There’s a rumor going around the world that American tourists can be a bit of a nuisance. We come off loud, overly familiar and sometimes offensive. It’s a phenomenon called “Ugly American”. What’s an “Ugly American”? Yes, it’s a great cartoon show, but it’s also a term used to describe the stereotype of a loud, brutish, ethnocentric, American traveler abroad. It’s pretty much being “that guy” at a party, and the party just so happens to be the rest of the planet. Keep yourself in check. Here’s a few tips on how to avoid being labeled as an “Ugly American”.
Hand gestures in America do not have the same meanings in other counties. Seems obvious enough but it’s easily forgotten. Once while ordering two beers in Scotland, I completely forgot that holding up two fingers can be quite offensive. Having grown up in New Jersey where we talk with our hands, speaking while wildly gesturing has been a lifelong habit I’ve been trying to shake. The bartender let the first faux pas slide but firmly told me that it would be his “foot up my ass and my ass out the door” if I did it again.
Another hand gesture to watch out for is the thumbs up which means “bilakh” in Iran and translates to “sit on this”. Also avoid the “okay” sign in Greece and Turkey as it is a vulgar hand gesture suggestions — ya know — someone’s bum, for lack of a family friendly term that won’t make my blog feel uncomfortable.
How to Avoid: Think before you act! It’s probably a safe bet to avoid any hand gestures to prevent any misunderstandings. Unless you observe locals using certain hand gestures or a local tells you that it’s a gesture that is fine to use.
2.) Learn Basic Phrases
Don’t assume that everyone will know English. Try your best to learn a few local phrases. It’ll make your travels easier, people will be more accepting and will want to help you, and it’s the courteous thing to do. Simple phrases to focus on might include directions, how to order food, please, thank you, excuse me, I don’t speak “x” language, do you speak English.
How to Avoid: Bring a dictionary, take a class beforehand or use a translator app!
3.) Mind the Dress Code
Wearing the wrong clothes can be a glaring sign that you’re a tourist and could attract the wrong kind of attention. For instance, you might be guilty by association, meaning locals may have already encountered an Ugly American, and if you look like one, they’ll assume you are one. Another reason: pick pockets. They prey upon tourists, especially if they look unaware and unassuming. There’s also more obvious dress codes, especially in religiously conservative countries that may require women to cover their heads. But there’s also less obvious codes to look out for, including how some churches in Rome may not let tourists in for wearing shorts that are too short or for exposing their shoulders.
How to Avoid: Do a little research ahead of time, pay attention to what the locals are wearing and try to avoid brands, teams and other symbols that may label you as a tourist.
4.) Don’t Compare Your Host Country to the USA
Have you ever been at the bar with a group of friends and there’s that one person in the group, maybe they just got back from Paris or Milan or whatever city, and they compare everything in your hometown to that city. It usually sounds like this:
“Oh I lived in (insert city here) for a month and the bars are so much more hip. I mean, this is a hip bar, but their bars are so much cooler.”
Yeah, no one wants to hear that. So don’t do it abroad! It comes off like a complaint and locals may get insulted. Just as we have pride in our homes, they have pride in their hometowns, so be respectful. Everywhere is different — that’s what makes everywhere special!
How to Avoid: Appreciate the unique qualities of the country you’re in, refrain from comparisons, express your opinions only when asked.
5.) Be Mindful of Norms and Customs
Overall, there are six major areas of etiquette that you should research ahead of time so that you can avoid cultural faux pas.
- Exchanges of Money
- Body Language
- Food Etiquette
How to Avoid: Research and ask locals.
6.) Don’t Talk Too Loud
Americans tend to be a bit louder than those from other nations. I’m not saying we’re loud mouths, but for some reason, our language and cultural constructs lead us to be more audible than most. Though it’s fine in the privacy of your hotel room, when you’re out in public it’s a blatant sign that you’re a tourist. Locals may get annoyed, especially if it’s in a place where silence is a custom such as on public transit, churches, and at monuments and memorials.
How to Avoid: Listen as much as you speak, speak a bit slower, and try to speak softer.
You’re an ambassador to your country, so make a good impression and don’t ruin it for the rest of your fellow travelers. The best rule of thumb to avoid being called an “Ugly American” is “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”