EDITORIAL: The ugly American, a traveler’s guide

The term ‘Ugly American’ is typically used for those Americans traveling abroad and displaying offensive behavior.

Actually this term started in 1958 during the heart of the cold war and after a novel by the same name was published describing a range of thoughtless mistakes Americans typically make.

If you want to travel comfortably abroad, without being treated like an Ugly American, you have to think less ethnocentric.

For example, if you are in Europe, will they see people socializing only with their noisy American friends, talking loud, using offensive language, or will they discover folk immersing themselves in a different culture, ready and willing to experience new lifestyles and perspectives?

All you really need is the right attitude and some knowledge of the dos and don’ts.

Don’t assume English is the only language everyone speaks. Europeans can’t figure how we only speak one language, so make an attempt to speak the main language of the country you are in. You may bungle it, but they will give you credit for at least trying.

Don’t criticize their ‘strange’ customs.  Remember who the stranger is … even if you think their money or food is just plain weird!

Don’t be a demanding American who throws a fit if things don’t immediately go your way. So what if the air conditioning breaks down … you’re on vacation, so relax! Nobody wants to deal with a mean jerk.
Remember that supersize was invented in your country, so when you get smaller portions on your plate, it isn’t a matter of being ripped off. Don’t compare things to back home.

Ask a local what the appropriate way to greet someone is. Will you use a handshake, a kiss on the cheek, one or two cheeks? You get the idea.

Europeans think Americans are all poorly dressed.  If you make an effort to look well put together and are clean, chances are you’ll get a better first response.

Do speak slower and even lower. It’s a good idea to match the voice level and tonality of the other person – almost like reflecting their body language – it makes them feel more comfortable. No one likes a loud, bragging, arrogant or fast talker … you will come off as aggressive and threatening.
Using slang from your own country typically makes you appear insensitive, so it’s best to avoid it. Think of your vacation as a practice lesson in better vocabulary and articulation.

Pay attention to what is important to the people you are visiting. For example, if you are in a hotel that values conserving energy, then don’t overstock your towels, just use one. Don’t swipe all of the little shampoo bottles when you leave. Turn off the lights when you leave the room … just use common courtesy wherever you are.

Just because the German guy next to you lets out a yodel, doesn’t mean you should run up to him and ask him to do it again so you can take a video with your wife. The camera hanging around your neck screams tourist, so remember to be polite always.

Blend in with the locals and ‘do as they do’. In Europe you will probably want to go a soccer game or drop into a local teahouse; in Canada maybe go to a hockey game.  Or just wander through the streets, ride a bus or visit a supermarket. It’s a great way to learn their customs.

The biggest gift you can give both yourself and your new friends is to be observant and respectful. Respect their culture, always be kind, and ask questions about whom they are and what is important to them. Take the time to listen and experience a whole new world.

Follow these guidelines and you will become a responsible tourist and someone who is accepted and greeted with kindness as well as offered help in countries all over the world.