The Legend of the Ugly American

Whether you’ve traveled the world or have never left your home town, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Ugly American”. If you’re American, I’m guessing you have a mental image of this person (and of course, he or she looks nothing like you). I know I don’t relate to this moniker, but unfortunately, I’m sure I’ve inadvertently played the part on my travels at one time or another.

Most of the time, you don’t know you’re the Ugly American…. you’re super polite to everyone, you smile your face off at every stranger you see and you’re showing respect and appreciation for the place you’re visiting. But then out of the blue, someone gives you a dirty look or a waiter is rude to you. When I hear these stories, what typically follows is, “the [insert nationality here] are rude and don’t like Americans.” While some people certainly do judge all Americans based on our politics, brashness or perceived lack of style, it is a mistake to lump all of the French (or Italians, or Germans, pick your country) in to that category.

Before I went to France the first time, I heard numerous tales of the rudeness of the French and that they hate Americans. I made an effort before my visit to learn about their culture and customs and had a very positive experience in France. I attempted to speak French (which is pretty bad) and found people really wanted to be helpful. I always greeted the shopkeeper (and said au revoir upon leaving) and rarely had an unpleasant experience. Once a waiter mocked my terrible French, but seemed immediately embarrassed by his comment and proceeded to shower us with free drinks, snacks and excellent, friendly service.

There have been a few less than pleasant moments along the way. In a small village in Tuscany, my husband and I were the sole customers at a café, when a merchant at the shop next door decided to befriend us. We were talking and carrying on – he with his broken English and me with my broken Italian – and he asked if he could sketch me. I was flattered until he showed me his very UNflattering sketch of me with dog ears and whiskers. I was taken aback but knew I had done nothing to insult or offend him. He was just a jerk.

Once in Amsterdam I had my phone slapped out of my hand – intentionally – by a cyclist. Turns out I was standing too close to the bike lane. Live and learn; I was more observant where I was standing after that. Then there was the time I was traveling on the London Underground and spied a woman staring hard at my white sneakers… I had yet to learn that white sneakers are a fashion faux pas in most of Europe; I might as well have been wearing a big “TOURIST” sandwich sign.

But despite these isolated incidents, I’ve had mostly positive experiences with the locals wherever I’ve gone, and found them to be helpful and friendly in their own way. They tend to be eager to give directions and recommend their favorite restaurant. One woman in Paris ran across the street with a stroller, a dog and a toddler to help me because I looked lost. Some things I’ve picked up along the way have made a big difference in how we are treated when we travel abroad. I’m not suggesting anyone change who they are when traveling – you gotta be you, amiright? But, if you want to have a better experience with the locals, then you might take these tips in to consideration:

  • Less smiling and eye contact. I know that sounds really weird – in the US we smile at everyone we make eye contact with. It’s in our culture and NOT smiling is totally rude. However, in many foreign countries, receiving a smile from a stranger is weird and suspicious. Smiles are reserved for friends and family. If someone smiles at you, by all means return the greeting, but consider limiting your facial expressions. Smiling at strangers is an American thing and when locals don’t return your smile, it feels like they are being rude. Most likely, they are trying to figure out why you are smiling at them.
  • Make an effort to speak the language. We’ve all heard this before, and for good reason. Americans get a bad rap for only speaking English, and expecting everyone else to accommodate their language. Even if you just learn the basics (hello, goodbye, please and thank you) it will go a long way. In France, greet the shopkeeper with “Bonjour” when you enter their shop, and be sure to say, “Au revoir” when you leave. Many times I’ve tried to practice my French or Italian on waiters or shop keepers, only to have them speak English. I suppose they like to practice too, but I demonstrated that I would start on their turf, which is the polite thing to do and usually greatly appreciated.
  • Be aware of how loud you’re talking. In many countries, especially France, people talk in a lower voice, particularly in restaurants.  Just be aware of the overall volume of where you are. If you’re in a boisterous biergarten in Germany, by all means, live it up. Follow the locals’ lead and you should be fine.
  • Speaking of restaurants, be prepared to slow down. In the US we expect to sit, order, eat and leave in a pretty hasty fashion. A meal in Europe can take hours and the waiters will not ask you how you’re doing every 5 minutes. This is not bad service, it’s just how they roll. Relax, enjoy your company and environment and don’t be in a big hurry. If you are in a rush, don’t go to a sit down restaurant.
  • Dress it up a little. Americans tend to dress a LOT more casually than Europeans. I recall people-watching at a café in Paris and remarking how stylish and well dressed the Parisians were. All of them. You could spot the Americans a mile away: blue jeans, sneakers, baseball caps and a T-Shirt. There is nothing wrong with that at all, but if you don’t want to stand out as a tourist, consider black jeans, fashion sneakers (any color but white) or boots, a blouse/button up shirt, and possibly a scarf if the weather permits.
  • Know when (and when not) to tip, and how much. The US tipping custom is different than most of Europe, where tipping is not always expected. In most countries, rounding up your bill is all that is required, and in the UK, tipping your bartender is just not done. As an American, it might be hard to NOT tip since it’s so engrained in our culture, and you may be tempted to leave a little extra as a nice gesture. Do your research first – leaving a tip might be considered an insult to your server.

Wherever you decide to travel, the most important aspect is absorbing the culture and making great memories. Blending in can enrich the experience but definitely isn’t a requirement. If you feel someone has been rude to you, try not to take it personally…just continue to be polite and respectful and most likely you’ll have a positive and rewarding experience.

Please share your stories and tips!

Until Next Time –

Steph

7 comments

  1. Your list is SO spot on–like every single one I was nodding my head so hard in agreement! It’s funny, I am definitely a loud talker. But after visiting several places in Europe over the past 4 years, I think I’ve gotten quieter! After coming back from there and being around other obnoxiously loud americans it’s made me want to tone it down every once in a while!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steph, you are spot on with all of your insights and observations. I lived in Europe for years and am married to a European and had to learn some of these cultural differences the hard way. It does indeed take some effort to follow these guidelines, but ultimately it does allow you to have a much more authentic and enjoyable experience. And what I found is that Europeans, and for that matter everyone traveling outside their own country commit these cultural faux pas. I’ve had plenty of Germans that were unwilling to adjust when visiting the US, causing lots and lots of eye rolls from yours truly:) All tourists, regardless of nationality would be wise to take your advice and do some cultural sensitivity research before traveling to their next vacation destination. Love your blog! Keep em coming!

    Liked by 1 person

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