Saturday, April 07, 2007

I Know Americans Are Fat....

... but I had not grasped the extent of the problem. Norway and Japan are interesting. Plainly there is no correlation between wealth and obesity. Incidentally, the sporadically brilliant but usually unpersuasive Terry Eagleton had this to say about US fatness.
'If people of truly surreal fatness complacently patrol its (America's) streets, it is partly because they have no idea that this is not happening everywhere else."
This is an acute observation about cultural complacency. People unthinkingly assume the universality of their perceptions and habits.


  1. Terry Eagleton's comment is so right. I've lived and worked in America and visited regularly; like everyone else who spends any time there I'm amazed by the view of the world shared by the US Media with the population.

    I've had many funny incidents that have reinforced my view but none more so than at one corporate meeting. I was asked by one of the most senior board members in a company of 40,000 people. "How much is that in your dollars?"

  2. They're cheap, they're unfair but they're terrific fun, so here are my two favourite Ignorant Yank stories:

    1) The missus, working in North Carolina, tells teenage girl that she is from England. Teenage girl asks: "Oh really? What language do you speak in England?"

    2) Middle-aged American lady staying in Cardiff asks B&B owner directions to the nearest Tube station. Her plan is to take the Underground up to the Lake District for elevenses, then on to Edinburgh for lunch, and back via Buckingham Palace etc. She'd heard it's a small country, I suppose. B&B manager has to explain that the nearest Tube station is 130-odd miles east down the M4 (and those aren't swift miles).

    I'll add the usual disclaimers. It's a vast, highly productive country with a lot going on and all American TV shows, movies and sports, and most vacations, are American. So it's really not their fault and there are plenty of frighteningly smart ones.

    And of course gobsmacking ignorance is not limited to the yanks. A British female colleage in her late-20s recently asked me whether Cardiff was "within the M25".

  3. I was told by an American woman whom I was caddying for and who would not be dissuaded, that the Irish came to Ireland sometime in the 14th century.

  4. On a slightly different track, I caddied for an American gent, who told me he'd been booking into a guest house in town from an elderlyish lady. After being told he could pay for a room with a bath or a shower, he asked what was the difference between the two, and was told, "Good God man, you stand up in a shower and lie down in a bath."

  5. We're number 1! We're number 1!

    Jolly good showing by the Anglosphere, except for Canada. Someone will have to talk to them.

  6. I used to work for a small software house which had a development base in Dorchester, and a support base in Manchester. This company was bought by an American software company, who sent one of their techies over to the UK to re-configure our networks. HR in the USA looked at the map, and booked this guy into a hotel in Winchester, figuring it was close enough to Dorchester! This poor guy landed at Heathrow, drove to his hotel in Winchester in his hire car, looked at the map, and just kept on going until he reached Dorchester!

    Whilst he was configuring the network from the Dorchester end, he found that he couldn't do what he needed to do. He pointed this out via speaker phone to a technical bod in the USA. The latter spotted the problem, and said that he'd have to go to Manchester to perform the task:

    "Is that near you? How far away is Manchester from you?"

    "Erm, (speaking to us now) how far away is Manchester from here?"

    We replied: "It's at least 5 hours down the motorway."

    "It's a long way away!" he retorted to the speaker phone.

    Speaker phone: "Oh. Ok. Well you're going to have to go there I'm afraid."

  7. The idea that American education should extend to the minutia of English geography is, er, cute.

    It is harder to understand the widespread ignorance of foreigners when it comes to American geography. This is a big country and, for example, just because I live in western Massachusetts doesn't mean that I'm likely to know someone in Chicago. This ignorance is particularly hard to understand given that North American is front and center on all the weather maps.

  8. We're still No. 1! So fire away, ye ancestors who lost your hold on us back in the day....

    And, by the way, back when G.B. was at the apex of the world's powers, folks in India were making similar dumb jokes about "mad dogs and Englishmen."

    As for fat folk, I noticed last summer in Britain that G.B. and Western Europe are growing sideways almost as fast. Be careful what you emulate!

  9. Canada eh? Well well where does one begin with our southern neighbors?

    The good - generalizations
    Extremely open and helpful.
    A breadth of talent that can exhaust the unwary.
    Many many things of nature and man-made to marvel at.
    Entrepreneurial genius.

    The bad - generalizations
    Deplorable inner cities.
    Poor understanding of the rest of the world.
    Un-interest in things not American.
    A exceedingly our way or the highway attitude.
    I have never yet met an American who can list all the provinces or the main cities in Canada, let alone a very few who know what the capital city (Ottawa) is called or where it is located.

