Sunday, September 26, 2010

How Not To Be An Ugly American

As you know, Lisa and I have done a lot of traveling in the past year and a half. Call it what you will; maybe we have the traveling bug. But, what's been surprising me a lot lately is the response of some friends and family who reveal a decided disinterest in traveling anywhere outside of the United States. Or, if they do travel, they only want to go to locales that fit neatly within their "comfort level." Which is really just another way of saying: "Someplace where they speak English."

This comes as a shock to me. Maybe I'm being naive, but I never thought the threat of being in a foreign country where the local population doesn't speak a language you can understand was ever an impediment to travel. Yes, true, I do tend to stress out about learning the basic greetings and what have you in the language of the country we're about to visit, but this has more to do with wanting to be polite and not come off as some arrogant American who thinks the whole world should do me the courtesy of speaking English while I visit them.

So, is this a problem for those of you reading this? Would you rather only travel to countries where they speak the language you speak, or have a culture comparable to your own?

Here's my own personal tip/observation/rule of thumb for those of you traveling to a foreign country for the first time: Don't be afraid to come off as a clueless tourist. Really it's that simple. Because, honestly, that's what you are. Accept it. Live it. Be it!

And also understand that, with this status, you must expect some mixed receptions from the people you encounter in these far off lands. Some will be gracious and have pity on your obvious bewilderment; some will be impatient; and some will refuse to acknowledge your existence, let alone your repeated queries.

This happens, and it's not just limited to France. I see it here in NYC all the time. I come across countless tourists here in my day-to-day errands, naturally. At times, it seems like the whole world has come to see this great American conurbation I call home. And I'm always amazed by how these visitors are treated by my fellow city dwellers. Most New Yorkers are patient and will help a lost family from Denmark out in finding the right train to take to get to Battery Park, for instance. It's not a myth -- we are known to be polite more than you might think. But some are complete assholes to these people. While others are helpful, but condescending when they offer assistance: "WHAT? Speak up! I have no idea what it is you're saying. Are you speaking English?"

This is just how people are. Some are good, some are bad . . . and some are full of themselves, but will eventually help you out once they've inflated their ego some. These types exist the world over, and you just have to steel yourself and accept whatever help you can get.

To be honest, the few times we've had someone be less than courteous to us in our travels, it was not worth even harping on for too long. If the person was not helpful, we moved on until we found someone who was. Plain and simple. The few bad eggs did not color our view of the entire culture or country, not when so many more local people went out of their way to be kind and helpful to us during our stay. So, invariably when we come home, we usually have nothing but nice things to say about where we've been.

However, I think I should just add to this that, when you're traveling to another country where the language spoken is not English or a second language you grew up with (say, Spanish) . . . you owe it to yourself to at least attempt a few phrases in the local tongue. For me, I always learn how to speak some variation of "Excuse me, I don't speak [insert language here] very well. Do you, perhaps, speak English?"

It's only one phrase, and virtually any foreign language phrase book (especially those geared toward tourists) will teach you how to properly say this useful line. And useful it is, indeed! I've used this line in France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey as a matter of course, and I can honestly say that it opens many doors and brings smiles to the faces of those I'm speaking to. Not to mention I get a lot more help than if I had gone up to some local shopkeeper and just blurted out in my native tongue: "Hey, chief, do you speak English? I need some assistance here!"

Yeah, that's just BOUND to go over well, don't you think?

So, to sum it all up: When traveling, please develop a thick skin. No one's going to kiss your ass just because you're an American.

And for god's sake, learn some basic phrases you ignorant jackal! Just learning to say "buon giorno", "ni hao ma", "merhaba" -- or even "excusze moi . . . parlez vous Anglais?" -- can go a long way toward making your trip an enjoyable, friendly experience. As opposed to a hostile, frustrating, and rancorous one if you go in there expecting everyone to bow and fawn before your obvious cultural superiority.

Just my more than two cents on the subject. You can agree or disagree in the "Reactions" space below, or head on over to "comments" and give me a more detailed piece of your mind.


  1. Hey David, brave comments! They do resonate with me, but I think it's best to leave it to an American to make observations on his fellow Americans.

    Sadly, Brits abroad don't fare much better: loud, rude, drunk, resolute in their superiority and belief in the notion that understanding can be conveyed by repeating the same phrase slower and louder. That is the stereotype, not true of everyone (or even the majority) but firmly grounded in highly visible examples of behaviour.

    At least we know better, eh?

  2. LOL, I know . . . I can only bash Americans because I am one, so I can get away with it. :) To be honest, though, I've seen some pretty shameful behavior from all nationalities when we travel. There's one group in particular that have made a bad name for themselves in my book -- and they're not American (or British or Canadian). I won't say who, but it surprises me.

    And yeah, Ian, at least we know better.

  3. Just trying a quick comment to see if I've managed to add my photo correctly instead of that stupid smiley's hoping!

  4. Oh well, that didn't work. Photo is in Yahoo but not appearing here even after logging out & back in a few times. *sigh*

  5. Yeah, sorry about that. I don't know why your Yahoo photo doesn't work. Mine didn't work, either. Only the photo I load up into my Disqus account works.

    I'm trying to find out about uploading some random avatar assigner to comments, but I haven't found anything yet. I've seen other bloggers use something similar to get over the default avatar issue.

    Thanks for trying!

  6. I just count on my husband to know the language. ;) He's so handy to have around.

    I remember in France going up to the counter at our hotel and saying a short phrase, the clerk thought I knew what I was doing, I didn't. He started speaking waaaaay to fast for me. I answered in Spanish--my son said, "that's Spanish--not French." I wanted to die. The clerk probably got a kick out of it and, once again, my husband came to my rescue.

  7. LOL, Kim! Something similar always happens to me in whichever country we visit. I practice my select phrases so much, that sometimes (on rare occasion) I can fool someone into thinking I'm fluent. And then they reply in rapid-fire words that go straight over my head. Thankfully, I usually learn a backup phrase to get me out of such situations. :)

    And, yes, your DH does seem handy to have around, eh?

    Btw, which profile did you use to login in with? I notice your cool Avatar . . .


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