In Defense of Hot Americans Botching Geography Questions on Television

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  12.21.07 | 12:29 PM ET


Well, sort of. I’m not going to say that Miss Teen South Carolina’s near-incoherent ramble about education, maps, and “the Iraq” has been misunderstood, or that Kellie Pickler was actually referring to the recent expansion of the Schengen zone when she wondered whether Europe was a country. And I’m certainly not going to claim that I didn’t laugh out loud when I first saw those videos. But something about the vicious glee and satisfaction people around the world have gotten out of the two clips makes me want to go to bat for my fellow blondes in distress.

These two gals could stand to brush up on their geography, clearly. But couldn’t we all? A lot of outsiders have taken this as proof of the widespread ignorance of the good people of America. But how many of the Europeans snickering about Miss Teen South Carolina can even find South Carolina on a map? Or “the Iraq” for that matter? And how many of my fellow Canadians, feeling smug and superior while watching Kellie Pickler flounder around, can name all 13 provincial and territorial capitals in their own country?

My point is, there’s a little Kellie Pickler in all of us. I normally ace the geography section at pub quiz nights, but there are parts of the world that I just pray don’t come up: South America, for one, and the Balkans, West Africa, the South Pacific… So next time you see a hot American botching a geography question on television, by all means have a good laugh. But then use it as motivation to do some studying-up yourself—after all, we could all use a little more quality time with our atlases.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

13 Comments for In Defense of Hot Americans Botching Geography Questions on Television

Jim Benning 12.21.07 | 1:30 PM ET

That’s the holiday spirit, Eva!

Mike 12.21.07 | 2:46 PM ET

Right on, Eva!

Joanna Kakissis 12.21.07 | 3:04 PM ET

Very nice post, Eva. In Greece, I get upset when people dump on “You Americans” (i.e. me) who cannot find “the Iraq you’re bombing” on a map and yet those very Greeks think Minnesota is in Canada, California is a city, and “do you know my cousin who lives in New York?” (Because it’s so close to Minnesota, ya know).

But as a related and probably unpopular note, I may have been in the minority on the “travel dealbreaker discussion” but I don’t like harshing on travel companions for their ignorance, lack of finesse/taste/hiking boots, or whatever. I think your argument about “distressed blondes” also applies to travel dorks.

Sure, there probably is a little Kellie Pickler in all of us but there’s also a crappy traveller too. I’ve done stupid things while traveling. So have my dearest friends, including a very seasoned and cultured traveller who did the unthinkable in rural Crete—he angrily insulted a mother’s cooking TO HER SON and so embarrassed me that I wanted to leave the village that night.

But I still want to travel with him. He had a bad moment (and he later apologized). We probably have all done stupid and grating things while traveling. I get sad thinking that travel has to be reduced to dealbreakers—you’re dumped because you’re irritate or embarrass me and now my travel experience will be ruined.

Blame on the fact that I’ve been watching too many Baby Jesus movies on the limited Greek tv programming, but shouldn’t we be more tolerant than that? Or at least more reflective about our own inner travel dorks?

Eva Holland 12.21.07 | 7:20 PM ET

Fair point, Joanna. I can see that there’s an element of hypocrisy in these two posts, but I do also think there’s a slight difference.

Despite the “in defence of…” headline, what I’m mainly intending to criticize here are the generalizations about Kellie Pickler and Miss South Carolina, all the bloggers out there pontificating broadly on the ignorance of the American public because of these two. It’s the public I’m really interested in defending. To be Kellie Pickler’s age, have grown up in a society with access to free education and all kinds of other opportunities, and to still somehow think that Europe is a country - that really is pretty appalling.

Whereas the “dealbreaker” thing is about specific instances. The guy who told me ruins are lame was Australian, but I’m not saying all Australians are ignorant, right? Just that I think he was wasting his money traveling in the land of ruins if he wasn’t even going to give the ancient Greeks a fair chance.

Also, if you look at most of the “dealbreaker” examples, they boil down to a travel companion who is being narrow-minded, dismissive, or reluctant to dive right in to their travel experience - “ruins are lame”, “geckos are icky”, “I don’t do shopping”, “who cares about The Last Supper” and so on. I think most of them are symptomatic of a broader attitude, rather than being the results of a bad mood - which of course, we’ve all been guilty of from time to time.

