The Cultural Cringe is an internalized inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries. A country with a cultural cringe will tend to discount a lot of its own culture, and embrace another country's 'better' culture instead. In fact, it's not uncommon for people suffering from Cultural Cringe to disavow that there is a national culture at all. Cross-reference How to recognize that you're an American and the various spin-off lists for other countries.
The Trope Namer and Trope Codifier is Australian literary critic and social commentator A. A. Phillips, who coined the term in his 1950 essay "A.A. Phillips on The Cultural Cringe", where he observed this behavior - specifically Australian feelings of inferiority towards Britain - in rampant abundance among his contemporary fellow Australians. (This is also why it's a part of Australia's Useful Notes, along with Tall Poppy Syndrome.) This trope is at least Older Than Radio, though, enough so that among the people Gilbert and Sullivan felt "would not be missed" was:
Compare Internalized Categorism, where the character starts hating themselves for being a part of a culture perceived by others as "bad", rather then merely seeing their culture as inferior to other cultures. See also Boomerang Bigot, where the character might feel anything from their ethnicity to their species is inferior, rather than feeling their country and its culture specifically is inferior, in comparison to another country and its culture. See also Cultural Rebel, who may or may not suffer from this trope. Also compare Cargo Cult. Compare Stop Being Stereotypical, as something unique to a specific culture can end up being viewed as a stereotype by members of that culture. Contrast Cultural Posturing. Often combined with a Foreign Culture Fetish.
- 1 Cultural Cringe by country
- 1.1 The Cringe in Australia
- 1.2 The Cringe in Germany
- 1.3 The Cringe in the United States
- 1.4 The Cringe in Canada
- 1.5 The Cringe in Mexico
- 1.6 The Cringe in Russia
- 1.7 The Cringe in Britain
- 1.8 The Cringe in New Zealand
- 1.9 The Cringe in China
- 1.10 The Cringe in Japan
- 1.11 The Cringe in the Philippines
- 1.12 The Cringe in Israel
- 2 Changes in the Cringe
Cultural Cringe by country
The Cringe in Australia
Australia has a grand history of poetry (like Banjo Paterson), painting (Sidney Nolan), classical music (Percy Grainger/Dame Joan Sutherland), television (Homicide), film (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and architecture (Sydney Opera House (even though it was designed by a Dane...)), but most Australians would not know much about it, and, even if they do, well, "Europeans and Americans do it just so much better". Only the really popular stuff gets excluded: Muriel's Wedding, The Castle and Strictly Ballroom are great Aussie films, Breaker Morant, Shine and the still-rather-popular Moulin Rouge aren't. Unfortunately, this results in Catch-22s with Australian media: no one watches or reads it because they think it's not going to be good, and no one wants to produce it because no one will watch it. The hardest hit by this would be Australian films, which are almost completely overlooked unless they become hits overseas.
Some say that the Cringe seems to be disappearing in Australia. Younger generations (X and Y) don't appear to suffer as much from the cringe, or at least not consciously. Many among them find the lack or and/or perceived lower quality of local artistic product to be mystifying, and are very supportive of it when it is genuinely appealing. Not bad when many of their grandparents still refer to England as "Home".
Funnily enough, this didn't happen with Australian popular music. Bands like ACDC grew in the 'pub rock' scene of the 70s and early 80s, with many notable Australian artists such as Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors, and Cold Chisel being phenomenally popular within Australia but virtually unheard of elsewhere.
The Cringe in Germany
See: Those Wacky Nazis.
The Cringe in the United States
Over the past few centuries, the United States has struggled with a Cultural Cringe of its own. In its early years, this Cringe manifested in a "colonial mentality" towards Britain. Benjamin Franklin went as far as to apologise to the Scottish philosopher David Hume for using what were then Americanisms in a pamphlet (including "colonize" and "unshakable").
As time went on, Americans moved away from regarding British culture as setting the standard, although foreign plaudits have grown quite strong in many aspects of modern American culture—one common claim being that the United States has no unique history or culture, and that all of it was stolen from elsewhere. Foreign media and pop culture (particularly Japanese and British) are regarded as superior to American varieties; American television, be it news or entertainment, is commonly damned by many Americans as unoriginal, cheap, vapid, and sensationalistic. Watching foreign films as opposed to Hollywood movies is seen as a mark of having better education. American automobiles are also regarded as inferior to foreign ones—Japanese cars are considered better in terms of efficiency and European cars better in terms of quality.
