Unreliable Ambassadors: When word-of-mouth goes wrong

Amsterdam, it turns out, is a lot more than pot and prostitutes. Oh that’s all there too, but it’s not the point of the city. There are great canals, nightlife, public transportation… and only a minority of Dutch locals ever indulge in the temptations that emanate from the city’s “coffeeshops” and red light district. So it turns out that the perceptions of the city that Jim and I held from stories told to us by trusted sources were inconsistent with what we experienced. So if it’s not about drugs and sex, then what’s Amsterdam all about? Jim and I realized yesterday, our last full day in the city, that our Amsterdam experience seemed somewhat incomplete. Even though we had been there for most of the week on business, we had learned virtually nothing about the city or the country’s history. Surprisingly little. We saw no plaques on buildings explaining how they had been there since the beginning of time and didn’t meet any taxi drivers who were looking to bend our ears about the historical figures that the city boasted. The Anne Frank house was really the only place/tour that gave us a glimpse into Amsterdam’s past, and that only brought us back half a century in a city that clearly has a past many centuries deep. The Dutch were once successful conquerors, colonizers, and slave traders in every corner of the world… but why no more discussion of this except in the history books? These days it seems like we only think of the former British, French, and American colonies.It was in this frame of mind that we decided to join a 90-minute canal tour of the city, in hopes of unearthing the real history of this happy little European city. The tour, while enjoyable, turned out to be only mildly interesting because the only useful information we received was about the hotel that Mr. Heineken (of beer fame) used to own until he gave it to his wife as a birthday present and at which he still maintains a suite even though he’s dead. On the tour, however, we met a German man in his 50’s or 60’s who—no joke—judges german shepherd dog shows around the world as his retirement hobby. He was recently in Madison WI and likes America alright, but life in America moves too quickly for him to ever live in the U.S. long-term. So for those within this man’s social and family networks in Germany, he serves as an ambassador to those who have never travelled to the United States and we know what he’ll probably tell them about America.Still, the German turned out to be something of a racist, and i don’t want him to be an ambassador of America to his friends. During one of his stories, he detailed a time when he was training a german shepherd that didn’t place first in a show in Oregon. Normally, he could count on selling his first-place pedigree for several thousand dollars, so he was already incredibly angry at his loss when a Japanese group started snapping photos at him and his second-place dog. He began cursing in German to his partner about the “damn slit-eyes” taking pictures, assuming that the group would not understand him. Then when a young Japanese boy showed interest in buying the dog, he sold it to them for approx. $10,000 after some backs-and-forths — far more than he ever would have received for the dog.Bottom line: this was an obnoxious guy from Germany who, in addition to his charming little story about how he ripped off the Japanese group after insulting them, told us how German beer is superior to Dutch beer and how the Dutch speak an antiquated form of German. Most Germans wouldn’t want this guy to be their ambassador, but he is. It was easy for Jim and me to acknowledge that this one German didn’t represent the views of his entire country since there are probably a far larger number of obnoxious Americans traveling the world as our citizen ambassadors than there are obnoxious German guys. As ambassadors to our friends and coworkers on Holland, Jim and I will similarly color their understanding of the country based on what we tell them. And what we say would be far different from the message I expect the country’s tourism board would like us to say—that’s the authenticity that makes word-of-mouth what it is… reliable. I guess the lesson here is that we just need to be critical of our sources. If your source is bigoted, perhaps his assessment of a culture is simply unreliable. If you’re source on Amsterdam is a stoner, there’s a good chance you’ll get a slanted perspective of the city.

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