My fellow Americans, please: In the name of all that is good and holy, stop acting dumb when you visit other people’s countries. I know all American tourists don’t act like oafs overseas, but enough do to make the stereotype of the “ugly American” common and lasting.
You might be thinking; “I paid a lot of money for this vacation! I’ll act how I want! Why should I care about a bunch of foreigners think of me?”
Fair point, my belligerent friend, but avoiding these seven mistakes isn’t only so I’m not embarrassed for you when you visit other people’s homes; they’re also a way for you to have better, more meaningful vacations.
Expecting things to be like America
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Sadly, a lot of parts of foreign countries (particularly the touristy parts) are becoming more Americanized, but you shouldn’t expect it. Too many people travel to other nations and are disappointed or annoyed that they are not like America. Not everyone puts ice in their drinks. Not everyone tells strangers their life story. Football is a different game here. These differences are why you travel to begin with, so get used to thinking, “I guess they do this differently here,” instead of, “Why don’t they do this like we do it?”
Not trying to speak the local language (a little)
Don’t assume that everyone speaks English, even if English is spoken widely in popular American tourist destinations. Learn a little of the language of your host country. No one expects you to be fluent, but learning a few basic phrases like, “thank you,” and “where is the bathroom?” is sensible, respectful, and not very difficult. There are a ton of free or cheap resources online or in the app store to teach you other languages.
You don’t have to buy a new wardrobe for each nation on your Eurorail pass, but you should make some effort to not stand out too much. Don’t walk around Paris wearing Crocs and a neon t-shirt; wear all black and smoke instead. Don’t dress immodestly in religious countries. Don’t show up at a Renaissance Faire unless you’re dressed like a wizard. It’s not only polite to other people, it can make your vacation more fun. One of my favorite things about visiting Rome were the two Italian people who asked me for directions. I was totally passing!
I have sympathy for people who get defensive and angry when traveling in other countries. When you’re surrounded by people who think and act differently than you do, and you’re not sleeping enough, and you just want some ice in your drink, it’s easy to feel attacked and to lash out in response. There’s something fundamentally challenging about navigating a different culture, but you have to relish the challenge instead of fighting it. That’s what you’re doing here, after all.
Not being flexible
You might have some very set ideas of what you’d like to do on your dream vacation, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. Just go with it. Rigidity is the enemy of new experiences. A few years ago, my wife and I were in Paris over Thanksgiving. On the way to the fancy French place we picked out, we passed a dive-cafe with a handwritten sign advertising an “American-style Thanksgiving dinner.” Plans changed immediately, and we ended up having this weird family-style French/American fusion meal with a bunch of local college students and American ex-pats. Much better than our snooty first choice.
Not learning basic customs
No one expects an American visiting Japan to have memorized the formalities of a tea ceremony, but you should know that talking too loudly is frowned upon, and you’re expected take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home. Learning the local customs is common courtesy, but you don’t have to sweat it too much. If you mess anything up, most people in most places will forgive you for being a clueless tourists—as long as you’re not a jackass about it.
Believing stereotypes about other people
Just as most Americans are not an “ugly American” stereotype, the people of other nations are not their stereotypes either—a lot of Canadians are downright rude for instance, and most people in France are super nice, even when they find out you’re an American. The important thing to both being a decent ambassador to the U.S. and to having a fun and meaningful vacation is being open to the unexpected. If you are, people will surprise you with how awesome they are. Usually.
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