Are Europeans More Civilized than Americans?

July 30, 2013

Zio Enzo is possibly not the uncle of anyone I know.

In any case, he’s a toothless 70-something Italian man who everybody is calling Uncle.

He’s wearing a baggy black suit on a Saturday afternoon, and explaining to me, in his barely-comprehensible central Italian dialect, all the reasons why I should become a Jehova’s Witness.

We’re standing in the garden of a house in some nameless small town in Italy and everyone’s taking an interest in the American – in me.

Aunts and uncles are gathered round. In-laws are peering over my shoulder. Background noise is supplied by tiny cousins, who ride around on tricycles, shouting.

Mostly, however, their interest in me is limited to an interest in the fate of my soul.

Will I accept Jehova into my heart?


But standing there, politely nodding, it occurs to me that the same conversation is taking place right now in a thousand backyards in Alabama or Kentucky or (Buddha save us!) Arizona…

Anywhere that God-fearing people with hideous accents gather, someone must be converted to the one true faith, whatever that may be.

It’s times like these that I question Europe’s reputation for being a highly “civilized” place.

Back in the United States, some people have the feeling that Europeans are all high-brow culture buffs. That the average person’s evening in any city from Lisbon to Istanbul is taken up listening to piano concertos and sipping champagne in some enormous drawing room.

I admit that I was once guilty of it. It’s the impression Hollywood gives us.

Maybe we’ve seen some Woody Allen films and just decided that everyone in Europe is rich and has exquisite taste in food, wine and the arts.

What we don’t know is that Europe, like anywhere else, is secretly full of rednecks!

Attack of the Euro-Rednecks

Of course, Euro-Rednecks are different than American rednecks. They’re certainly not shuffling around WalMart in a trash-bag-sized jogging suit.

They have some dignity.

But they’re not going out and buying season tickets to the symphony either.

Also, before you accuse me of being snobbish, I’m from Arizona. Some of my best childhood memories involve shooting rats for fun.

I know rednecks. I probably am one myself. Or as a German friend of mine put it, one of the stupid person from the middle of nowhere.

are europeans more civilized than americans?
The municipal pig in a small town in the Salamanca province. Nice place. You should go.

But since we’re here…

I’ve got a few things I’d like to point out about the whole “Europeans are more civilized” myth.


Exhibit 1: The Death Penalty

Many argue that Europeans are more civilized because they don’t have the death penalty. It’s true that capital punishment was abolished years ago across the European Union.

However, to say that Europeans are a bunch of pacifists is to ignore thousands of years of European history, a history that much of the time tells of violence and conquest and intolerance of one kind or another.

You spent 3000 years slaughtering each other wholesale and now you’re calling other people uncivilized? Please!

In Spain, people were being executed by firing squad as recently as 1975, which means to me that the new culture of peace and non-violent conflict resolution is nothing more than a historical footnote.

I’m American and I’ll be the first to admit, the death penalty is barbaric.

But so was, for example, fascism.

And the Spanish had that until the mid-Seventies, too.

Exhibit 2: Europe’s Food Culture

Italy, France and Spain have wonderful food culture. It’s because they can grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables all year round.

Food culture in the north of Europe is very very different – Spaniards go to Germany and complain that the extent of German cuisine is sausages and potatoes, or to England, where beans on toast is considered to be a respectable meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

And let’s not even talk about Scandinavia, where some typical foods consist of fermented intestines, rotting fish and the like.

Prepackaged industrial crap is a godsend if your “traditional cuisine” has to be kept in a bucket outside in order to keep the whole house from smelling like a sewer.

(Think I’m exaggerating? I’ve eaten fermented hake on Christmas morning, in an ex-girlfriend’s village. What have you done for humanity lately?)

And about the wine thing…

The Mediterranean produces millions of liters of wine every year, which means you can get it anywhere and everywhere.

expat life in madrid spain
In many parts of my neighborhood, time seems to have stopped around the year 1959. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Americans see a bottle of wine and start thinking all kinds of high-culture thoughts… Oh, if only I could marry a famous neurosurgeon so we could afford to drink wine with dinner!

Over here, wine means something totally different. It’s just a fact of daily life – a lot of people in small towns drink something that’s homemade and not very good.

A lot of small town people I know buy wine in 5-litre jugs from a neighboring farmer. Some then water it down before drinking. Nobody had to marry a neurosurgeon to make that happen – it’s cheap and local and doesn’t make you go blind.

Bottoms up!

Europeans may eat better than Americans for a number of reasons, but they’re mostly not foodies in the pretentious American sense. They’re just eating the available local products, grown by local farmers or produced by local artisans.

Also, some of it would probably horrify your foodie sensibilities. You should see the stack of pig heads at my local casquería.

