I am proud to be an American. Therefore, I cringe whenever I am overseas and hear negative comments about American tourists. It’s like dealing with a sibling. You can tease or insult your brother or sister, but no one else can.
Oh, but insulted we are. All we have to do to be stereotyped as “ugly Americans” is walk down the street in another country.
They say that stereotypes usually contain a tiny kernel of truth, and after hearing critiques of American tourists in several countries, I tried to look at things objectively. Interestingly, some of these critiques kind of make sense.
Not that you have to wear Jimmy Choos and carry Prada handbags (or man purses) while strolling down a street in London or Tokyo, but let’s think about what many American tourists wear overseas. I’m picturing khaki shorts, a worn-out T-shirt, and tennis shoes or sandals, both worn with white tube socks.
When my family spent a couple of weeks in Rome and Paris over Christmas and New Year’s last year, they all asked me what they should pack. I told them that simpler is better while traveling overseas. Even if you live in a pair of black pants, black shoes, and a non-T-shirt top for the duration of your vacation, you’ll blend in way better than if you wear shorts and socks. If you’re a woman, add a simple accessory, like a chunky necklace or scarf that you pick up as a souvenir, and you’ll be in even better shape.
I have often heard complaints overseas of Americans being “loud” and “obnoxious.” These complaints often come from those in the service industry or in retail — namely, waiters and shop clerks. Many, like waiters I spoke to in Rome, complain that their American customers are incredibly disruptive, demand American items like Ranch dressing, and leave their tables in a complete mess.
The remedy for this part of the stereotype is simple: slow down. Whether ordering an apple strudel in Salzburg, asking how much an item costs in a Turkish bazaar, or hitting a beach in Rio de Janeiro, take a deep breath and slow down. Interacting with locals in a foreign country is a lot like dating. If you come on too strong, they will automatically back off. If, however, your approach is subtle, they will come to you. And they might just end up with a different perspective of Americans as a result.
A common criticism of Americans is that we only speak English and are culturally ignorant. This stereotype is definitely a hard one to break, but it can be broken. The first step is a simple one: study.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be totally fluent in the language of your vacation destination. It simply means that Americans need to know something about where they are going. To illustrate, before I visited Poland recently, I only had time to learn a couple of phrases. However, when I checked in at LOT, the Polish airline, I greeted the woman at the check-in desk with a sincere attempt to correctly pronounce jin daubbre (“good afternoon”). In return, I got a smile and a free upgrade.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you learn a couple of phrases you’ll be flying first-class on international airlines, but it does illustrate my point: If you put forth effort, locals in foreign countries will usually notice. And more than that, they’ll appreciate it. The first time I visited Paris, I left hating Paris and the rude Parisians. The second time, though, I spoke some French and left loving Paris and the quirky, fun Parisians.
It’s also important to know a bit about the country that you are going to visit. After all, the term is “host country” for a reason. When we travel internationally, we are guests in whatever country we visit. Whether you’re going to Spain, Belize, or South Africa, know the basics of the country’s history, its currency, its political situation, and so on. And for Pete’s sake, make sure you know where the country is on a map.
These are all simple steps to improving the plight of American tourists abroad. With a little consideration, and a little planning, we Americans can enjoy our time overseas and represent our awesome country well.
So, put down the khaki shorts, grab a phrasebook, and have a safe trip. And God bless America.
Lindsey Douthit is a public opinion research professional at the Winston Group in Washington, D.C. A native Texan, she graduated from Baylor University and earned a Masters degree in International Relations from King’s College London. She spent two years working with North Korean refugees in South Korea, has studied five foreign languages, and is an experienced world traveler with almost forty countries under her belt.