By Christina Drain
“The Ugly American” is a phrase used all too often to describe tourists in a foreign land.
But what might be considered rudeness is actually a form of coping — albeit an ineffective one — according to two Ohio State Newark English professors who have implemented a novel approach to removing the anxiety and frustration from traveling to a foreign place.
Stephanie Brown and Virginia Cope, who also is assistant dean at Newark, have integrated a discussion on cosmopolitan courtesy into their study abroad and service learning courses.
Brown leads a study abroad class called Literary Locations, which centers on visits to places in stories written about Berlin, Germany, and Cope is coordinating a service learning project with the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians.
Brown noticed a common theme in first year experience conferences she had been attending — the idea of civility.
“Students really needed guidance in behaving in ways that could be described as courteous, that could be described as civil, polite, hospitable,” she said. “In an international context, that becomes even more important. Without a guidebook, you can very easily not have an idea what kinds of effects your actions are having.”
The basis for cosmopolitan courtesy comes from what 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant calls “universal hospitality” — the right of an alien not to be treated as an enemy, but to be shown respect. The approach encourages students to treat others as visitors even though the students are the visitors.
The approach also draws on philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on the concept of cosmopolitanism and sociologist Elijah Anderson’s idea of the “cosmopolitan canopy,” among others.
Brown will be taking her fourth trip to Berlin with students this fall. On prior trips, she noticed they had one of two immediate reactions to situations such as a street protest or a guest speaker — either there was a disengagement from the situation, sometimes retreating to electronic devices, or they would make jokes about the situation.
“It was so obviously rude, yet these are people I would not describe as rude people,” Brown said.
Many of the students at the regional campus are low-income, minority or first-generation students; traveling to foreign countries is not something they ever thought of doing. Brown says their expectations sometimes don’t line up with reality, and they frequently lack the intellectual and emotional resources to process the difference.
The approach is to give students coping skills that they can use in situations rather than a list of customs and phrases to use in foreign countries. Brown begins with a discussion of the word cosmopolitan — which means “citizen of the world” — what it means to be a visitor in another place and the rights of a visitor within that place.
Cope takes a more pragmatic approach, helping students develop specific ways to demonstrate courtesy, like non-verbal communication such as eye contact and nodding, and asking at least one question to engage and show interest. Students role-play examples of polite and impolite behavior.
Brown and Cope engage students in the concept “refuse nothing that is offered.” Brown encourages students to eat at the many ethnic restaurants that represent Berlin’s diverse cultures. Cope says experiencing cultural traditions in New Orleans can be a challenge for some.
“Our students, even without such instructions, recognize that there is something discourteous about refusing food offered when a guest in someone’s home,” Cope said. “So when we’re brainstorming as a class common rules of courtesy, or when students when ‘playacting’ discourtesy turn their noses up at a proffered food, we can generalize from there about how to respond to the unique food of New Orleans.”
Cope and instructor Sunny Caldwell are preparing 14 students for two trips to New Orleans to record interviews with Mardi Gras Indians, a little-known part of African American history, and to help catalog the collection of cultural artifacts at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which preserves artifacts and history of local musicians and the parading culture. Cope asked students to write journals about their expectations and anxieties.
“What we found was that they were charmingly idealistic about their potential for creating change — one said she hoped the group’s work would help overcome racism. Another was anxious that she would offend the Indian chiefs. Simply the act of writing down these anxieties and sharing them anonymously helped defuse the tension in the class,” Cope said.
“After this discussion, the entire mood of the class changed, from a group of students saying all the right things about their goals and interests, to a group of students saying the right things but openly bonding over the things they had been afraid to say.”