Which brings us to…

Exhibit 3: The Arts

With regard to artistic accomplishments, it’s true that Europe is simply full of all kinds of beautiful art and architecture.


Because they’ve been making such things for, oh, let’s say a couple of millennia longer than Americans have.

Some of the most impressive buildings in Madrid were built before American independence, and you can’t take a day-trip anywhere without finding churches, monasteries or ancient ruins of some type that were built long before Columbus was born.

Many places (like Mérida, Extremadura) have monuments going all the way back to Roman times. That’s two thousand years or more!

American art and culture are still – comparatively – in their infancy, so if you can drive around Toledo, Ohio all day without running into anything of artistic value, that’s why. Just try doing the same in Toledo, Spain.

In any case, I suspect that many or most of your average Europeans haven’t been inside a museum since they were taken there on a high school field trip.

Because, as I previously mentioned…

Exhibit 4: Euro-Rednecks

Go to any small town in Europe and talk to people for a few days (you’ll probably have to learn their language first) and you’ll notice the inescapable fact that a lot of them are like small-town folk anywhere else.

Not particularly knowledgeable about the outside world. Haven’t left their region more than a few times in their lives. Conservative or strongly religious or both.

They have their small Old World lives like their parents and grandparents had. They drive tractors or wander around behind a flock of sheep. They’ve never spent a semester lecturing at the Sorbonne or painting portraits of Countesses in Florence.

They’re the Europeans Woody Allen seems to pass over in his films.

I always remember a trip to Cuenca (about two hours to the east of Madrid) a few summers ago. There’s a hill next to the city with a figure of Christ on the top, and I wanted to walk up to see the view.

I stopped an old man on the edge of town. He was hobbling down the street bent over a cane. He was 90 years old if he as a day. I asked him the best way to walk up the hill and he said, “Oh, I don’t know. Lived here my whole life, but I’ve never been up there!”

That’s Europe, folks. It’s great, but it ain’t no Woody Allen movie.


Mr Chorizo.

P.S. See also: American Ignorance. It’s my belief that we’re all ignorant about more than 99% of everything. So why blame others for not knowing about the 2 or 3 things we know about?

P.P.S. Foodies! Want to come to my house for some tripe stew and table wine? Or maybe some lentils with pig foot? It’ll knock the pretentiousness right outta ya, I promise. Let me know in the comments…

P.P.P.S. I followed this one up (years later) with a new article about European stereotypes revisited. You might like that one, too. Enjoy!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. This entire post might as well be “American stereotypes a continent with 700 million people and then is shocked they aren’t all refined opera watching. suit wearing, concerto-composing individuals”.

    Jesus Christ is this one of the more retarded american blog posts I’ve read in a while. Which – incidentally – reinforces the American stereotype on this side of the pond.

    1. The point was to talk about some typical American stereotypes of Europe, not to write a sociological treatise.

      Anyway, a lot of people apparently don’t understand any sort of irony that goes beyond LOLcats. And life goes on. Have a nice day!

  2. The point was to talk about some typical American stereotypes of Europe, not to write a sociological treatise.

    Anyway, a lot of people apparently don’t understand any sort of irony that goes beyond LOLcats. And life goes on. Have a nice day!

  3. I hear that from some pretentious little narrow-minded bloke from a city of many millions. Good way to generalize all Europe into Greece, Italy, Spain, Norway – perhaps the only things Americans can fathom what is Europe. People in general ar much more similar than different, and you cannot judge about all Europe from few touristy trips you claim you have done.

    Also lets ignore the fact that Education is much better than in scammerversities in US. I have always had hard time finding any young bloke who is overly fat, ignorant and speaks only one language, be it Poland, Montenegro or anything that is not British isles, Spain and Hungary. If you have ever been to any non-mainstream cultural event in Europe which is not infested by pretentious Britons and American hipsters, wyou would know that people do not get blindly drunk and do not shake uncontrollably to watered down parody of what once was supposed to be music.

    Keep doing what you do. Buy yourself a bottle of wine and keep being deeply ignorant of others. I’ve heard people are good at it there.

  4. Thank you for this article! I am an American (yes, that is the correct term regardless of what some claim… but that argument is for another day :-)) married to a Spaniard. I have been traveling to Spain every year for the past 15 years, and now we will be moving there to live for the next 3 years (hence my interest in this article and your blog).

    When I first started visiting Spain, I was like you implied in your article, a bit intimidated and feeling very uncivilized. In fact, I underestimated the area that I grew up in (Washington, DC), thinking that it couldn’t compare to a European city. Well, I’ve done just fine showing that an American can be just as “sophisticated” as any European. (I have learned that the main area that I am lacking is gracefulness while deboning a fish, something an American rarely has to do (now there’s a topic for another article!) Granted, some of the things I do in the U.S. would never be useful in Spain, so I consider that a wash.)

