Americans aren’t always well-received when traveling. On my first trip to Europe years ago, an uncle advised me to use my Minnesota accent to my benefit, and tell those I met on the road that I was Canadian–for my own safety. As someone who despises inauthenticity, there was no way I could embrace that well-meaning advice.
Instead, I committed myself to being a good traveler — which is very different from being a tourist.
The whole concept of the Ugly American is a bitter pill to swallow, because we are good people and it’s a terrible stereotype. Yet, when you become a traveler, you begin to see our culture from different perspectives — and it’s easier to understand the reasons why some might not be so keen on befriending us. As a country, we consume a disproportionate amount of the Earth’s resources. Our politics affect the rest of the world, yet as a people we know little about the ramifications of our decisions for other countries. When we travel, many of us expect to have an Americanized experience: four star hotels, gourmet food, door-to-door car service and people who speak English; and the world has risen to meet these demands. The result: many Americans who travel never get the immersive lessons necessary to create fundamental change and deeper understanding within themselves, must less to have a rich travel experience.
But the term Ugly American also stems from our behavior when we are in other countries — things we tend to do that, while culturally acceptable here, are off-putting to people of other cultures. As individuals, there may not be much we can do to change our world politics. But we can change ourselves to show the world that not all of us fit the stereotype.
Here are six tips to help you avoid being an Ugly American:
1. Learn at least a few words in the local language to be polite. If you have more time to prepare, learn as much as possible. This shows respect for the culture and its people, and any effort is always appreciated, even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, or you don’t conjugate your verbs correctly. Learn “please” and “thank you” at the very, very least.
2. Dress appropriately. Americans tend to want to be comfortable, and some of us resort to stretchy pants, sneakers and baggy sweatshirts. Yet when you dress well, people treat you differently. Why? Because the way you dress communicates how much you respect you have for that experience.
Dressing appropriately for a situation and a culture can be tricky business. In general, this requires us to elevate our clothing choices. Skip the fanny pack. Upgrade your sneakers to a dressier, yet still sensible walking shoe. Put the jeans away and go for a nice pant or dress. Be aware of the local customs – in many places, dressing too casually is indeed a sign of disrespect. Cover your shoulders in cathedrals, wear skirts that hit at the knee or lower and eschew the daisy dukes. Now, if you’re digging wells in a developing nation, you would want to wear the standard well-digging garb for that country. But do your research: a sports bra and running shorts can be considered scandalous, and modesty is always in fashion.
3. Be mindful of how you talk. As a people, Americans tend to be loud. Although our speech habits differ regionally throughout our own country, in general, we are prone to interrupting others, barging our way into conversations and laughing uproariously. This was how I was raised. So imagine my surprise when I began taking trains in Europe and everyone was speaking in low voices, or not at all! I remember needing to buy film in Paris, and practicing the sentence I knew I would have to say, over and over in my head. When I got to the counter, I was so focused on the challenge of speaking that sentence, I inadvertently interrupted a customer, and probably blurted the equivalent of “Where is the film?” In our country, that’s no big deal. That’s how we talk: we’re typically in a hurry with little time for social graces. In other cultures, that’s flat out rude. During this particular incident the cashier looked taken aback, and I learned a valuable lesson. Be patient. Watch your volume (particularly when speaking English to someone who finds it difficult to understand – being louder doesn’t make it easier), Watch your speed of speech. Be polite. Say hello before launching into your demands. And if you’re still buying film, it might be time to go camera shopping.
4. Open yourself to new experiences. Don’t leave home and expect the rest of the world to have the same comforts–instead, embrace the local experience. Most of us lead pretty pampered lives in our country, compared to the rest of the world. And chances are if you have the resources to travel, there isn’t much you’ve gone without. In other countries, electricity can be expensive or hard to come by, so you may not find central air conditioning, or clothes dryers, or giant refrigerators. The local market may not have your brand of shampoo or aspirin. Maybe the bed doesn’t have a blanket on it, or there are ants in the house you’ve rented or geckos on your hotel wall. All of these situations have happened to me. Maybe it wasn’t what I had hoped for or expected, but it expanded my experience. Why go to another country and eat at the chain restaurants you frequent while home? Why stay at a hotel chain you can stay at in the states? If what you want is an American experience, stay stateside. If what you want is international travel, open yourself to the differences you will no doubt encounter.
5. Do your research. Every culture has nuances that might seem minor, but can be vital to being respectful. Hand gestures that are commonplace in our country might be extremely offensive in others. Even the way you cross your legs or point you feet can make you come off as rude. Likewise, your facial expressions can convey something you didn’t intend. Do a bit of reading before you travel and you could save yourself some awkward, Ugly American moments.
6. Be a seeker of new solutions. Don’t assume Americans have all the answers–we don’t. So the way we do things might not be the best way.This goes for everything from cooking to transportation to politics to personal relations and beyond. Instead of assuming the rest of the world wants to be like us or should be like us, enter your travel experience as a seeker of new solutions. Be a blank slate for possibilities. Chances are, you’ll discover new ways of living and being in the world that will infinitely enrich your life.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.wordpress.com.