Exchange programs between Russia and the US can help to mitigate some of the cultural stereotypes that both nations have of each other.

Being exceptional and unique. Photo: AP

At the highest levels, politicians and policymakers in the U.S. and Russia seem to hold very different opinions of each other, something that the recent op-ed pieces by Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Senator John McCain highlighted in striking detail.

But what if it’s not just the top leaders and thinkers who hold these opinions? What if the vast majority of Russians – or at least, the Russians that Vladimir Putin wants to appeal to - do not consider Americans “exceptional” at all?

It’s too easy to blame a “Cold War mentality” when, in fact, cultural stereotypes about Americans appear to be deeply embedded in the Russian national psyche. Take these persistent cultural stereotypes about Americans, for example, that just about any American visitor encounters after spending time in Russia.

1.     “All Americans are rich”

The perception that every American is rich gets to be rather absurd after hearing it for the fiftieth time. The first time I heard the phrase "everyone is rich in America!” I laughed it off thinking it to be comical, although entirely incorrect.

For example, a Russian acquaintance once asked me why I could not go on a weekend trip with some friends. Well, I was completely broke and could barely afford my bills, much less a small holiday. My acquaintance did not believe me when I told her this.

After routinely hearing it in conversations throughout my years in Russia, I reached the point of being a little annoyed especially when it was directed to me personally. Perhaps it's because I was raised by a single mother in an extremely small apartment and relied upon financial aid and scholarship to fund my education, that this accusation of being rich struck a particular nerve with me.

American salaries are indeed much higher than Russian ones. According to the United States 2012 Census, the median annual salary in the U.S. was $51,017. Meanwhile, the average Russian salary per year ranges from about $9,800 to $11,300 as determined by the Russian Federation’s Federal Statistics Service.

However, that Americans are rich is not accurate, especially when one factors in the debt that Americans have. From Federal Reserve statistics, it is estimated that each American household has approximately $7,072 in credit card debt, $146,675 in mortgage debt, and $31,374 in student loan debt. Perhaps, once you factor in free education and health care, Russians have it not so bad after all.

2.     “All Americans are fat because everybody eats fast food”

The obesity rate in America is indeed high. In January 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report placed American adult obesity at 37.5 percent. For children and teens the percentage was 16.9. In comparison, in Russia, 25 percent of the population is obese as of November 2012, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

I admit there is a fair amount of - shall we say supersized?  - Americans who consume fast food as if there is no tomorrow.  However, this stereotype does not apply to us all.

For example, in a study by Vegetarian Times, about 3.2 percent of American adults are vegetarian. This is about 7.3 million people. A July 2012 Gallup Poll recorded this percentage as even higher, with 5 percent of American adults declaring themselves vegetarians.

I am not a huge fan of fast food either. Apparently my fellow American classmates in Russia also were not - a good indication to the Russian populace that we were not eagerly stomping around the city inhaling cheeseburgers.

While a few of us would indulge in American-style junk food during tearful bouts of homesickness, fast food was never a regular part of our diet during our time in Russia or elsewhere. Looking back on it, the majority of American students survived on shwarma and traditional Russian staples: borscht, blini, eggs, bread, kefir, and kotletki (meat balls).

3.     “Americans are stupid”

Jokes about Americans being stupid are probably some of the favorite ones in Russia. If you type in “тупые” (stupid) in Google the third popular search result appears to be “Stupid Americans.”

I suppose we could have helped our case if we did not smile so much in public. While I tended to wear a rather austere expression during my outings (especially if I was by myself), most of my American classmates did not.

Smiling broadly and laughing loudly amongst ourselves on the metro, it was not only immediately clear that we were indeed foreigners, but it also fed the stereotype that Americans are loud, obnoxious, and a tad empty headed.

In addition, if we smiled to a stranger, we were deemed foolish even though we only meant to be polite. Why? Because Russians viewed it as though we were naive and trusted someone we did not know.

Russians have learned from their own history that trusting the wrong person can lead to disastrous consequences. So, unless you want to be known as the susceptible and goofy foreigner, I’d recommend keeping a facial expression that matches the weather. Cold and frosty.

4.     “Americans hate Russia”

According to a September 2013 Gallup Poll, 50 percent of Americans see Russia as an enemy or unfriendly, while only 44 percent consider Russia as an ally or friendly.

American views of Russia have turned negative largely due to Edward Snowden’s asylum, LGBT rights, and events in Syria.

Positive perceptions have not been this low in fifteen years. The last time Gallup posed this question, in 2006, 73 percent of those polled called Russia friendly or an ally, compared with just 20 percent who saw it as unfriendly or an enemy.

However, to say Americans hate Russia might be overboard. There may be some conflicting interests currently, but this does not necessarily imply hate. Moreover, the lingering Cold War mistrust and labels of Russians as 'Commies', is very limited and confined to a small and uneducated portion of the American populace.

When it comes to opinions regarding Russia, I would say that most Americans are more perplexed than anything because they do not have the full picture of Russia. The same may be true of our leaders, policymakers and analysts – it’s not so much that they are lost in some kind of “Cold War mentality” – it’s that they’ve allowed persistent cultural stereotypes to influence their thinking. Maybe what they need is a good trip abroad to open their eyes to reality.

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