An old stereotype holds that American women find foreign men très attractive.
Unfortunately for American men, this stereotype turns out to be true often enough. Just ask online media. Mainstream magazines and websites are full of articles, geared toward American women, that detail the finer points of dating foreign men.
For instance, there’s this piece from Glamour, entitled, “Here’s a Way To Meet All Those Guys With Sexy Foreign Accents,” this one from SheKnows with the headline, “Why Single Women Should Be Dating More Foreign Men,” and this 24.com piece simply titled, “Why Foreign Men Are Hot.”
So what is it, exactly, that make guys from abroad so irresistible to American women? And, more importantly, what is it really like to have a relationship with someone from another country?
First things first: Let’s talk accents.
As referenced in the Glamour piece above, one of the most common reasons you’ll hear for why foreign men are so attractive is that they’ve got those “hot” accents. That makes sense, in a way; would Hugh Grant have become Hugh Grant if he spoke like Anderson Cooper? In reality, though, the attractiveness of an accent probably has little to nothing to do with the way that it sounds, and everything to do with unexamined assumptions Americans often make.
One of the earliest and most fundamental findings in the field of linguistics is that our perception of accents is much more deeply connected to the social and cultural trappings we associate with them than with their objective sonic qualities. All the way back to the 1960s, linguists have used something known as the “matched-guise technique” to test listeners’ attitudes toward a given language, dialect, or accent by blindly rating them based on a certain set of criteria.
For instance, because of the United States’ early history as a part of colonial Great Britain, many Americans still tend to associate British accents with prestige, or high social status. Maybe that helps to explain why the British accent was recently named the “sexiest” in the world, at least when men use it.
What’s with the American fascination with British accents?
As Emily Ngyuen, a PhD candidate in linguistics at New York University told Glamour, “There’s a perception that British English is smarter and maybe that has to do with our idea of British people being smarter regardless of language.”
In the same way, Nguyen says, Americans’ ideas of France and Italy as being places of culture, passion, and romance can cause American women to perceive men with those accents as being more cultured, passionate, and romantic.
Point being, it seems that both for American women and foreign men, attractiveness often has more to do with perceptions and preconceived notions than it does with objective reality. Put another way: Beauty is in the eye—or the ear, as the case may be—of the beholder.
Accents aside, dating experts say that American women traveling overseas should do a little research before chatting up a local.
Social norms change from culture to culture, and a simple act of flirting in one country could be seen as offensive in another.
Dating and relationship expert Kayla Kalinski says that dating foreign men is a terrific way to understand other ways of life. However, she recommends reading up on your destination’s culture plenty before you approach a handsome stranger.
“Do your research,” Kalinski says. “Check out different travel sites and blogs to get an idea of the culture prior to your trip.”
Understanding the culture before pursuing a romantic partner does more than just protect you from an embarrassing faux pas. It can also protect you from misinterpreting a common greeting as an opening salvo in your next great love affair.
“Again, do your research to understand different gestures in different cultures,” Kalinski says. “Nothing is worse than thinking the hot guy you met at lunch was into you when he was just saying hello.”
Despite these potential pitfalls in the early stages of a cross-cultural relationship, though, Kalinski is a great supporter of international dating.
“There is no better way to experience different romantic customs than to go on a date with a local,” she says.
Meanwhile, matchmaker and relationship coach Isabel James, who splits her international lifestyle between Mexico, France, and New York City, says you should take your research to the road. She recommends reaching out to locals to learn about how romance works in other countries, online or in person.
Of course, you don’t have to go anywhere to date a man from another country. Even in this age of ambivalence toward immigration, people continue to arrive on U.S. shores. In 2015, the last year for which the Migration Policy Institute provides statistics, 1.38 million people born in other countries moved to the U.S. So even if you’re not out looking for a fascinating guy with an adorable accent, you might find one by accident—or through destiny, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Say you’re an American woman, and you find yourself falling in love with a man from another country. What happens next?
Darby Morris worked in India and China as a cultural anthropologist and an English teacher. While living abroad, she developed a unique perspective on the subject of foreign guys and American women.
Though the mystery and intrigue of dating someone who grew up in a different culture than one’s own can be an exciting and satisfying chance to learn and grow, it can also present problems, especially if things get serious, Morris suggests.
While living in China, Morris, who is American, met, dated, and eventually married a Chinese man. Ultimately, though, the relationship didn’t last, and the two divorced. According to Morris, the couple’s eventual split, “definitely had to do with cultural reasons.”
It can be tough to bridge a significant cultural divide within a romantic relationship.
“As an anthropologist I know very well that culture makes a huge difference,” she tells Urbo. “Some of these differences are more obvious than others. If a Jewish and Christian person are dating, what holiday do they celebrate: Hanukkah or Christmas? Or do they celebrate some version of both?”
These sorts of obvious differences are easy to anticipate, allowing couples to talk about them and come to a mutually-agreeable solution before they become serious problems. Other cultural differences, however, aren’t always so easy to spot—humor, for instance, says Morris.
“Each culture has its own idea of what is funny or not funny,” Morris says. “This is why jokes don’t often translate very well from one language to the next.”
And while sharing a sense of humor with your partner is certainly important when it comes to overall compatibility, Morris mentions another cultural difference that may be even more important.
“Each culture has its own interpretation of the range of emotions that are appropriate in given situations or in general,” she says. Research supports this idea.
“Here in the United States, American women stereotypically tend to be allowed to express certain emotions that are less acceptable for American men,” Morris says. “It is okay for an American woman to cry, vent, even playfully hit her partner, but none of these are acceptable for American men.”
Of course, no one is raised in a vacuum.
Social conditioning helps to determine how we express ourselves emotionally and otherwise, Morris suggests. And when she married her Chinese husband, Morris got a crash-course in cultural differences.
“From my perspective, it seemed that Japanese and Chinese women were more like American men,” she says. “They were not allowed to cry, nor were they allowed to be loud or boisterous. American women dating men of these cultures might feel like they are attempting to suppress their emotions at these two extremes in order to ‘fit in.'”
Morris’ experiences wouldn’t surprise Nangyeon Lim, author of a 2016 study published in Integrative Medicine Research. According to Lim’s research, those of us from Western, individualist cultures like the United States have a sociocultural tendency toward expressing “high-arousal” emotions. These emotions include feelings like elation, despair, excitement, rage. Meanwhile, those of us from Eastern, more collectivist cultures tend to value the “low-arousal” emotions; things like relaxation, peacefulness, and gentle sadness.
Any American woman might have a hard time suppressing the “high-arousal” emotions in a “low-arousal” culture. So there’s something to think about when pining after the mysterious man from another land.
So what’s the takeaway here?
Ultimately, while there may be a certain allure to cross-cultural relationships for American women—and these unions can certainly be excellent opportunities to connect with and learn from someone steeped in another culture, aside from simply having a good time—that attraction might not be enough to fuel a lifelong love affair. Or it might; as they used to say on the diet pill boxes, “Individual results may vary.”
In fact, while they may be initially exciting, these sorts of relationships have a very real chance of presenting certain difficulties down the line for both parties—then again, show us the relationship that doesn’t.