Travel Tips

How Not to Be an Ugly American When You Travel Abroad

Pipe down and stop talking about politics. Please.

By Bill Wiatrak July 25, 2017

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We get it. Everyone gets it. You're American.

Image: Shutterstock

I was sitting on a beach in Kish, Iran and chatting with some locals who spoke English. As the waiter freshened up my hookah, one of them asked me where I was from. “Texas,” I replied. He looked at me incredulously and said, “Texas! I’d never go to Texas! It’s way too dangerous!” I burst out laughing. How could I explain that almost everyone in Texas would never visit his country because they think Iran is too dangerous? Did anyone in Iran want to kill me? No—they couldn’t have been nicer.

I hear this phrase a lot: “They don’t like Americans over there.” Usually the person saying it is an American and has never been “there” or anywhere else for that matter. The world is easier to understand if you make assumptions and base opinions on what you thought you saw or read somewhere. Just apply the principles from what you learned in cartoons: The bad guys are evil and don’t look like us. The good guys look like how we’d like to look, and are constantly defending us and themselves from those evil, unfamiliar-looking men with wicked-sounding voices.

The truth is, most people in most countries want to like you. If someone says they don’t like Americans, they’re probably doing the same thing that many of us do: making generalizations about an entire country based on a bad experience with someone they once met or something they saw or heard somewhere. Maybe they don’t like American politics or they were offended by a loud tourist that was creating a scene in a public place.

What can you do about that? You can help by trying to subvert those negative stereotypes, for one. Below, my six tips for getting anyone in the world to like you, wherever your travels may lead:

1. Know a little about the place you’re visiting.

Who’s the president? What is the country they famous for? What are they proud of? A genuine interest in someone’s culture will get you much further than almost anything else.

I’ve found that 10 minutes reading a Wikipedia entry gives me enough fodder to hang out with like-minded local historians for hours. If you’re interested but not quite clear on details, they’ll correct you. If you know nothing, they’re not likely to waste their time.

I was parking my car the other day and the valet parking attendant was from Burkina Faso. I knew nothing about his country except maybe I could point it out on a map. When I came back to get my car, I thanked him in French (the official language of BF) and asked him if he was Mossi (an ethnic group there) and if he’d ever been to Timbuktu (in neighboring Mali). He smiled the biggest smile. Why? Because all day long he talks to people who nothing about his country and couldn’t care less about where he comes from. When someone takes a moment of their time to learn something about you, how can you not be appreciative?

2. Know at least a few words.

You can’t speak every language and no one expects you to, but learning a few phrases can make a huge difference in how you’re perceived. The first thing I do in a new country or city is ask a local how to say the following: Where is…? I want… Hello! Goodbye! Thank you! How much? Excuse me.

I’ll write down the phrase the way it sounds rather than how it's actually spelled. After all, you’re unlikely to be asked to do a spelling test, so there’s no sense in making it harder than it needs to be. I usually keep my new-found vocabulary in my notes on my phone so it’s easily accessible and I can practice my phrases repeatedly until I’ve learned them.

If you can learn to count to 10 and add a few more basic words like hotel, beer, water, food, coffee, restroom and beach, you’re really going to do well. Do a quick Google search on the language of the country and see which words are the same in English; you may know more than you realize! Did you know English is composed of words derived from French (which makes up 29 percent of our modern vocabulary), Latin (also 29 percent) and Germanic languages (26 percent)? You already know more than you think.

3. Don’t talk politics.

It’s doubtful you’ll go anywhere and not have anyone ask you what you think about Donald Trump. Let’s face it. But is there really a good answer? Do Middle Easterners really want to hear what you have to say about their government?

Sure, it’s okay for folks in other countries to disparage their own leaders, but—above all—resist the urge to join in. As with religion, politics is best discussed as lightly and as objectively as possible. If you are talking about religion, ask questions to understand their beliefs and customs. Resist the urge to try and convert them; this is a vacation, not a religious mission.

4. Respect the local customs.

Tourists often don’t pay attention to signs and customs when they visit a country. In many Southeast Asian countries, it’s rude not to remove your shoes when you enter a home or temple. Pointing your feet towards a Buddha is equally rude, as is touching a Laotian person’s head. That might seem a little odd to us, but we have our own concept of what is acceptable and isn’t.

Making an “everything’s okay” sign with your hand in Germany or Turkey is verboten. Crossing your fingers in Vietnam is xấu. Chewing gum in Singapore could cost you a big fine. Knowing a few cultural rules can help your travel immensely, and being aware of traditions and customs in a country can make or break a first impression. It’s impossible to know what is going to offend everyone in the world and most cultures realize that tourists are going to not know the rules, but spending a few moments to learn the “no-no’s” of a culture can make you much more likable.

5. Understand the culture.

Shortly after the events of 9/11, I was riding in a parade that featured a float with Sikhs. Sikhs are from the Punjab region of India and wear turbans on their head to keep their long hair wrapped in. They were catching a lot of flack at the time because people thought they were affiliated with terrorists. They’re not Muslim nor Arab; they live in a completely different part of the world that is no way associated with the events of 9/11; and yet their turbans were perceived as “terrorist garb.”

This is like someone hating you for wearing jeans because they once saw a murderer on TV wearing similar jeans. It’s easier for us to make generalizations about other cultures and lump them into one category that fits our quick and easy stereotype, but it's also lazy and ignorant. No one likes lazy and ignorant.

6. Don’t dress and talk like a tourist.

Loud mouths and loud clothing are a turn-off in any culture. I have friends that act perfectly normal at home, but as soon as they go on a trip, they break out their silly tourist hats, socks and black shoes with shorts, and shirts that even Weird Al Yankovic wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.

People are going to be more receptive to those that are like them, so mimicking the local fashion isn’t a bad idea. A few years ago I was in Fiji where men wear dresses, so guess what I did? Yep. I bought one and tried to wear it proudly. The natives loved it! I got smiles wherever I went. I’ll admit, I’ve never put it on once since I got back, but it served its purpose and now I’m much more sympathetic to women’s complaints about them.

Talking loud is another American stereotype I see repeatedly as well. I’ve been in an ancient temple that is completely silent, when suddenly I hear some loud American accents cutting through the tranquility, talking about people at home or what they don’t like about the place. If you’re in Rio during Carnival it’s okay to talk loud; not so much at some ancient ruins or safaris. I’ve seen tourists scare off animals before they even get close because they’re so into performing their “look at me” routine, talking loud and thinking other people will be impressed by what they’re discussing, that they missed an amazing moment.

You are a representative of our country. Taking a few minutes to learn about the people, the place and the highlights of the place you’re visiting is time well spent. I’ve been to nearly 200 countries and have rarely found someone who just didn’t like me because of where I’m from. Keep them smiling and you’ll find gates opening for you.

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