Laughing At Ignorance

I went to International schools my whole life, which meant that my teachers were from all over the world. My English teacher in middle school was Irish, and I’ll never forget a story he gleefully told me in front of the whole class about what supposedly happened to him on a train over the weekend.

Chatting in English with his wife, he caught the attention of a young married American couple. They got to talking, and the couple told them about how they had always wanted to visit Italy, particularly Florence. For years they had dreamed of taking this romantic trip, and now they had managed to save up enough money and they were riding the rails to see as much of the country as they could. As they were on a Southbound train heading towards Rome, my teacher assumed that they had already stopped in Florence. “So”, he asked them, “How did you like Florence? Was it all you hoped it would be?”

“Oh”, the woman replied, “We couldn’t find it! But we stayed in a lovely place called Firenze!”

My teacher told me that he simply did not have the heart to break it to her. We all laughed uproariously, many did so at my expense given that I was the only part-American in the class, and I still remember the story to this day.

Often I doubt the veracity of these stories, simply because I cannot imagine that people could be so dense. However, if they are true, I also believe that they are definitely not American-specific phenomena. Take, for instance, this little story, which I have seen reported on a few different news outlets



Let’s all just take a moment and laugh at ignorance. When we’re done, back to the thankless job of trying to educate people one step at a time.



  1. says

    I’ve heard and seen similar things. Twenty years ago, I worked in [town redacted], in BC’s far north. Work is seasonal, loggers coming in for the winter because the ground is marshland in summer.

    Back then, there were only four TV channels: CTV, CBC English, CBC French, and CBC Inuktitut. Some of the seasonal workers would raise an ignorant stink about it. “Having TV in French is one thing, but why do do we have to hear their language?”

    Hmm, because it’s their land and a lot of people live there? Because they want to hear TV news and shows in their own tongue? Especially after decades of horrors in “residential schools” that nearly killed off the language.

  2. Chris Whitehouse says

    My friend in DeKalb, Illinois in 1983.
    “You’re going to live in Thailand? What are you going to eat? Just rice?”

    Of course, I ate far better than I had ever eaten in my entire life. And still do!

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      A Canadian friend of mine moved to Rome when she was in middle school, and it was a bit of a last minute decision on her Mother’s part given that she had been offered a job at the FAO. My friend went around to tell her friends the news. She told one of her friends that she was moving to Rome, and the other that she was moving to Italy. They talked to each other, got pissed, and confronted her. “So, which is it? Are you moving to Rome, or are you moving to Italy?”

  3. says

    Often I doubt the veracity of these stories, simply because I cannot imagine that people could be so dense.

    I don’t doubt it. When I studied in Ireland there were also many American study abroad students and while some of them were kind, lovely people who were trying to get the most out of their time in Europe and learn as much as they could there were also a big load of folks whose arrogance was only matched by their ignorance.
    Then there was the story my Irish friend told me who worked in the put at Bunratty Castle. An American tourist complimented them on the nice castle and then asked “but why did you build it so close to the motorway?”
    Or the American guy whotold my mother at a work training class “well, I can understand that you have to speak German in school and official settings like this, but surely at home you all speak English!”

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t equally ignorant and arrogant folks from all over the world, but I do think the idea of American exceptionalism makes them more frequent.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    Private Eye magazine a few years ago related the story of a national newspaper editor who sent a reporter to the Chinese capital to cover a story. The reporter rang the editor to say he’d be arriving in Beijing in a couple of hours, to which the editor allegedly responded “Great, and how long will it take you to get to Peking from there?”.

    I’m uncomfortable laughing at this sort of thing, though – I have a very wide general knowledge (a former g/f said being with me was like going out with Google), but I’m keenly aware that there are nevertheless even wider gaps in it. I learn about what I care about, and what I come across, which I’m guessing is the same for everyone. Why should a person care what the Italians call Florence? And under what circumstances might they come across that information casually? (One might reasonably say “reading a guidebook”, but I’m going to step lightly past that).

    In summary, if “ignorance” is someone else simply not knowing a fact I know, I don’t think that’s a fit thing to ridicule them for. This doesn’t, however, include facts they should have come across at school and which they’ve decided they don’t believe, like, say, evolution. Wilful ignorance is the worst.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Willful ignorance aside, the reason I would expect her to know what the Italians call Florence is because she said it was her lifelong dream to visit Florence. I think that falls under the category of “learning things [you] care about”. It wouldn’t be shocking to me if I asked a random American on the street what Florence is called in Italian and they didn’t know. But these people dreamt of going there, spent years saving to go there, it was their dream trip, and they never thought to, I don’t know, look it up? It never occurred to them that people speak Italian in Italy? It is indicative of a staggering ethnocentrism.
      An Italy-raised American friend of mine once told me of a conversation he has with an American family friend. Allegedly that person said to him “oh yea, travelling is fun and all, but the problem is that so many people speak those weird languages! If they all just spoke American, that would be OK”. Not even English, American. That kind of ignorance is the kind I laugh at, mostly because it makes me sad.

      • says

        Yeah, I think that as soon as you go there you should spend an hour and half on Wikipedia and buy a travel guide. Learn how to say “hello” and “thank you” and “how not to mortally offend the population”, because travelling around the world expecting that everybody cater to your whims (and instantaneously drop all those customs that might offend your own sensibilities) is being an arrogant ass.

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