I have a thick pile of neon yellow post-it notes resting on my computer. On each post-it is a word. Some say “rich”, some say “friendly”, one says “pro-Israel”, one says “heterogenic”, one says “live in a bubble”, one says “think they are the best”. These words describe America, based on the preconceptions and stereotypes of the four Indonesians, Israelis, Palestinians and the seven Brits before we started Encompass…
Leyla and I were late. We sat on the Piccadilly line of the Underground as it jagged closer and closer to Heathrow Airport, Terminal 1,2,&3. Each stop was excruciatingly long as the doors swung open and shut, open and shut. Mind the Gap, Mind the Gap, Mind the Gap.
Finally, the tube ground to a halt and we hustled off the train to the waiting Encompass assembly. The Palestinian’s flight was delayed in Frankfurt so were in the clear, whew. While we waited, Helene, one of the Encompass coordinators, gave us sheets of paper with the name of each country represented at Encompass. Under each country’s name were five blank lines. She told us to write down what we thought of the other countries–facts, stereotypes. The comments were anonymous and later on we’d see the feedback about our nation.
For Israel and Palestine I wrote words like Jew, Muslim, Arab, conflict, Jerusalem. For the UK I wrote words like fish & chips, the queen, London, posh. And, I’m embarrassed to say for Indonesia, I put a big question mark.
A few days later we did a workshop about perceptions and first impressions. We went back in time to our first meeting at Heathrow. We discussed how people’s first impressions of each other can set the tone for the relationship, where those perceptions come from, how perceptions can be good and bad, and how you can overcome those perceptions when you encounter people in your life.
Part of this workshop included reading the words from the Heathrow surveys. Helene wrote the words on post-it notes and gave each nation their stack. The three other Americans and I sat down to read them:
- Very beautiful young girls
- Live in a dream
- Did not treat all the people equally
- They are American, they think they are the best
- Strong country, super power
- Barack Obama
- Do not understand what is happening in the Middle East
- Good environment
- Probably know about what’s going on in the Middle East because of the war
- Looking forward to presenting them with conversation
- Not shy
At first I wasn’t sure what to think. A huge part of me was desensitized to the words because I’d heard them all before during my travels. I’ve had a hundreds of conversations with Europeans about America. Most of the time it’s me trying to convince them that America is not all about ‘Wisconsin Girls-Gone-Wild’, or people who can’t point toFrance on a map, or obese people stuffing McDonalds French fries down their triple-chin throat.
But at the same time, I can see where these perceptions come from. Many Europeans haven’t been to America, yet Hollywood and pop culture is one of the main media they consume to subconsciously (or consciously) gather information about Americans. All it takes is one loud obnoxious American to change someone’s mind about the entire country. But, it also takes knowing one American who doesn’t fit that stereotype to bring the conversation to the next level of why the US is perceived the way it is. Knowing just one person can make a difference in perception, both positive and negative.
Everyone makes assessments of other people. Whether you’re walking down the street to work or looking at pictures of a magazine, we all draw enormous conclusions about each other based on looks or body language. This exercise was particularly interesting because every single nation expressed a similar frustration that I felt by being labeled and shoved into a box that didn’t necessarily fit.