Readers React to "Are You the Ugly American?"

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We've gotten an outpouring of praise and criticism in response to our article Are You the Ugly American? on 10 common mistakes Americans make when traveling abroad. Here's a sampling:

I am writing in response to Erin Richards' article on Budget Travel Online, "Are You the Ugly American?" In the article she states that in Germany, it can take up to three hours or more to get your meal while dining out. Either Ms. Richards is exaggerating (A LOT) or she has never eaten out in Germany. We are a military family and were fortunate enough to be stationed in Germany for three years. While there we ate out at least once a week. We also traveled around the entire country extensively. We never, EVER waited three hours for a meal. Not even two hours. The wait may have been a little longer in some places, but no more than trying to eat at Olive Garden on a busy night here in the States. I do agree that Americans do need to be more culturally sensitive when they travel abroad, and not expect other countries and cultures to become like us. However, I could not finish the article because after the "three hour wait" statement, I found the author's credibility to be questionable. --Diane Bralley, San Antonio, Tex.

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

It 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.) I'm just wondering, has Erin Richards ever read the book? She implies it's a bad thing to be an "ugly American," but 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.

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. Perhaps you, Erin, are the ugly American, living in America. --Stan Stoneking, Citrus Heights, Calif.

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.Your fine magazine is a welcome sight in my mailbox each month. --Lee Gaffrey, Encinitas, Calif.

I enjoyed Erin Richards' piece "Are You the Ugly American?" 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

Thank you so much for the article on Cultural Etiquette. Many Americans have an expectation that the world should conform to our norms and practices. We are willing to leave our homes but get upset when we find ourselves without all the same creature comforts we just left. The need for travel etiquette increases as Americans travel further off the beaten path and as they travel to fulfill the need for volunteers, the number of so-called vacations with meaning is increasing. All American travelers should consider themselves as goodwill ambassadors, to ensure they do not become critics of the local culture. Leaving the resort for a taste of the real world is a wonderful experience but realize a few things ahead of time: if you find the shower with much less pressure than you are used to (if you find a shower); then know that it is likely that somewhere in that country many have no running water. Enjoy the fact that you can wash when you want choose.

 I travel for work for CURE International, a healthcare NGO, and was recently in Afghanistan with my eldest son. I knew I could leave him on his own in the hospital because he has traveled extensively to many poor countires and above all else, he is a respectful young man. He knew that he was the guest, and he knew the importance of showing respect in a Muslim world. I, on the other hand, made the faux pas. When we arrived at the hospital, I saw a friend from the States I had not seen in quite awhile and immediately went to hug him hello. "No, Gerry--T.I.A.". I was quickly reminded (This Is Afghanistan, and men and women do not hug). I spent the next 10 days with my hands glued to my thighs lest I do what I typically do, which is to touch people as I speak to them, regardless if they are man or woman. This was my biggest challenge, keeping my hands to myself. I guess it's an Italian thing! We had running water about half the day and electricity for about 10 hours a day on a good day. We ate a lot of bread and rice. I did get sick but it was my fault: I used the tap to brush my teeth and succumbed to an infection that lasted for months. But I would go back tomorrow to have the privelege to share in a world that few Americans truly understand, to have tea in the home of a couple who lost most of their family in the wars, to drink German beer served by a Korean who is in the country because of his Christian faith and has opened a number of restaurants to train Afghans in the hospitality business, to talk to Afghan medical residents freely while in the operating room but then watch them behave more typically Afghan in the cafeteria (that is to nod as I passed, not laugh and joke openly). I met an American women who refused to cover her head. I wore full head covering, long sleeves, and long skirts the whole time I was there. I was a guest, and whether I agree with the need for head covering or not was irrelevant.

While few Americans may travel to Afghanistan anytime soon, the rules you put forth in your article are important in a world where Americans are increasingly viewed as the bully or the bad guy. As a nonprofit we are very careful to educate our short termers (those medical professionals who volunteer two weeks or two months) on the culture they are going into and what they can and just as importantly cannot expect. Even our donors need to realize that we may have to turn down an offer for a free MRI machine--an important piece of diagnostic equipment not available anywhere in most of our African countries, because we are not sure we can maintain the electricity to keep the MRI room cool enough to keep it running. All in all, the mix of nationals and Americans has been for the great benefit of the countries we serve because we know that wherever we go, we are both students and teachers...and much is gained when you approach a visit with the willingness to learn! --Gerardine Luongo, CURE International

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