The Greatest Nation

You’ve guessed it, a student of mine who I meet for conversation classes went on a business trip to the States (Fargo, of all places - and he’d never even heard of the film!) and got himself into trouble. One night he walked into a pub, sat at the bar and got talking to some random guy over a beer. At some point of their conversation, the American guy came up with the phrase “We’re the greatest nation”, which my student interpreted to mean as much as ‘geographically there is no country bigger than us’. He then objected and said “I think that Canada is much greater, but the greatest of all countries is Russia”. The guy then turned away from my German friend and found himself another stool.

Of course I could explain why the guy sat somewhere else by explaining the difference between ‘great’ and ‘big’ or ‘large’, but I somehow failed to find words to convey the cultural dimension of the phrase. What could I have told him (or tell him next time I meet him)?

Hi Ralf

I think there was probably a combination of two things going on there. The first is that Americans are generally patriotic. It’s a bit like being a fervent supporter of the home team.

However, I suspect the fact that the Fargo guy moved to another seat may have resulted from something more universally true (i.e. not specific to the US):
When you are a visitor, it is generally not advisable to criticize your host. Your student’s remarks would have come off as a very direct disagreement and also as an impolite criticism. I saw this same sort of thing happen during my years in Germany. A foreigner who said something critical about Germany would often be viewed quite negatively by Germans – even though the Germans might utter the very same criticisms of Germany among themselves.

Hi guys

I think the point Amy makes about criticism from outside is valid.

This I believe comes from the fact that the “outsider” is seen as not having the base for competent or well informed criticism.

However I think it also depends on the individual.

I remember having a storming and healthy argument with a German friend of mine when I was first in Leipzig concerning the “Iron Lady”.
Unlike Ralf´s student he is fluent in English, so the disagreement was purely from perspective.
His girlfriend suggested he had no right to criticize my opinion of the politics of my own country. I saw it differently.

I also think it can depend on the subject. Politics is a safe (ish) area to discuss with me.
However anyone who blindly criticize the Rams (my football team) gets my goat :evil: , as did an Aussie observing my lesson this week.

Yeah, that’s a very good observation. You don’t like anyone peeing in your pond. The Fargo guy probably felt insulted by my student’s remark (who thought that ‘great’ meant ‘large’) maybe because he could not take the Canada comparison or the idea of a Russian threat, you never know.

Anyway, what I found very hard to get across to my student was this notion of ‘the greatest nation’. Maybe that’s because it seems quite unthinkable for most Germans to utter the phrase ‘I’m proud of my country’ or ‘I’m proud to be German’.

On 31 January 1999, I bought the English SUN tabloid newspaper, and on the front page there were 10 reasons why Britain is the best nation in the world. I remember things like ‘we ruled more countries than anyone else’, ‘we won 2 world wars and one world cup’, ‘we invented the train’ and ‘our language is spoken everywhere’.

What’s behind the phrase ‘the greatest nation’ for Americans?

I can’t speak for Americans, but I would be proud of living in America just because it is where Bill Gates was born and where Microsoft was established, which software I’m sure you’re using at this very moment. We should be grateful to Microsoft for providing us with free trial software !!

Perhaps there’s only one thing behind it:
We beat them dadburned Redcoats. :wink: :lol:

Oh! I didn’t click on your link to the conversation course until just a minute ago, Ralf.

So, it’s that guy, is it? Though I think many or most Americans will make every attempt to understand someone who is making numerous errors in English, your guy may have been making just too many. The perceived insult that America was not “great” may have simply been the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.

I always find it strange when US Americans say to me “We are the greatest nation on earth”. I feel like asking where, apart from on earth, we could find nations. :roll:

Oops, I made a mistake. The paper I bought was the pre-millennium edition; [color=darkblue]31 December 1999…

Things may be changing in Wapping.


I fail to see the discrepancy. They say that of all nations ever lived on earth they represent the greatest one.

Wow! Is it true? Are they?

Hi Ralf

Can you seriously take the notion of the greatness of Britain from the gutter press of the Sun? That is like taking the Bild newspaper and saying something similiar

You don´t really take this argument anywhere;

How about reading Paxmans “The English” for a different perspective.
I think we need to balance this view a little, don´t you.

It is true that the Sun and the Bild are the biggest sellers of trash in England and Germany respectively. But this observation you let hang is not really accurate. Especially as you let it follow this point;

I wonder why?
It could be implied that you are saying the Sun is the voice of the English, as then is the Bild just so for the Germans. And I really would not be surprised to see such nonsense as you quote in either rag.

As for your observation of Germans. I think it does have some truth in it. But you should try working in Apolda and dealing with real skin heads, where they believed that Germany would be greater if it wasn´t for all foreigners polluting their true blood.

I think when it comes to the English, we are more of a complex animal than you or some see us. Civilized barbarians we have much to be ashamed and praiseworthy of.

And many English see themsleves as great or, and clapped out. Two sides of a bad coin maybe.

The English are a people without any real nation as such. Look at the government (British), the flags, the Euro and US relationship, the sports teams swinging between British and English.

If you could get a peoples notion for themselves from one tabloid newspaper, then are life would be a little more black and white or discoloured yellow.

It is interesting you bought an “English newspaper” that was selling a notion of the Greatness of Britain. Just this notion has many nuances.

Hi Stew,

For whatever reason you chose to interpret what I wrote the way you did is up to you. Maybe you should bear in mind what you wrote earlier.

Sorry I touched on your national pride. Not my intention.

hi Ralf

An intention you do not declare in your observation. Of course my interpretation is down to me, but can there not lie anything in what you choose to write.

And as for my own comment, I am not saying you can not criticize the English, why would I. :smiley: And your not a complete outsider if thats what you interpret from my comments. Can a Liverpool fan really be so? :?
What I said I bear in mind. But does not mean I can not question the statements made.

Showing different sides or observations is a part of debate, not anything to do with your perception of “pricked” national pride. :twisted:

Maybe we all should bear in mind what we choose to write, and see possibilites of interpretation :!:

Maybe people shouldn’t be thinking like this anymore. I heard more than half of London is own by Indians. Some say it is just the law of nature. The British ruled India for 40 years, taking and taking and living on its richness.

I guess, what goes around, comes around?

But what did they give in return?

Hi Ninazara

If people should not be thinking like the Sun, then how about your outdated statement?

Also as I made clear you can not allow the Sun or Ralf´s quote from this type of paper become a reflection of the view of the people.

Did I say that? Maybe next time I should say “some people” so that I won’t make some people sore.

Stew’s a bit moody today.