5 Tips on How to Be Less, Well, American While Abroad
Every time I travel, I pull out my soapbox and climb back on top of it to beg my people to, well, act less like my people. Not because I don’t love my country or its inhabitants, nor because I fancy myself superior to any of my fellow Americans. Rather because I don’t like how ethnocentric a country the United States is and that we pass down that trait from generation to generation, and put it proudly on display while traveling. As a result of this arrogance, our presence is often unappreciated abroad (or at best, tolerated in destinations that rely on our tourist dollars to survive), and we usually misinterpret that sentiment as “rude.”
“Oh, they hate Americans in <insert country>, so I’ll never visit there,” I hear my people say.
“Of course they do,” I usually respond. “Look at how we present ourselves.”
After watching myriads of embarrassing interactions in countless countries around the world, I’ve fashioned five top tips for Americans on how to be less American abroad. Why? So foreigners can experience the best of our culture and people, not the worst, and appreciate us as visitors. That, in turn, will afford us the opportunity to experience foreign culture in a positive way and be welcomed abroad.
Here are my five top tips, in no particular order:
Lower the Volume. The number one way to spot an American anywhere in the world is to close your eyes and listen. We’re loud. Really attention-seeking loud. Even in countries where the local dialect is spoken passionately (read: also pretty loud), like Latin American countries or in Italy, Americans still stand out. Because we’re not speaking with passion. We’re speaking to be heard, despite the fact that no one except the person we are speaking to needs to hear what we’re saying… and they would be perfectly able to do so three volume levels lower.On this note, if someone doesn’t speak English, repeating yourself at an increasing decibel does not improve their understanding of your words. Which brings me to my next tip.
Learn the Language Basics. This one frustrates me to no end. I was once in an ice cream shop in Paris, when I overheard a woman say in an exasperated, aggravated and yes, very loud voice, “Don’t you speak American?” Not even “English,” but “American.” I realize that is an extreme example (seeing that American is not any more of a language than Africa is a country), but the expectation and assumption that English is spoken everywhere is not at all uncommon in my travels. Stop doing that, my people. Assume you won't be able to speak any English (even if you know the reverse is true) and learn the local language basics to extend an olive branch of respect.A “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “How are you?” “Please” or “Thank you” go a long way toward opening the door to a friendly and much more rewarding interaction. And of course, learning key phrases like “Where are the bathrooms?” and how to politely say, “I don’t speak very much <insert local language>, will you speak English with me?” are also helpful.
Don’t Fear, or Belittle, the Locals. I was sitting in a hot tub in Costa Rica yesterday, when an older woman from Massachusetts started to chat me up. She pulled the Typical American in every way. First, she splashed into the pool launching loudly into a one-sided conversation, despite the sleeping toddler in my arms. I learned lots of unsolicited facts about her life in a very short amount of time, and then she turned on the locals. Her complaints? There are too many zeros on Costa Rican money, and she was surprised to find that the locals seemed pretty smart.Well, clearly having skipped her research on the country she was visiting (see my next tip), this woman missed out on the fact that Costa Rica has no army and instead, invests all that money into education and healthcare, both of which are among the top in the world. She was even more surprised when I told her that Costa Rica has a 96% literacy rate, so yeah, they're pretty smart.
Don’t be afraid to speak with the locals and don’t auto-view yourself as ‘greater than’ due to factors like poverty or circumstance. At the very least, you’ll learn something you didn’t know, which is the most valuable gift of all.
Explore the Country You’re Visiting Before, During and After. In the example above, the woman from Massachusetts had no idea about Costa Rica despite standing on its soil. She thought it was an island (it’s not), and wondered aloud about its politics and educational systems (she was a teacher in the U.S.). All questions and facts that Google could resolve in mere seconds.Traveling enriches your life in countless ways, but never more so than when you make a conscious effort to learn in the process. Do some quick research before you leave to better understand the country you are visiting, and their cultures and norms. While you are abroad, engage locals in conversations about things you’ve read, and ask more questions. It is in conversations with people who are different from us that we grow the most, and this is so easily facilitated by traveling. When you get home, keep track of news about that country or city. Staying connected will allow the experience of your travels to live well beyond the duration of your trip, and continue to shape your life.
You’re Not in America. Don’t Expect Things to Be Like America. My favorite meal during which to observe Americans abroad is breakfast, because traditional breakfasts vary so greatly from country to country, and Americans are least tolerant of a lack of bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast. In England, for example, baked beans, fried or grilled tomatoes and sausage might accompany eggs and toast on a breakfast plate. In France, “le petit déjeuner” is most often a simple baguette with jam, or a pastry (not, in fact, French toast). In Costa Rica, the typical breakfast includes eggs, beans and rice (called “Gallo Pinto”), fried sweet plantains, fruit and Lizano salsa. “Ew, gross” is not the right response; “Sure, I’ll try that,” works much better.But this tip is not exclusive to cuisine (as most people expect cuisine – outside of breakfast – to be different). Embrace the local customs and generally be open to a wealth of new experiences. Every hour of every day should bring you face-to-face with something you’ve never seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted before, instigating a new way of thinking or a new point of view.
That is the beauty of travel. An open acceptance of difference sets a worldly American apart from the typical American, and defines the experience that both will have abroad.
Does every American act according to these generalizations? No, of course not. Many travelers pack humility and respect with their bikinis and sunglasses, or bandanas and hiking boots. But too many more do not, necessitating these tips and my repeated delivery of them from my soapbox.
Which, again, is soapbox made of love; for my people, for my country and for our potential to show the world our best traits and assets while we experience the best of “the other.” But also for my love of the other. Exploring foreign tastes, smells and sights, and roads, seas and mountains are what I live for. Travel is not just take; the real beauty lies in what you also have to give.
Writer's note from Brianna: Jersey City is our home base. And it’s the perfect home base, because it allows us to touch down in a friendly, supportive, vibrant, arts-appreciating, local-celebrating city after each trip (each trip occurring anywhere from once a month up to once every three months). Being that our family is on the road so often, I realized that I have as many travel tips and pieces of advice to offer (as I did with this post in January), as I do about our experience discovering our new Chilltown home. So expect more travel-focused content from now on, and please leave feedback in the comments -- or here – as to things you’d like to hear more (or less) about.