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Citizen Diplomats Work To Improve US Image

In many countries, the image of the United States has become tarnished over the past few years. Critics in these countries regularly blame America's foreign policy for these negative views. Now a business organization is trying to change those perceptions by turning average Americans into diplomats.

In some countries, this is how Americans are viewed:
"They spread themselves out like a huge octopus and put on everything and, yes, simply demand everything,” says a German woman.
"That they always take an attitude as if they were the kings of the universe, instead of taking the position from equal to equal,” adds a Spanish man.

Many critics cite U.S. foreign policy, American pop-culture and the actions of American businesses for the negative view of Americans in some countries.

Keith Reinhard is Chairman of DDB Worldwide, one of the largest advertising conglomerates in the world, and founder of Business for Diplomatic Action. "The Americans are seen broadly now as arrogant, insensitive, totally self-absorbed, not caring about what the rest of the world thinks," he says.

Business for Diplomatic Action is an initiative dedicated to teaching American businessmen and tourists going overseas to be more attuned to the cultures of foreign countries and to produce a more positive impression on their people.

Reinhard believes this effort is critical to improve the image of the United States around the world.

"It is now politically correct in most regions of the world to dump on America. In Australia now if you want to say something is really stupid, or really bad, or really evil, you say: Oh, it's so American."

In the United Kingdom, for instance, a recent poll found that 83 percent of the people surveyed believe that "the United States does not care what the rest of the world thinks". Business for Diplomatic Action and other groups are hoping to change that perception through citizen diplomacy.

Sherry Mueller is President of the National Council for International Visitors. "The concept of citizen diplomacy is the idea that the individual citizen has the right -- even the responsibility -- to help shape U.S. foreign relations one handshake at a time," she says.

Reinhard agrees, saying it is important to make good use of the 60 million trips to foreign countries that Americans make every year. "That's a possibility for 60 million positive impressions."

Although hardly a panacea for America's image problem, Reinhard believes when "Brand America" is in trouble, American businessmen have an important role to play in improving negative impressions.

To help in that effort, Business for Diplomatic Action developed a special handbook of graceful behavior abroad titled "The World Citizens Guide." Versions for students and businessmen are currently available and a children's guide will be issued later this year.

Among its suggestions:

  • Talk and act smaller In many countries any form of boasting is considered very rude Save the lectures for your kids Most people in the world have little or no interest in baseball or
    American football

Scores of grass roots organizations across the United States support the BDA initiative. Lourdes Cuzan works for the city of Coral Gables, Florida. "It is wonderful to be able to promote the importance of citizen diplomacy even though we have a small community."

Karen Schafer leads a citizen diplomacy effort in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "We do sister-cities programs. We have eight sister-cities and we have exchanges with all of our sister-cities. We also do the international visitor program."

So what is Keith Reinhard's main tip to Americans traveling overseas?

"Listen… Listen… Listen."

Good advice for anyone traveling abroad.

Some video courtesy of Business for Diplomatic Action