I’m rambling a little here, but one last thing - I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that these “dealbreaking” travelers are bad people, just that they aren’t the right people for me to share a trip with - clashing priorities and all that. I don’t think that’s shallow, I think it’s practical.

Joanna Kakissis 12.22.07 | 7:51 AM ET

I agree with you that the attitudes shown by the “dealbreakers” are narrow-minded and dismissive and that shows that maybe they’re not plunging into their travel experience. But we are also asking them to plunge into the travel experience on our terms, assuming that our terms are enlightened. That’s not particularly open-minded either.

For instance, I would rather take an intense hiking trip into the mountains than spend the day walking around archaeological ruins. When my sister (who’s an archaeologist) used to press me to go to see ruins in Greece when we were college students I actually did tell her (something along the lines of) “I don’t want to see a pile of rocks”—because that would have cut in what I wanted to do - hike, explore forests, talk to villagers, listen to a bunch of old men play music from instruments made out of goat stomachs, etc. etc. Am I narrowminded? Maybe. She probably still makes fun of me to her archaeologist friends. But that doesn’t mean I had any less of a fulfilling or open-minded travel experience than she did. We had (and still have) different traveling priorities.

That doesn’t prevent me from traveling with her or anyone else who has different priorities than mine. At the very least, we each do what we want and then regroup for dinner or a drink or a walk. Assuming narrowmindedness because someone orders a Bud at a far-flung bar or hates windowshopping or thinks geckos are icky unfairly cuts a person to cartoonish size. It makes for a good story, sure, but is it fair? And doesn’t it, in some small way, assume that we ourselves are illuminated, cultured, tolerant travellers?

The high heels in the woods are just stupid. But as Tambourine Man said, can’t we educate them or let the experience educate them?

This isn’t to say that I don’t love the fact that you wrote the post. It was smart and thought-provoking and that’s why I reacted. Beats watching Baby Jesus movies!!!

And I’m sure you’d kick my ass on geography if I ever wander into your quiz night. :)

Jacob the Fusiler 12.22.07 | 4:09 PM ET

Defending the United States collective image is a lost cause. If we’re not Ginger Rogers and John Wayne, or Pamela Anderson and Tom Cruise, then we’re George Bush and Kelly Pickler. I think the greatest irony is that Worldhum has, thus far, devoted two posts…not to Budapest, world geography, or America’s future…but to a highly searchable and re-energized Kelly Pickler. Whether she intended it or not, her faux pas has given her career a shot in the arm (for all the stupidity, I suspect it was slightly acted).

That kid in the video is what gives me hope, and no one has mentioned him. I don’t know about those of you who grew up in cities, but by third grade, my public school was happy if we could identify the capital of our own state. The kid in the video didn’t even hesitate for a second on a Geography question I don’t remember receiving until 7th grade. What’s HIS name.

I have to strongly disagree—I do not have a little bit of Kellie Pickler in me. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything, but I don’t glamorize that fact—and I certainly don’t use it as fodder for a failing career.

Eva Holland 12.22.07 | 11:43 PM ET

Jacob - I sure hope America is not Pam Anderson and Tom Cruise, Pam Anderson is Canadian!

Not sure why I’m in a rush to claim her - I’m going to blame the patriotic brainwashing I underwent in grade school…

Joanna - “But we are also asking them to plunge into the travel experience on our terms, assuming that our terms are enlightened.” That’s the thing, I’m not asking them to do anything to meet my terms, I’m just opting instead to travel with people whose priorities already match my own. I guess that might make me someone else’s travel dealbreaker - that girl who was too lazy to compromise with a travel buddy!

Marilyn Terrell 12.23.07 | 2:01 AM ET

I agree with Eva’s closing point, that we could all use a little quality time with our atlases.  And ironically, that was Miss Teen South Carolina’s point too, if inarticulately expressed:  the world needs more maps.  Have you seen the video of the almost-2-yr-old who happily points to every country her daddy names on her huge wall map?  She gets Argentina, New Zealand, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Fiji, Ghana,  South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, the Czech Republic, and Indonesia, but she messes up on Paraguay.  Still, pretty good for someone who can’t read yet:

Israel "izzy" Cohen 12.23.07 | 5:12 AM ET

Anthropomorphic maps were generated by configuring the body of a god or goddess over the area to be mapped. The name of each part of that body became the name of the area under that part. This produced a scale 1:1 map-without-paper on which each place name automatically indicated its approximate location and direction with respect to other place names produced in this manner on the same map.

