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Embarrassing connection

In the Scheme of Things column by Nan Russell

Sitting across from a German couple and a Chinese mother and child, we were waiting at the Guilin airport for our delayed flight to Shanghai. In this last week of our travel-study tour, my husband and I were savoring this mini-break by reading.

Tuning out languages I couldn’t understand, it was an American accent that pulled my attention from my book. It also pulled the attention of three rows of people seated around us as the American barked, “Coming through! Coming through!”

As if on cue, an oversized man pulling an oversized carry-on turned down our row. “Lots of people coming through,” he hollered, as he tried to maneuver our packed aisle. His wheeled bag caught the foot of the German man. Turning to see what snagged his luggage, the American bellower yanked his bag hard enough that it crossed over the man’s feet.

It was then that my horror struck. There was no “I’m sorry;” no “Excuse me;” no “Pardon me” coming from this countryman of mine. There was nothing but more loud words hailing the others in his group to join him. Fortunately, none did.

While this wasn’t the first or last incident where I sighted discourteous, ill-mannered, rude Americans in China, each produced similar feelings. First, I was embarrassed that someone from my country was creating a negative impression of Americans. Don’t we have enough perception problems in the world without tourist-ambassadors carving more negative ones with their impolite, inconsiderate or brusque behaviors?

My second reaction was a desire to apologize. I wanted to explain to the Chinese woman and her child, the German couple next to her, and everyone nearby that this was not typical American behavior. I wanted them to know “we” were all not like that.

I never got to explain, or to apologize. Language differences made that option impossible, and rational thinking made it inappropriate. But there turned out not to be a need. The German man caught my eye and with a bit of head-shaking, smiling and eye rolling, which I returned, it was clear he knew we were American and was expressing that there was “no need” to apologize for “universal idiot behavior.”

You see, Americans don’t have a monopoly on crazy, rude, impolite, obnoxious behavior. Every nationality has a few people whose behavior makes you wants to collectively roll your eyes. Everyone knows some weird cousin or aunt or sibling or friend we’d like to apologize for from time to time when they display “idiot behavior.” In the scheme of things, that’s a shared human experience. And that’s the non-verbal language we all found to communicate a connection that day in a Chinese airport.


Author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way (Capital Books; January 2008), and host of “Work Matters with Nan Russell” weekly on Nan Russell has spent over 20 years in management, most recently with QVC as a vice president. Sign up to receive Nan’s “Winning at Working” tips and insights at

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