger than I, and never heard of it.

But this is far from unique to the US. A blogger in New Zealand was disgusted to learn that some eighty percent of fourteen-year-olds in his school system could not find their own country on a global map.

Posted by: John Anderson on June 3, 2003 06:22 PM

I think it's human nature, period. The vast majority of men don't lead lives of quiet desperation, but they don't really care about most of what doesn't affect them directly.

But then, ascribing it to human nature would take away an element for America haters, wouldn't it?

Posted by: Meryl Yourish on June 4, 2003 06:34 PM

On the other hand, most Americans unfamiliar with other countries are cheerfully open about it -- in contrast to many not-so-much-better-informed Europeans, who will lecture foreigners about their own countries at the drop of a hat.
And when Americans go abroad, they really do seek out cultural betterment. Naively, sometimes, but sincerely. I posted something on this here, in response to a NY Times article comparing American and European tourists in Spain.

Posted by: David on June 4, 2003 09:23 PM

David brings up an important point: many Europeans know a great deal about the US---quite a bit of it wrong. You can't tell them that, though. If you disagree with them on some point, it's because you've been brainwashed by the notoriously parochial US media. They are often quite adamant about this.

Posted by: Angie Schultz on June 5, 2003 01:29 AM