AU in Krakow

6 American University students, 1 coordinator, and 1 professor--in Poland. This should get interesting.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Loud Americans

The scene: a very good Hungarian restaurant, just off the Rynek in downtown Krakow. Myself and three students having dinner, laughing and generally having a good time -- not overly dramatically, although we were perhaps being a little causally rowdy. Nothing too extreme. Then an older woman dressed in some kind of purple outfit (for some reason the color of it, including the color of her hat, sticks in my mind), walked over and began to berate us in English: those people at the next table are making comments about how uncivilized and unruly Americans are, and how loud and disrespectful we were being; at this point in time, she went on, when "they" are looking for excuses to hate "us" (her English was heavily accented, as though she had been an expat for a long time), we had to be more careful. Then she went to sit down, leaving us all stunned. We paid the bill and exited rather quickly.

Several striking things for me about this encounter. First of all, how easily we were hailed into the very subject-position -- obnoxious, disrespectful tourists -- that we had previously criticized others (the British stag parties in Prague, for example) for occupying. When she activated the script, we were all chastened. Speaking for myself, I felt a kind of tightness in my chest and throat, a fear that maybe in fact we were in fact enacting the role that we despised. It was as though that possibility had simply been lurking around us in a cloud of potentiality, and when she spoke to us it crystallized and became actual. (Indeed, this is probably a good account of what happened: her admonition wouldn't have been as powerful, or as effective, had it not already been "objectively" [in the specific, Weberian sense of the term: the potentiality was apparently there whether we knew it or not, but the only way that we could come to know that was through the historically contingent course of events that produced this specific outcome] present in our social context, and present at several levels of nesting -- our own specific histories in critiquing others, our self-images as sensitive travelers as opposed to obnoxious tourists, and so on.) She couldn't have known -- we never completely grasp the results of our interventions, whether in advance or in retrospect -- but she invoked something and, as Andrew Abbott describes it, the tumblers turned and spat out an outcome. A psychologically crushing one.

Second, the anger. Walking out of the restaurant (after we had several minutes of sputtering silence) we began to process the experience, and I was somewhat surprised to find that I was deeply angry at her. Angry that she might be right, even though I remain convinced that we were not being loud and obnoxious at all. Angry that she took it upon her self to act in loco parentis, as though we were a group of naive teenagers intruding into a formal dinner party. Angry that we might in fact have been setting people off without knowing it. And finally, angry that we didn't use the best comeback line ever, the one that we came up with afterwards: "um, we're Canadian."

Third, the subsequent analysis. We talked it out and generally agreed that we might have fallen into a situation where we couldn't have done much differently, since the muttering diners seemed to already be predisposed to criticize Americans, and were only looking for an excuse or for some "evidence" to use in supporting their case. We ran several counterfactual situations (what if we had all been speaking Polish, or German? What if it had been later in the evening, or earlier, or another restaurant?) and also noted the fact that "they have no manners" is one of those floating condemnations that is traditionally used against outgroups, and is closely related to "they smell bad because of their inferior hygiene." So in a sense we shouldn't take it personally.

But we did, and I now feel a little chastened. I don't want to be thought of as a loud American, even by disgruntled expats in odd purple outfits. Here we see the delivery of the "other transcript" provoking identity effects, as we struggle to determine whether or not we do or should fit into it -- and what the proper response ought to be to the declaration that we do fit.

Still working on a decent response.

[Posted with ecto]


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