American self-image has also struggled in recent years. In social situations with foreigners, it's not uncommon for Americans to refer to their country as if it were Eagle Land Flavor #2 (in other words, the "brainless obese barbarians" flavor) and express loathing for their countrymen. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done even more damage to America's reputation and further cemented the stereotype of Americans as violent and unintelligent.
This low sense of self-worth is also appearing in American media; National Stereotyping Tropes like America Saves the Day are not simply being averted, but brutally and humiliatingly subverted more often, and have America be a Failure Hero (for example, the plots of Modern Warfare and the Red Alert and Generals series of Command & Conquer, where the U.S. causes problems or makes them worse, leaving heroes of other countries to clean up the mess).
The Cringe in Canada
Canada's Cultural Cringe is more typically known among Canadian commentators as simply an inferiority complex. Regardless, Canada's cultural position between the United States and the British Empire has long given it a cringe issue, leading to jokes like:
Q: How many Canadians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: All of them, because no one wants to go first.
The Canadian Cultural Cringe was observed by Canadian playwright Merrill Denison, in his 1949 address to the Empire Club of Canada, That Inferiority Complex. He noted that Canadians gave little attention to domestic media, instead putting American or other foreign works on display, and observed that Canadians believed they had no culture or national identity worth expressing. This also extended to inventions or contributions to industry: "In the United States, such contributions to material progress would have been proudly recognized as national achievements and made part of the lore of every school child--in Canada they remained unknown or ignored."
During the 1970s, Canadian legislation tried to force a break in the Cultural Cringe, requiring radio and television broadcasters to air a percentage of domestically produced content, or content that is culturally Canadian. For radio stations, this is known as the MAPL system. While it was intended to promote Canadian cultural awareness and self-image, a number of radio stations sectioned off the required airtime with disparaging labels like the "beaver hour" or "beaver bin." As Canadian music grew in commercial popularity, this practice faded.
The Cringe in Mexico
Although probably every Third World Country suffers from the Cringe, in Mexico's case having more than a thousand miles of a shared border with *THE* world's biggest economic, military, and culturally hegemonic superpower certainly doesn't help. The sting is not lessened by that border's history. In fact the Cringe is so exacerbated that it gets its very own word: Malinchismo, which doesn't exist anywhere else in the Spanish speaking world.* 
The Cringe in Russia
Russia has also long struggled with a Cultural Cringe. Up to this day, the country's intelligentsia proudly upholds a 200-year old tradition of scorning their country's "backward" culture and "atrocious history" and their people's "brutish" mores while literally gushing about the "civilized", "democratic" and "tolerant" West. To cite an infamous example: in The Nineties, Vladimir Pozner, a then-popular talk show host, suggested that the country's history and culture would have gone the "right way" if the country had adopted Protestantism as a state religion... back in 988. What's interesting, while Pozner isn't really Russian (he's half-French and have spent much of his life in France), this position is very widespread in the educated circles. On the other hand, they're also Slavophiles, who're just as bad.
The aforementioned tradition may be older than 200 years. Fast Westernization that started under Peter the Great, cultural distance between landowners and serfs, and willing inclusion of foreign families into the Russian ruling class led to the situation where members of Russian noble families did not speak Russian. Books and conversations were in French, which explains the first pages of War and Peace. During Napoleonic wars, this suddenly became unpatriotic, and many young men and women started to take lessons from their family serfs.
A somewhat more mainstream view is that something is not quite right with the modern Russian society and/or culture, but people tend to have huge disagreements as to when exactly it "all went wrong". The most widely discussed positions are "If only the Soviet Union never broke up" and "If only the October Revolution never happened", but it is possible to find Russians arguing for pretty much every turning point in Russian history, from the invitation of the Viking prince Rurik to the lands of the East Slavs in 862 to the disappointing performance of Russian football and winter Olympic teams in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
The Cringe in Britain
The British have a Cultural Cringe that's been running for centuries, particularly in regard with continental Europe. Many among the British have felt that Europe had a more sophisticated level of high culture. That's the reason 18th century English aristocrats went off on the Grand Tour to France and Italy, with Laurence Sterne ironically commenting at the beginning of his A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy that "they order these things" better there.
In more modern times, a belief has arisen in some quarters that the United States "does" pop culture like television and movies better, with extravagant praise for series like The Wire (which was, of course, highly praised in the States too). The perception is that American movies and TV will always have a bigger budget and glossier production values and British Brevity is a result of having too little money to make 'proper' TV shows (see this bit from Screenwipe where Charlie Brooker shows an American focus group some British TV and can barely contain his embarassment). And the long-held belief that Brits have a more sophisticated sense of humour than Americans has been eroded by the importing of shows like The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm. British actors, directors, musicians and comedians are only really thought to have "made it" if they are known in the USA too. This is one reason why people like John Lennon, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Nolan, Kate Winslet, Eddie Izzard, John Cleese etc. are so beloved in the UK; Americans like them too!
