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jun 22 2007

Are You the Ugly American?

Readers have reacted to the following list of the ten common mistakes Americans make when traveling abroad.

1. Be patient. Don't try to rush things, if the local rhythm isn't as fast as your own.

2. Greet people properly. Whether it's shaking hands or kissing, ask a local what the customs are--and then follow the customs.

3. Avoid careless judgments. Travelers love to talk about how places are different from home. Unfortunately innocent observations can come across as superior and judgmental, as in: "Your cars are so small here!"

4. Mind your table manners. As for those times when you're served food you can't bear to look at, let alone eat, but you don't want to disrespect your host? Smile and eat as much as you can.

5. Speak the language. Even if you can only stammer out a few phrases.

6. Don't overtip. Your tip might be misinterpreted as flaunting your wealth. Ask a concierge or local acquaintance to explain local expectations.

7. Dress respectfully. Especially in restaurants and houses of worship. Conservative colors--grays, blues, blacks--are generally safe bets. If you're going to a warm climate, avoid the temptation to pack only shorts and sandals.

8. Use clear English. "We Americans clutter our speech with jargon and sports and military terminology," says Roger E. Axtell, author of eight international etiquette guides, including Do's and Taboos Around the World.

9. Be a thoughtful guest. Gifts don't have to be expensive; as always, it's the thought that counts.

10. Watch your gestures. The wrong move with your head, hand, or foot can be a surefire way to get on a local's nerves, or even pick a fight. Do your homework about space relationships, adds Axtell. Latin America and the Middle East have smaller personal 'bubbles,' so you must refrain from stepping away when locals move close.

(List compiled for Budget Travel last fall by freelance writer Erin Richards.)

Here's a sampling of reader responses. Feel free to post your own comment below...

I have no problem with informational articles on customs and etiquette when traveling outside the U.S. However, why must you employ the liberal, politically correct, hate America (and Americans) phrase used in your headline? I am irritated by your presumption that any error made in a foreign country immediately qualifies Americans for such a timeworn, cheap shot label. Your elitism shines through in a liberal magazine owned by an over-the-top liberal.--Stan Stoneking, Citrus Heights, Calif.

As a teacher who has lived for 16 years in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands and traveled extensively worldwide, I couldn't agree more with your list of potential pitfalls. Dress, impatience, lack of language, and arrogance are the four I most often see that have the greatest negative impact. I have a niece who worked in Galway as a waitress in a pub, and she said the worst patrons were the Americans because they wanted everything to be just like in America: ice in their drinks and free refills, hot dogs, hamburgers, Budweiser, ice cream, pizza, etc. I wonder what our response would be to the German who wanted a breakfast of cold meats, a variety of breads, cheeses, yogurts, fruits, and hard boiled eggs. I might add that we are also VERY LOUD when conversing. It certainly isn't difficult for the locals to pick us out; 10 Americans sound like 25 Germans or Dutch. Since my stay in the States these past 10 months while assisting my ill mother, I am amazed at the increase in pace and lack of patience whether waiting in line or driving in rush hour traffic. I also can't understand why anyone would want the check before they have even gotten their food. I can't wait to return to the Netherlands and enjoy a three hour meal. I always say, the hardest thing to get at dinner is the check. --Larry Kirchner

The title is an obvious reference to the book, The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. This book was made required reading by my admiral when I was stationed overseas with the U.S. Navy in Singapore for three years. (I also lived in London for three years.) ...In the book, the "ugly American" is actually the hero of the story! Although a short, round, bald fellow with glasses and homely features, he is a clever mechanical/engineering type who learns the local language and customs and works with the local people to solve irrigation problems. He and his wife live humbly in a home like the locals have in their fictitious foreign nation. Very soon he and his wife are trusted and loved by the local people. It is true there are many Americans who seem to lose their manners when they go abroad (if they ever had any), and Americans can be quite arrogant and ethnocentric. In that sense, we MAY be ugly, but in the book, even someone with an ugly appearance could be a positive representative of America. --Jeff Saville, Temecula, Calif.

I think it is time for an article for tourists about how to act in my country, the United States. People seem to think it is alright to visit here and act obnoxious. People love to denigrate Americans even while being given our hospitality. I am as proud of my country as they claim to be of theirs. --Jan Taylor, Greenville, Miss.

Thank you for the article. A phrase that would make the handy card of polite phrases even more helpful would be "Excuse me." There are times when one does something that appears rude such as bumping into someone or unintentionally doing any of the actions mentioned in the article. There are only seconds of eye contact in which the person offended decides if the action was intentional. It's a helpless feeling to not have the words to say you are sorry. I would also like to add that it isn't only the French that are put off by Americans' tendency to start a conversation without so much as a greeting. I know from my own blunder that the Dutch (and probably most of the world) feel the same. Thank you for a subject that bears reminding often. --MaryAnn Crosby, Madison, Wis.

I understand what you are conveying when you refer to the Ugly American abroad. As you probably know, the ugly American in the book The Ugly American was the good guy serving in southeast Asia. He was only ugly in appearance. You are one of many who use the wrong reference when pointing out bad acting Americans in foreign locations. I suggest you recommend the book to your subscribers to learn who the real (good) Ugly American was, and, on the other side, who the real bad Americans were. --Lee Gaffrey, Encinitas, Calif.

There is one more item that can be added. Americans should be sensitive to other cultures and not criticize or make fun of the locals, especially out loud in English. You never know who is listening and who speaks English. --Cheryl Hile, La Jolla, Calif.

I was disappointed to see no mention of exercise clothes in the section on dressing respectfully. In more-conservative cultures, the skin-baring running gear that most Americans wear when they exercise can only come across as offensive. A friend who recently returned from Egypt shared photos of herself in skimpy running shorts and an exercise bra backgrounded by women who were covered from head to toe. Yikes! In Latin cultures, even in progressive Mexico, it is rare to see women wearing shorts in rural areas, outside big cities or major resort communities. And yet everywhere we go, we meet American women who are oblivious to the fact that they are the only females in the community with bare legs extending below short shorts. Appropriate dress in not just an issue of colors and restaurants. What we choose to wear sends big signals about our sensitivity to the values and cultural standards of others. Modesty, a standard which seems to be losing ground here in the U.S., is still a reliable measure when selecting what to pack in a suitcase and what to leave at home.--Mary Ann deVries, Polk City, Iowa

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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