Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travel Tips: Don't be the "Ugly American"

Everywhere I’ve gone (except India) has been awash with Americans. In Europe, we’re easy to spot with our tour guides and clothing choices. I’ve only ever been able to blend in in Germany and Austria, and only then until I speak.

Being so recognizable has its advantages, such as people instantly speaking English when they see you, but it can also be a minefield if you don’t pay attention to the culture and customs.

The “Ugly American” unfortunately roams the streets of Europe and other well-traveled destinations. Don’t be the “Ugly American,” and you’ll have a better trip.

What is the “Ugly American”? Well, it is usually someone who is so convinced that what we do in the United States is far and away the best way of doing things, and feels the need to impress this upon the populace of wherever it travels.

Yes, there are many things about America that I miss when I go overseas, and there are many things I think we do better. I do not, however, necessarily believe that I am always right, and when I do, I don’t feel compelled to tell everyone in the loudest voice possible.

An example? The following story was told to me, and, unfortunately, I have no reason to doubt its veracity, in the face of what I have seen in my own travels.

A woman checked in to a hotel in France, but was upset with the accommodations. Unwilling to accept that, in a foreign country, some things are just different, and you aren’t likely to get your cookie-cutter Holiday Inn room with all the amenities of a refrigerator, minibar and wireless Internet, this woman was angry with the hotelier.

The nine-room hotel was clean, and the staff friendly, but this Ugly American felt the need to complain and moan about something, and said, “I am a middle-class American, and I deserve a certain level of accommodation.”

Whoa, what? If you feel that way, pay 400 Euros a night and stay at the Marriott by the Eiffel Tower. Otherwise, accept that things like elevators, showers and bathrooms will often be exceedingly small compared to American standards in most foreign countries.

The way things are done in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and even Canada might be different, but they aren’t necessarily wrong.

I, for one, like ice in my soda. Very few places outside the U.S. seem to care. I either accept it or order something else.

While some things are obvious, being an “Ugly American” can often be accidental. If you’re not familiar with a country’s customs, or what the people find rude, I recommend buying a guidebook that addresses those issues. The guides in the Culture Smart series are very good for that.

You will have a better time of it and be met with friendliness if you learn some of the basics. When you enter a shop in France, say “Bonjour/bonsoir monsieur/madame.” In Germany, make sure you ask for your check at the restaurant, rather than getting upset over its not being delivered to you. In Italy, understand that some restaurants charge a cover just to sit down, and that the bread, while brought to you, is not free, and you will pay by the slice for what you consume.

Knowing a little bit about the culture, being accepting of it and making the smallest attempt at the language really does go a long way. In all the towns, cities and trains I’ve met French people, I have only found one who was rude, yet there exists an unfounded stereotype that the French are rude.

Understand that you are a visitor to the country, and as such, you should conform to the local customs, rather than the other way around. If it’s too bad to handle, go home and watch the Travel Channel.

1 comment:

a smiley face said...

Another fantastic post. I couldn't agree with you more. Bravo!! :)