The modern issues with British self-image can be summed up as "We used to be better at this." The United Kingdom used to be a global superpower and sparked the Industrial Revolution during that time. As such, many modern British believe that the United Kingdom once produced the world's greatest art, music, and engineering projects, but no longer is the world leader in any of those fields. It was a British philosopher, Roger Scruton, who in 2004 first repurposed the term oikophobia (literally "fear of one's own household") as a synonym for Cultural Cringe.
That the United Kingdom is still a leading European power in most of the big political clubs, producing notable advances in several academic spheres, acting as a global financial hub and having the world's 6th largest manufacturing industry comes off a let-down when compared to past glories. However, those past glories are themselves a source of Cultural Cringe as the British Empire was formed on conquest, colonialism, violence, and racism. As British comedian John Oliver (of The Daily Show fame) mentioned, it's hard to feel guilty every time you walk into a museum.
Despite all this, the cringe is rarely so potent that a Brit will allow others to join in. Brits will still display their Patriotic Fervor should someone insult the United Kingdom.
The Cringe in New Zealand
This has particularly been the case in New Zealand outside of the sports arena, where anti-intellectualism has been a long tradition. Many actors, musicians, writers, and other talented New Zealanders have often been ignored in their home country - that is, until the Americans and British start developing a fan base. The 'Maori renaissance' since the 1980s has also left mainstream New Zealand culture unsure of its place in modern New Zealand, to the point where accusations of Political Correctness Gone Mad are common.
- The Flight of the Conchords are a case in point - rejected by national broadcasters, they went to America and made it big. Only then did NZ broadcasters take notice.
- Public broadcasting as a whole has been accused of this since the late 1980s, and not without justifcation.
- Split Enz, the first New Zealand rock band to make it big globally, relocated to Australia, and later Britain, in the 1970s and 1980s to achieve global exposure, only to later return to New Zealand for good as successful solo artists.
- Initially averted with comedian John Clarke with his popular alter ego "Fred Dagg" on TV in the 1970s, but later played straight when his show was cancelled and he booked a one-way ticket to Australia at the end of the decade.
Cultural cringe in New Zealand is also prevalent in the economic debate, especially since the loss of guaranteed exports to Britain in 1973, and the subsequent upheaval of economic deregulation in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Many New Zealanders of a free-market persuasion point to their country's position near the top of the OECD in the 1950s, and what they see as the subsequent decline. They commonly cite the 'brain drain' of highly-skilled New Zealanders for 'greener pastures' overseas and the fear of NZ joining the ranks of the Third World, as justification for further deregulation. They also point the finger at Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Those on the other side of the debate typically accuse the economic rationalists of cargo-cultism and expecting Uncle Sam to come to New Zealand's rescue, with a case in point being NZ's anti-nuclear stance with the US. They also point to many of the aforementioned high-skilled New Zealanders returning home after a stint overseas, while still acknowledging the brain-drain.
Yet there have been notable aversions. Comedian Billy T James pushed many envelopes in his day, and much of it attributable to his self-deprecating Maori humour. Sadly it didn't last, after his heart stopped beating in 1991. More recently, Peter Jackson has made it big with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, after a period of indie film-making to build up his reputation.
The Cringe in China
The government of China is widely viewed as corrupt and greedy. There's the Tienanmen Square protests, which are often downplayed or denied by the Chinese government. There's also incontestable confiscation of land by the government. Embarrassment toward the government in China has gotten so strong that when US Ambassador Gary Locke arrived in China, he became an instant celebrity simply because he carried his own things rather than having an entourage of assistants do it for him. The Chinese are used to seeing their government officials, even minor ones, being rich and able to get away with whatever they want. This also goes for their children. It's gotten so bad that when Zhang Xuping murdered a corrupt Communist Party official, he was widely hailed as a hero.
The Cultural Revolution was an extreme manifestation of China's Cultural Cringe. The Revolution involved the destruction of symbols of old Chinese culture, such as plays and paintings, the closure of schools, and the suppression of "counter-revolutionaries." The widespread death and destruction brought about by the Revolution, as well as the poorly-thought-out policies that accompanied it, have become a new source of the Cringe in China.