    A few years back on a camping trip to Lower Fishing Lake in northern Saskatchewan I was surprised to see a large R.V. pull in amongst the tents and small trailers.
    The Americans set up camp and immediately a large satellite dish swung into action on the roof of the R.V. they were a friendly group even though they complained that their M-16's had been confiscated at the border and they would have to buy rifles to go hunting.
    and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in 1980 my wife and I were in Hawaii. One night in the Churchill pub just shortly after the news broke that the Iranian hostages had been freed by sneaking out through he Canadian Embassy with false Canadian passports a group of Americans next to our foursome found out we were Canadian.
    They announced to the bar that we were the greatest friends a country could have and bought us round after round of drinks.
    It was an unselfish showing of gratitude to four young Canadians who had nothing to do with the events. We were excited and humbled by the generosity shown and I have never forgotten the warm wishes from the crowd that night.
    Absolutely Fantastic!

    Such is my (long and cumbersome) take on those below the border.

  10. My Son was working at a Sydney Harbour side restaurant, an American sat at a table outside facing North Sydney on the other side of the Harbour.
    THE yank pointed at the other side of the harbour and asked if that was New Zealand. He was told "yes".

  11. David:

    Quite right, of course. But while we wouldn't expect American geography lessons to focus heavily on the precise coordinates of Dorchester, what's amusing is the cavalier attitude to research.

    We know that all Americans think that London, England, Britain and indeed Europe are interchangeable, and that Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge and the Louvre are all within easy walking distance, but it's the refusal to take even a quick glance at a guidebook before boarding the plane to Heathrow that's so amusing to us.

  12. Consumerism being the new patriotism- the intellectual ethos of the age being- I consume, therefore I am; I think this expansion of the developed world's wasteline is essentially a heart-warming display of patriotic self-sacrifice.

  13. To be fair before being unfair, I have to give them this. Naive or not, I've never met an American in Canada who wasn't gracious and complimentary about the country. I sure can't say that about the English and Euros, whose colonial pasts linger on more than they realize.

    But Brit is right, the stories can be hilarious. As I student I was a pedicab driver at the Montreal World's Fair, from whence come my two favourites. Most of the customers were Americans and we loved them for all the reasons they are and should be loved--friendly, gracious and super tippers. Anyway, I had a very nice elderly gentleman for a long fare. He was great, but when it came time to pay me, he flustered around with his wallet, became suddenly cranky and snapped: "How do you tell your money apart? It's all different colours."

    The second was when a fellow with a thick drawl approached my partner and said: "When ah came this morning, ah knew I was going to get lost, so I wrote down the place where ah parked. Can you tell me where this is?" He handed over a piece of paper on which was written: Sortie Seulment.

    Of course, our friends could get theirs back by recounting the old saw that the difference between an American and a Canadian is that the American never gives a moment's thought to what the difference is between an American and a Canadian.

  14. Peter: Canadians are so nice it's almost like they weren't from overseas.

  15. And, to Peter's point, what we really think about y'all is that you sit around obsessing about what we think about you.

  16. And meanwhile on The Charlie Rose Science Series ( world leading scientists (all bar one American) discuss Longevity and especially the impact of calorie restriction on increasing both life span and being healthy for longer!

  17. Most of the British I have met have no sense of American geography. If you are in NYC, can Washington DC be a day trip? What about Boston? How about Philadelphia to Pittsburgh? Is Washington DC closer to Disney World or Boston?

  18. It is agreed so that both the British and Americans are at the very least geographically stupid.

  19. Thomas: Try living in the rural northeast. They think that it's just one big city from Boston to D.C.

    Reb: To paraphrase Joseph Heller, caloric restriction doesn't let you live forever, it just seems that way.

  20. Wow! This reader is reeling.

    Yes, Terry Eagleton raises a good point about America assuming everywhere else is the same: so many Americans never leave their own country (for reasons geographical, financial, logistical and traditional, I'd say). This is the same problem that afflicts the media there, and it is an issue that has been seriously debated and discussed for a long time and in many contexts.

    However, the comments here, I have to say, make pretty damned uncomfortable reading. Try those stories again with , oh let's say, "black people," "Indians," "women," inserted instead of "Americans". Try "my favourite Ignorant Kike stories".

    It's a hard row to hoe, being an American living in London (for most of my life, thanks - and yes, I am enjoying my stay). One reason it's hard is that stories like these are so embarrassing - although the British are not immune to fat-embarrassing-compatriot-abroad stories, I hear. Another reason is that they are so frequently told, with great guffaws.

    Bryan, I'm disappointed in your commenters, because the post was interesting and the issue is serious.

  21. Good morning darling Euro babies. Now then, eat this fat American.

    I love you,

    Erin O'Brien

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. Sorry, Ms Baroque, I should have added an extra disclaimer:

    Do not read these stories if you are an American and entirely devoid of any ability to laugh at yourself.*

    *Disclaimer to the disclaimer: Not all Americans are entirely devoid of any ability to laugh at themselves.

