Sampling Bias and the Stereotype of the American Tourist

I’ve written before about how the fact of American geography makes it relatively more challenging for us, collectively as a people, not to come off as a bit insular when we travel abroad – it’s hard to get there from here. Now it’s time to gripe about something else that contributes to the world’s outsized perception of traveling Americans as clueless idiots. And, since this is a serious blog writing about serious topics (what’s that? All those turbo folk posts? Like we said, serious topics), it’s also a handy illustration of sampling bias.

According to the British Council, 1 out of 4 people in the world speak some English. 750 million people speak it as a 1st or 2nd language, and another 750 million do so as a foreign language.* And these speakers are widely distributed about the globe. Here is Wikipedia on the “English-speaking world”, and its purported scope is pretty startling. Between places where English is a native language, widely spoken, used as an official language, or as the dominant language of business and trade, it’s hard to find a place it hasn’t penetrated to some degree. This stands in sharp contrast to a language like Mandarin or Arabic, both of which are spoken by large numbers of people but have not made inroads on the global level as popular second languages. You could parachute somebody into Bogota, Baghdad, or Beijing and English would be a useful skill for her to have. The same is, I would suggest, not really true for any other language.

All this means that when Americans go abroad and say dumb things in the presence of foreigners, or when foreigners come to the United States and we say dumb things in their presence, the odds of the foreign person in this scenario actually understanding the dumb thing being said are exponentially higher. For all we know the percentage of French tourists coming to New York and wondering where the Statue of Liberty is from is the same as that of American tourists going to Paris and wondering who they named the Eiffel Tower after, but because they’re speaking French we just assume they’re discussing, like, the finer points of existentialism. It’s a classic case of sampling bias – Americans wind up being over-represented in foreigners’ mental catalogs of obnoxious tourists because we’re easier to count. Of course, this is small price to pay for the benefit of having English as one’s first language – it’s a phenomenally lucky quirk of birth in that respect. But for our (numerous, I’m sure) foreign readers: next time you find yourself rolling your eyes at the silly things those Americans over there are saying, also take a few seconds to give thanks for the fact that, when you travel, you speak what likely amounts to a secret code in the ears of everyone else.

*Caveat: These are very old numbers, but they came from a nice reliable-looking British Council webpage