China is also heavily polluted and overcrowded. Many of its people work in intolerable sweatshop conditions. Chinese parents are also starting to turn against China's Education Mama culture. The book A Good Mom is Better Than a Good Teacher spent quite some time on the bestseller list.
There are also divisions by region and language. A viral video of a subway argument illustrates the disputes between the people of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese. Some Hong Kongers see mainlanders as rude and unrefined. Some mainlanders believe that Hong Kongers are snooty and unpatriotic because they often speak poor Mandarin and follow British cultural norms leftover from their days as a colony. There are also disputes between the wealthier, urbanized coastal regions and the poorer, rural interior regions. Some coastal Chinese view rural areas as the place where the embarrassing parts of old China, such as superstition and sexism, persist. In return, rural Chinese resent the coastal Chinese for their prosperity and perceived preferential treatment by the government.
The Cringe in Japan
As noted below, Japan has a relatively low sense of national pride. Much of this comes from Japan's desire to modernize in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which resulted in them importing technology and culture from the West. Symbols of their old culture were seen as embarrassing. For example, in 1863, a group of Japanese students visited a theater in Holland, wearing hats to cover their topknots. As hats weren't allowed in the theater, the students were forced to take them off. Their hairstyles caused the audience to burst out laughing and the play had to be stopped early. As Japan sought to modernize, many Japanese began wearing Western clothing and hairstyles in the hopes of toning down the feudalism of their old culture. The Emperor cut his own topknot in 1873 and banned topknots for all Japanese except sumo wrestlers in 1876 [dead link]. And speaking of sumo wrestlers, some younger wrestlers have lobbied to exchange the traditional mawashi for outfits that more closely resemble shorts.
Another source of the cringe is the human rights violations of the Japanese military in Korea and China during the early twentieth century. School textbooks have sought to downplay these atrocities and some Japanese nationalists refuse to acknowledge that they ever happened. While the Japanese government has never officially apologized, individual politicians, including some Prime Ministers, have. This usually does not negatively affect their careers. Also, it's not hard to find Japanese actors willing to act as villains in Chinese or Korean movies about Imperial Japan during World War 2.
The Cringe in the Philippines
The Cringe in the Philippines comes from centuries of rule by foreign powers. Filipinos have often tried to imitate the culture and appearance of whatever empire was ruling over them at the time. An old urban legend states that Filipinos used to pinch their noses with clothes hangers to look more like the Spanish. Even today, Spanish names are common in the Philippines and 90% of Filipinos are Christian. Indigenous religions have almost completely faded away.
Chinese and Western (particularly American) culture have also become marks of status. Early Filipino films centered on American lifestyles and Western subject matters, such as the European medieval era. Many Filipinos pride themselves on their ability to speak English or Chinese (the less accent the better), embracing Chinese or Western culture, visiting these countries, or having foreign-looking features such as lighter skin. Check out the celebrities section of the Philippines page and see for yourself how many of the country's most famous celebrities are light-skinned or foreign-looking. Products like skin-whitening soap are popular. A Filipina-American discusses this belief here. See also But Not Too Black.
The Cringe in Israel
The Cringe in Israel originates in the fact that it is a very small, young country. There's been a long movement in favour of domestic arts (and has produced some great work), but it's mostly associated with "Isra-fab" arsim and freichot. It's a common cliché that anyone seen wearing clothes with Hebrew writing is a tourist, surprisingly for a country with such a strong sense of national unity. Even national media has tended to overwhelmingly embrace American culture rather indiscriminately: Community is extremely popular, but so are the Black Eyed Peas.
Changes in the Cringe
This survey conducted by the Reputation Institute shows how Cultural Cringe among nations has changed in recent years; it appears now that Canadians and Australians lead the pack for those who have the most Patriotic Fervor for their country, while Americans (who are traditionally mocked for having "a flag on every building") are actually in the middle of the pack, near Russia in terms of national pride. Japan, it seems, is the country that now suffers most from the Cringe. Further details on the study can be found here.
It's important to note that none of the counties in that study put themselves below 50, suggesting that even with the cringe, on average most people everywhere have a respect for their country.
- Useful Note: "Malinchismo" refers to "La Malinche," a woman about whom Mexicans have very mixed feelings to say the least. She was minor noble of one of the native tribes, who became conquistador Hernan Cortes' mistress, and served as translator for his party with the tribes that they met. Add up Mexico's history of getting pushed around by whites, and the country's uncomfortable stance on its Indians, who remain the lowest social/racial class, and you'll get an idea of why they hate her, and what that word means.