  24. Dear Ms. Baroque:

    This is a completely unserious topic (actually, I'm not sure whether the topic is that we're ignorant or that we're fat or that we're fat ignorami).

    First, we are proudly ignorant and proudly fat, so what's funnier than that.

    Second, we are the first society in history in which the rich are thin and the poor are fat. Why is that? Because food is ludicrously cheap here. In 2005, Americans spent $894 billion on food, or just under 10% of personal disposable income. That's about $3000 per American per year.

    A slightly different series of numbers (putting American food expenditure at 7.5% of total personal consumption and about $1900 per person in 2004) seems to go a little ways towards explaining Bryan's chart. A year's food takes up, on average, 9.1% of annual consumption in the UK, 9.7% in Canada, 11.9% in Germany, 13.9% in Norway, 14.4% in Japan and 14.9% in France and, a little oddly, 24.9% in Mexico.

    Third, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., sting only because they reflect and reinforce power relationships. No one objects to ridiculing rich white men, and no American cares if foreigners poke fun at us.

  25. And just to beat this thread dead: USDA estimates that, from 1970 to 2003, US per capita daily caloric intake has increased from 2,234 calories per person per day to 2,757 calories. Put another way, each person in the US ate 275 extra pounds of food in 2003 compared to 1970. At the same time, the percentage of personal disposable income spent on food dropped from 13.9% to 9.8%.

  26. Brian

    Not being funny matey, but have you had a look around at London kids stuffing their gobs with chips and fried "chicken" on the bus recently?

    Is that because of their "limited council estate view of the world"?

  27. And Ms Baroque, you have stumbled on a gang of proud Anglospheric fanatics who have been bickering for years and have mastered the art of the family insult. Today was America Day. I assure you that at other pleces and at other times, Canadians have been described as too-nice-to-bear smug and lousy tippers and the Brits have been revealed as dentally-challeneged bores who prattle on endlessly about their superior mastery of iromy except when it is their "shout" (round), at which time they disappear to the loo. Then, suitably primed, we all join hands, crack a cold one and attack the Aussies. I'd tell you about that, but this is a family-friendly site.

  28. And Ms Baroque, you have stumbled on a gang of proud Anglospheric fanatics who have been bickering for years and have mastered the art of the family insult. Today was America Day. I assure you that at other pleces and at other times, Canadians have been described as too-nice-to-bear pontificators and lousy tippers, and the Brits have been revealed as dentally-challeneged bores who prattle on endlessly about their superior mastery of iromy except when they disappear to the loo when it is their round. Then, suitably bonded, we all join hands, crack a cold one and attack the Aussies. I'd tell you more about that, but this is a family-friendly site.

  29. Perhaps I should explain that Peter, David and Duck are my lot. Together we comprise two Ignorant Yanks, one Ignorant Canuck and one very Ignorant Limey.

  30. Hmmm. Aside from the lively banter here, that graph is a problem. BMI is a flawed measurement. Interesting how the more petite frames seem to rank lower on the BMI.

    Not that the US wouldn't be number 1, but I do question Slovakia being #4. I married a Slovak and have traveled extensively through Slovakia and while Slovaks do have a tendency to get a bit chubby as they age, I have never seen a single Slovak who was grossly obese.

    Although it is interesting to note that I find them to be one of the most Americanized cultures in Europe given that 1/5 of their population is in the US. Most families have several members who've emigrated.

    So are they exporting obesity back home along with everything else?


  31. When, a few years back, I was living in Abington, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, I took note of how often I saw rather good-looking teenage girls accompanied by overweight teenage boys that the teenage girls of my own generation would not have given a second look to, let alone hang out with.
    As for geography, I often asked my wife, when she was still teaching high school across the river in New Jersey, to ask her classes if they could name the states immediately adjacent to the one they lived in. I was certain a majority would fail, but she never put the question to them. Of course, I have met plenty of Europeans visiting these states who seem rather surprised to discover how large a place this is.
    But back to America: The secret of its success is utter mastery of the lowest common denominator.

  32. Well, I'm Italian but fairly travel all over EU for work.

    A friend of mine in Paris told me that once he happened to hear over an american gent couple of tourists on a bus.
    As the bus approached the Trocadero and turned left opening the sight towards the Chàmps Elisèe the lady exclaimed: "oh look! They have one here too like in Vegas!!"...
    They were facing the Eiffèl Tower... :-D

    For simple humane feeling I avoid posting here some of the outrageous things I have herd from fellow yankee tourists here in Italy...I'll jest settle it by saying that once an american guy was surprised by the fact that we don't speak Spanish.... :-D