The analysis of toponyms to find body-part maps can be computerized. Available inputs include:
(1) Geographic databases with ancient place names (e.g.,the Perseus project).
(2) Body-part names on Swadesh lists. Unfortunately, the navel is not included.

Attributes of Anthropomorphic Maps

(1) The navel is the center of the body, the center of the map, and usually the center of the map’s language community.

(2) Names are reversed, metathesized, misspelled or euphemized for various reasons:

(a) The same part in the same language exists on another map of a different body.

(b) The left (sinister) part is altered in names for left-right pairs. DoFeN = side reversed to Nafud in north Arabia. SHvK = thigh with a T-sound for the letter shin = TvK reversed to Kuwait. BeReKH = knee metathesized to Bahrain.

(c) The name is a sexual part or taboo bodily function. Semitic PoS = female pudenda (cf. p_ssy) > Hebrew yam SooF = sea of reeds (Red Sea). Sinai= “snatch” is spelled SiNi in Hebrew. The aleph = CHS is omitted.

(3) Names may be loan-translated due to conquest or language-change.

(a) Roxolania (Semitic Ro@SH = head) > Rus > Ukraine (Greek kranion) 

(b) Libya (Semitic LeB = heart) > Cyrenaica (Latin cor = heart, cf. coronary) > Libya

(4) Rivers and bodies of water may be named after bodily excretions:

(a) Milk River in Alberta.

(b) Red Sea (Latin Mare Rubrum) is Aphrodite’s menstruation.

(c) Gulf of Aqaba (Semitic QaVaH = digestion/defecation)

(5) Internal body parts may represent subdivisions of external parts.

(a) Arabic Misr / Hebrew Mitzraim (< TSaR = narrow) = waist (Hebrew MoSNaim). Egypt (< Greek hepato- = liver). Goshen (with a T-sound for shin < Semitic QiTN = bean) = bean-shaped kidney. Goshen exported Arabic QuTN = cotton > Latin Gossypium.

(b) Atlas mountains < atlas = first cervical vertebra that supports the cranium.

(6) Islands near a body’s hands may be named for weapons.

(a) Trinacria = trident (< Gk tri = three + Semitic NaKaR = to pierce) > Sicily. The trident was in Neptune / Poseidon’s right hand, Italy, like Anatolia < N’TiLas yad = arm washed (by the seas).

(b) Greece = reversal of Semitic S’RoG = (woven) net, held in his left hand.

(c) Crete = reversal of targe = small shield, also in his left hand.

The BPMaps discussion group on this topic is a very quiet list that averages about 2 messages per month. The URL is:

Israel “izzy” Cohen
BPMaps moderator

Julia Rosien 12.23.07 | 1:49 PM ET

I think it comes down to the fact there are narrow-minded, shallow and yes, dumb people everywhere, in every country.

What’s sad is that I don’t think Kelly even really cares that she projected this image to the world. Nor do her fans, who deserve a much better role model.

As far as in defense of Americans, they may have a struggling global image but Canadians claim to fame often rests on the fact that “at least we’re not American.” Nothing says confidence better than a self-image based entirely on being the less (put in your own word - evil, dumb….)

Julia Rosien

Ron Mader 12.26.07 | 10:58 AM ET

The worst geo mistakes are not made by individuals but by institutions that should know better. On the top of the list are the tourism conferences and magazines that talk up ‘North America’ and exclude Mexico.

On the bright side in the age of Web 2.0 is the TravelPod™ Traveler IQ Challenge. Anyone on Facebook can take or create a number of geo challenges.

Caitlin 12.31.07 | 3:06 PM ET

I think the issue is that the perception is that Americans, in general, are less aware of world geography than their European counterparts.  I can remember being on a remote island in Ireland and hearing from a local dairy farmer that there had been an earthquake in Los Angeles the day before. I still put “Europe” on my letters to Austria after a few too many instances of the US Postal Service sending my packages to Australia.

J 01.20.08 | 11:44 PM ET

Kellie is a fun and nice person.  She’s a good singer and is entertaining.  Why pick it all apart?  I don’t care if she acts silly sometimes.  She’s also spontaneous and not a dead stick, like some other boring has been idols.

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