Advice for Americans in Other Countries

Any of us who live in or have visited tourist areas in America have chuckled at a fanny-pack-wearing, camera-toting, ridiculously-dressed tourist wandering around looking enthralled or lost.  Or maybe both.  Maybe we’ve even rolled our eyes at the clueless soul whose lack of understanding of our language and customs seems to be holding up a line somewhere.  Most of us have also heard that a lot of folks in other countries don’t hold American tourists in terribly high regard.  Guess what?  It’s partly because too many of us become that clueless soul when we travel abroad.  A little preparation and mindfulness can help us avoid furthering the stereotype of the “Ugly American” when traveling.

Don’t dress like a tourist

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Tourists make easy targets for pickpockets and scammers. A marginal understanding of how locals dress can help keep you safe.  In cultures where attire is more reserved than our own, being inappropriately dressed can been seen as an insult, or, at the very least, can reinforce the obnoxious-American stereotype.

Be mindful about handling money

Though credit cards are widely accepted throughout the world today, you will almost certainly run into some cash-only businesses.  Carrying one or two credit cards is advisable (don’t forget to let your credit card companies know you’ll be abroad), but you’ll also need to carry some cash.  Avoid flashing wads of cash in public.  In some cultures, such behavior is considered rude.  It also is quite likely to draw the attention of thieves who make a living preying on tourists with rolls of dough.

Learn the language

While it certainly isn’t necessary to learn an entire language for a short vacation, you really should learn a few phrases that will show your desire to be courteous to your host nation.  “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Excuse me” are a good start.  Many who work in tourist areas of other countries do speak at least a little English, but you certainly should not expect to find fluent English speakers everywhere you go.  

Eat at their restaurants

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Don’t be the timid sort who seeks out American-style restaurants when you travel.  You can get American food when you come back home.  Show respect for your host country’s culture by eating local cuisine.  Doing so also adds to the adventure of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Be wary when it comes to dealing with antiquities

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Most of us can’t afford truly historic souvenirs.  But if you are looking for a real piece of history, make sure you understand your host nation’s rules concerning antiquities trading.  Some countries have very strict laws governing the buying and selling of national treasures and antiquities.  Failure to follow these rules can result in serious penalties, including extensive jail time.  If you’re purchasing a reproduction piece, be sure to have sufficient documentation of its authentic fakeness that you won’t raise any eyebrows at the airport.  

Remember the golden rule

Believe it or not, not everyone in the world thinks Americans are so high up on the totem pole that everyone else should bow down before us.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones who do think that.  This type of arrogance is the biggest reason for our bad reputation in foreign countries.  When we visit other countries, we should behave in the same manner as we expect from foreign visitors to our country.  Being respected by our hosts can only make our trip more pleasant and more memorable for all the right reasons.

In short, dressing in a way that makes you stick out like a sore thumb can make you a target for bad guys.  Behaving in a way that makes you stick out like a sore thumb can make us all targets for disdain and disrespect.  Do us all a favor and don’t be the Ugly American.