An American Abroad: Tips on Representing the USA without Feeding Stereotypes5 min read
Americans abroad don’t always have the nicest reputation with locals, especially at many of the most popular tourist destinations for U.S. travelers. This reputation can be boiled down to ethnocentrism, which people from the U.S. seem to feel more strongly than others. Judging other people’s cultures based on the standards of your own is where the American tourist stereotype has its roots.
The stereotypical American tourist doesn’t understand that not all countries bring you a check at the end of a meal without being asked. In fact, it’s considered quite rude in most places besides the United States to rush a customer out the door once they’re done eating. The American tourist is so used to a swiftly delivered check that they can’t understand or accept its absence as anything besides “bad service.”
American ethnocentrism manifests in many ways. Expecting prices to be translated into dollars is a common faux pas for U.S. travelers. Speaking loudly, or under the assumption that no one can understand English, is also frowned upon in many places.
So what should you do? For starters, there’s plenty of information on basic cultural norms available via the internet. Before you travel to a new country, you can, and should, read up on their social norms and expectations—so you’ll know not to speak to people on the tube in London or cause a scene over a tiny breakfast portion in Italy.
Here are some ways you can prepare yourself to be a welcome American visitor around the world.
Simply attempting to speak the language at your destination is a sign of respect. It’s not hard to learn a few commonly used words and phrases before traveling. To start, learn how to say “hello,” “please” and “thank you.”
When you need to speak English it’s also polite to first ask, “Is it okay to speak English?” It’s disrespectful to assume the person you’re speaking to speaks your language. Asking this will allow the person you’re communicating with to share whether they’ll be able to chat with you in English and to what extent. Having Google Translate downloaded offline is a great way to communicate without making the standard American faux pas of expecting English-speaking locals everywhere you go.
Not every country has the same kind of plumbing you’re used to. Never assume you can throw your toilet paper in the bowl as this can cause a major nightmare for many places around the world. Sometimes there may not even be a toilet, or you may have to pay to get access to one. At your hotel, your shower may not have unlimited hot water or strong pressure. If any of those things are a dealbreaker for you, do your research before booking your flight, hotel or excursion.
Greetings and Gestures
Do people at your destination shake hands to greet one another or is that considered rude? Do you know how many cheek kisses (bisous) they give in the region of France you’re visiting? Should you set your money on the counter or in the hand of the cashier? Is it appropriate for you and your significant other to kiss or hold hands in public? Are commonly used hand gestures (waving, thumbs up, peace signs) offensive at your destination? There are so many different customs, traditions and ways of greeting in every international culture. Researching these customs ahead of your trip will ensure that you can be as polite as possible, even in an unfamiliar culture.
Tipping for services is customary in the United States, but it’s not as common in other destinations around the world. Don’t assume you shouldn’t tip everywhere. Countries all have individual expectations on who to tip, when to tip and how much to tip. Tipping is actively discouraged in some countries. In Japan, for example, you might even insult the person you’re trying to tip.
Compared to the United States, plenty of places around the world have strict dress codes and expectations of how to present yourself in public. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, you could get in trouble with the law for showing your shoulders or knees, especially if you’re a woman. In other predominantly Muslim countries, like Turkey, locals are more used to a liberal style of dress and, at the most, you may just receive unwanted attention. Tight-fitting clothing or clothing that shows cleavage is equally frowned upon in some countries. Yoga pants and leggings are definite no-no’s in these places, so be sure to research before packing your suitcase.
It’s also important to read international news before traveling to a new country. BBC and Al Jazeera are both great, but many specific countries will have some form of an English language newspaper as well. You don’t want to show up to a country cheerfully skipping down the street a few days after they had a national tragedy. It’s also helpful to be aware of travel advisories, as well as holidays or other cultural events that you may happen upon during your trip.
All in all, try to let your walls down while you’re traveling. Instead of thinking, “It’s so weird that they don’t tip their servers,” stay curious: “How interesting is it that they don’t tip their servers? I wonder what led to that custom, and why it’s different in the U.S.?” Be open to new experiences and remain patient, understanding and kind to those around you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more you’ll get out of the travel experience when you allow yourself to fully experience a different culture.