    Now I realize that people are the same in many countries around the globe — there are rich people, poor people, rude people, kind people, sophisticated people, “rednecks”, and so on. I’ve found that as long as one is clever, observant, respectful and open-minded, one can fit in anywhere.

  5. Great post, Daniel! Coming from small-town America, I assumed that Spaniards and other Europeans would be much more aware of cultural significance, historical events, art, etc. But alas, proximity does not a scholar make.

    Spitting on the streets and not stopping at crosswalks likewise are also not included in my definition of “civilized,” although I find a lot of that here. And my personal favorite: city-dwellers who leave dog excrement in parks, on streets, etc, are just about the most inconsiderate people I can think of. Of course there are others who pick up after their pets, but there are plenty of other “uncivilized” people who don’t.

  6. Estimado Señor Welsch:

    No sé si se acuerda de mí pero le escribí hace unos meses sobre algunas acotaciones sobre sus artículos. Nuevamente le felicito por su blog porque ser nihilista e inconformista siempre ha sido un rasgo que he elogiado en los individuos. El pensar y hacer pensar es la base de la civilización occidental. Como ve le escribo en la lengua de Cervantes porque, aunque hablo perfectamente su idioma, considero que está en España y se expresa usted con matrícula de honor. Le vuelvo a recordar que hablo siete idiomas europeos. Entremos en el motivo de mi misiva…

    Mire me gusta su tono y considero que usted es muy inteligente, pero el tema de esta entrada me parece muy pueril pero provocativo, ésto último se lo elogio. Hay un refrán muy castellano que dice: “Las comparaciones son siempre odiosas” y estimo que es como comparar la fabada asturiana con las lentejas a la burgalesa, ¿cuál es mejor? pues le respondo con otro refrán también muy castellano: “Entre gustos y colores no han escrito los autores”. Como verá es entrar en una diatriba inútil. Desde luego que los europeos no hemos matado 3000 años pero ¿usted no ha pensado que en sus 218 años de historia han demostrado al mundo de ser igual o peor que cualquier nación del mundo? Les recuerdo sus dos bombas atómicas… Con ésto no quiero entrar en una discusión si somos más o menos malos, no, simplemente que hemos tenido más milenios para demostrar lo peor de nuestros estados. Espero equivocarme pero los Estados Unidos están gobernados por seres humanos igualitos que las demás naciones, y cometerán muchos errores. La diferencia es que ustedes no conocen ese horror y nosotros luchamos para que no se repita. No obstante, su país se formó con la emigración de todo el planeta y su sistema político no es el más idílico del planeta. Como todo es imperfecto. Como ve digo verdades de peregrullo (obvias), estereotipos que se perpetúan y que sólo llevan al no entenderse, a la ignorancia y a la ignominia de la persona. Y, desde luego, campesinos paletos, cerrados e incultos los hay en ambas riveras del Atlántico. Pero hay una pequeña diferencia Señor Welsch, mientras que la mayoría de los estadounidenses sólo conocen más historia que la de su propio país, los europeos tienden a ser más universales y a conocer más de los acontecimientos, geografía, etc, del resto del planeta. En Europa se enseñan más del mundo que le rodea que al contrario que en su nación. Yo he estudiado su historia, su cultura y sus bases filosóficas en la escuela y en la secundaria. Pero incluso esta afirmación no se puede poner como una axioma ya que en el Viejo Continente hay muchos estratos de población muy diferenciados. No es igual un urbanita de un campesino, no es igual el sur de Europa que el norte del mismo. Este rasgo es aplicable a su país: no es igual la población de de las grandes ciudades de las Costas Este y Oeste que las ciudades medias del Medio Oeste, etc. Como ve entiendo su reflexión pero es inútil salir victorioso en las argumentaciones finales.

    Sin más me despido y le vuelvo a felicitar por su blog. No deje de ser, y perdone mi tono ya que es un modismo muy castizo, un grano en el trasero ajeno. Se necesitan más personas vivaces que obliguen a pensar a las masas adormecidas.



  7. Hola Carlos, muchas gracias por su comentario tan amable. Está claro que escribí este artículo más para ser “un grano en el trasero ajeno” que otra cosa. Muchas veces mi intención aquí es provocar, o simplemente entretenerme. Y efectivamente, tiene cierta razón con lo que dice de EEUU. Pero con este artículo pretendía más que nada informar a mis lectores americanos que la vida europea es, a veces, muy distinta a lo que se ve en las películas de Woody Allen y cosas así. Buenas noches y ¡gracias por compartir sus ideas! Daniel.

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