Thursday, July 30, 2009



In the very early stages of our trip to England and the Baltic, I took the kids aside for one of those “This is important and I want you to pay attention” moments so familiar to parents. I told the kids that they were effectively ambassadors for their country, that people would take their actions, rightly or wrongly, as reflections of the behavior of “all those Americans.” Therefore, they should try to be on their best behavior, not only because doing so is the right thing, but also because they wanted to reflect well on the United States. Since our kids are 16, 14, and 11, I got mostly rolling eyeballs, especially familiar to parents of teenagers and pre-teens, from the kids. But the rest of the trip provided plenty of evidence that maybe the old guy is not as dumb as he sounds.

On our cruise was a very large tour group, composed mostly of lawyers and legislators, from Brazil. At breakfast the second morning of the cruise, my wife and I (The kids were sleeping, off doing something else, or pretending they didn’t know us while enjoying the outstanding Windjammer buffet.) had the opportunity to share a meal with an elderly Brazilian lawyer and former senator and his wife. They were lovely people. The senator was very interested in my ideas regarding Brazil, Russia, China, and our new president. The conversation was engaging and substantive. The couple asked us to please come to Brazil and spend some time with them, learning about their country and its emerging place in the world. We came away with a very favorable impression of Brazil and Brazilians.

It all went downhill from there. It seemed like an inordinate number of the members of that tour group were just downright rude, cutting in line, pushing people aside, and generally treating people either with contempt or as if they just weren’t there. Many were loud and inconsiderate, interrupting lectures, presentations, trivia games, and other activities and acting put out when asked to keep it down. Many of the people on the cruise grew more disgusted by the day, and travelers from the UK, the largest single national group (if one can call people from the UK one national group; the Scots, the Orange Irish, and the Welsh might argue) on the trip, stereotypically invariably polite and considerate, were especially outraged. At a few points in time, it looked as if UK and Brazil might go to war right on the ship.

One of our very engaging dinner companions (One’s dinner companions can have an enormous impact on one’s enjoyment of a cruise; we were blessed to have a wonderful family from Pennsylvania at our table.) had a theory on the behavior of the tour group. She pointed out that, even though Brazil is developing rapidly and its middle class is growing quickly, such things as cruises, though within the financial grasp of much of the American middle class, is still out of reach of the average Brazilian. Most people from Brazil who are financially capable of taking a cruise like ours are probably from the upper class and, like the upper class of most societies, tend to regard those not of their class with scorn and derision, or simply as nonentities. So what we were seeing was not so much a reflection of Brazilians as general as it was a reflection of the old upper classes in Brazil, or anywhere, really.

There was a great deal of logic in our friend’s observation, and the rude behavior that we noticed from the Brazilian tour group was probably limited to a few people, though the latter certainly did not seem to be the case. Most people from Brazil are probably great people, or at least as engaging and friendly as people from anywhere else in the world. But a lot of people on that cruise ship came away with a very unfavorable impression of “all those Brazilians.” I suspect those impressions are wrong, but it doesn’t matter; they have been made and are more or less indelible in many people’s minds.

And our kids learned something about leaving an impression of their country.

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