How To NOT Be An Ugly American Abroad

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
"The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad," Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. The statement could surely apply to any number of nationalities, but Twain was referring to Americans — and this was long before fanny packs and Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts were even a thing.

Sure, there are plenty of us who strive to blend in, do as the locals do, and chalk up unusual cultural exchanges to fascinating new life experiences. Then, there are those who prowl around the Champs-Élysées in Steelers jerseys, loudly complaining about aching feet and asking (in English, of course) where the nearest McDonald's is. It's why Canadians put maple leaf emblems on their luggage. It's why locals sometimes wince when we walk into their shop or cafe. It's why the term "Ugly American" exists.

René Zografos spent seven years asking foreigners about their impressions of Americans for his new book, Attractive Unattractive Americans: How The World Sees America. There's not much of a consensus, but there is room for improvement. Zografos explained over email:

Americans are actually quite popular. In the beginning, when I started to work on this book, I got 90% negative opinions about America. The messages I got were strong and occasionally hateful, and the answers were often about war- and weapon-friendly Americans who liked to visit other countries to make them miserable. But that was not the whole truth. The truth is that Americans are very liked around the world. People who have met Americans are very fond of them. They like their politeness, outgoingness, and that Americans speak and bring everyone into a conversation.

So, why the bad rap? Zografos shared some common complaints about travelers from the U.S.

"Loud noise! Quite often, people say that you can hear Americans before you see them. Also: arrogance. Americans sometimes give the impression that they are better than others. Many people believe that Americans must learn to listen more. When you just listen and aren’t talking, you have the chance to learn something new."

That's just the tip of the iceberg. For more insight into how you might be rubbing locals the wrong way, refer to this handy etiquette cheat sheet. And, don't beat yourself up too much: It's not like you're the American dentist who just killed Cecil the lion, after all.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
For all the fuss Americans make over English being their country's first language, some don't even bother to make an effort when they're on someone else's home turf. Do you need to be able to recite the poems of Pablo Neruda? No. Would it be respectful and in your best interest to at least be able to say hello, please, thank you, and excuse me? Absolutely. Don't expect the locals to be fluent English speakers, or to make any sense out of your charades. If nothing else, download a language app to help you translate as you go.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Traveling often means dressing for comfort. Do you also need to offer free advertising for your alma mater, local car wash, favorite sports team, and every branch of the Hard Rock Cafe you've ever visited? These logo tees brand you as a foreigner before you've even had a chance to open your mouth. You needn't throw on a Breton-striped top and a beret; just consider wearing more anonymous outfits such as solid T-shirts or sundresses that don't make you look like a walking billboard.

Yanks also sometimes get grief for underdressing, so step it up if you're planning to visit a nice restaurant or holy site. Most cathedrals and mosques require visitors to cover their bare shoulders and legs, so bring a scarf along just in case.

And while we're on the subject of accessories: Please, don't bring a selfie stick. They're just obnoxious.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
How many times have you met someone who has just returned from a trip, is complaining about the food, and supposedly ate pizza or McDonald's the whole time? What a waste. Experiencing another culture's food is one of the greatest incentives to travel. Staying in your comfort zone means missing out. Not everything will be a hit, but some local delight is certain to capture your taste buds, whether it's feijoada in Rio, a gilda in Madrid, or a slab of gouda fresh from the market in Amsterdam. Research local cuisines and restaurants before you go, and steer clear of places that seem overly touristy. If a restaurant has a laminated menu in five different languages and pictures of every dish, it's probably going to be underwhelming. You can do better.
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Showing sensitivity to cultural differences does not mean you have to adopt them permanently. Nobody expects you to return to Duluth and only eat with one bare hand. They do, however, expect you to take a step back, watch, learn, and appreciate (or at least respect) how things are done where you are. If it's rude to wave your left hand at a local, don't do it. If people dress more conservatively, throw a shawl over your shoulders. If a shop is closed because it's siesta time, don't bitch. Don't judge. It's not about you.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
"Blend into other cultures," Zografos suggests. "Try the local food, ask people about themselves and their lives, be curious and interested. You will definitely come home wiser and happier if you can be a part of other cultures while you are traveling."

This, however, is less likely to happen if you only stick to tourist zones, only speak to fellow travelers, and only eat at the hotel restaurant. Ask a local for his or her recommendations. Where does that person hang out? Are travelers welcome? What have you not seen? Where and what should you eat? Where can you go and not see countless tour guides with their little tourist-wrangling sticks? Exercise caution, of course, but don't be afraid of adventure and more obscure sights.


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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
No, you're not in Kansas anymore. If you were, you'd be watching TV with the central air cranked on, and that's less life-changing than simply sucking it up and experiencing the world at large. Things may be less efficient here. The beer you like may not be on tap. People may cut in line, drive too fast, or cheer loudly for their favorite soccer team at 5 a.m. Things aren't better or worse. They're just different, and thank goodness for that. How boring would life be if everywhere you went were the same?
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Shit happens. Luggage gets lost. Rooms aren't exactly as advertised. Service is slow. Streets are dirty. Buses are smelly. This stuff happens everywhere. The question is, are you going to let it ruin your trip, or are you going to let it ride, see where the day takes you, and maybe, just maybe, have a great adventure?



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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Guys, face it. We're kind of loud. Sure, it's great that Americans are so proud to introduce themselves as such. It just means that the rest of the world — well, mostly Europe — sees us as John Candy from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Some people can live with that. Others want to melt into the ground when they hear a fellow American asking a silly question, or loudly offering up a fact about the Parthenon that everyone in Athens can hear, especially when said fact is completely, utterly wrong.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Most of the time, you'll be perfectly safe, but precautions are required. Keep an eye on your bag/wallet. Avoid wearing flashy jewelry in impoverished areas. Get your bearings so you can wander around, but still make your way back. Don't trust everyone you meet, but don't act like you're expecting every local to rob you. Don't assume that every place, especially in a remote village with a volatile economy (see: Greece), will take a credit card. Only take with you what cash you'll reasonably need for the meal/boating trip/whatever. Forget the traveler's checks. Get insurance. Have a way for friends to contact you. Get a local SIM card so you can use your phone in emergencies. Don't be a loudmouth. Watch your drink. If traveling with a friend, have a code word for if you feel a situation is potentially sketchy. ("Liam Neeson" usually works like a charm.)
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Why do we feel so entitled to have everything run the way we want it to? One need only scroll through Yelp to see a host of overwhelmingly petty complaints that travelers just couldn't drop. If you go away and the only thing you have to say upon your return is "RyanAir charged us extra for the luggage," or "the flight was delayed," well, there's a good chance you've missed out.
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