The messages written by Kansas University students studying in Italy and published in Tuesday's Journal-World offer a perfect illustration of why it is so important for Americans to be exposed to and gain greater appreciation for foreign cultures.
One student was unenthusiastic about Italian food and wrote wistfully about peanut butter while another was astounded at the leisurely pace of an Italian lunch. Yet another admitted being totally stymied by Italian telephones.
Perhaps some of the most interesting messages, however, were about what the American students had learned about how Italians view them and other Americans.
Take a simple smile, for instance. Americans view a smile as an almost-universally positive gesture. It's friendly, it's pleasant, it's happy. But according to one woman with whom a student spoke, Italians often see American smiles as superficial and insincere. There's no reason to smile at someone you haven't even met, she said. That automatic American smile makes Italians think they've said something silly.
Another student got some interesting feedback on Americans who consume alcohol. The student noticed he hadn't seen any drunken Italians since he'd been in Del Grappa. When he talked to an Italian woman about that, she said Americans are disgusting when they drink. The student theorized that with a legal drinking age of 16, Italians might develop a more temperate attitude toward alcohol compared with Americans who tended to overdo after waiting until they are 21 to legally consume alcohol.
Students also were learning the responsibility of planning their own travels to other cities in Italy without the help of their parents. With no cars, they had to depend on trains and other public transportation that didn't always accommodate their schedules. It's a different pace and a new experience for most.
These cases, and many others, offer these students an opportunity to see the world and, sometimes, themselves through someone else's eyes. The KU students aren't exactly immersed in Italian culture because they are living with other KU students and being taught by KU instructors, but they are getting exposure to another way of life that would be impossible to get in Lawrence.
Even though the world gets smaller every day, cultural differences still are very real. The lens through which Americans look at the world is different than the one used by Italians or Russians or the Chinese. It's difficult to grasp the subtle differences in those cultures without getting out and experiencing at least a few of them firsthand.
Who knew that American smiles make at least some Italians suspicious or uncomfortable or that Italians are offended by Americans who drink too much?
Well, now, a group of KU students know those things and many others and will return home with a better understanding of Americans' place and image in the world.