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10 Stupid Things Americans Do Overseas

By Jamie Beckman
June 21, 2019
Tourists with Selfie Stick in Spain
Ocusfocus/Dreamstime
Have you been guilty of a foreign-soil faux pas? Our easy guide to being a good citizen of the world will come in handy next time you get your passport stamped.

Don't get us wrong: We're darn proud to be Americans, and we don't mind saying so—whether we're here at our New York City headquarters or standing on foreign soil. But unfortunately, we've all seen the embarrassing U.S. traveler abroad: The idiot wearing the "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt while visiting a museum of tolerance, the big shot flashing a wallet full of euros on the Paris metro, or the family that insists on chowing down on American fast food in Rome. How not to be the ugly American? Well, here are the 10 stupidest things Americans do while overseas:

1. DRESSING—AND ACTING—LIKE A TOURIST

Traveling is one time when it's actually cool to be a poseur. Try your best to fit in with a country's style of dress and customs by ditching the fanny packs, visors, dark socks with sandals, and Hawaiian shirts—and not using your outdoor voice. "The golden rule of travel is that blending in and conformity are a form of flattery," says Lisa Grotts, author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. "Most countries will not expect you to be an expert on the nuances of their culture, but they will appreciate a show of interest in matters of importance to them." Taking your usual gregarious behavior down a notch is a good idea too. "People of other nationalities are more reserved than we are, so it's important not to come across as the ugly American: overbearing, overly familiar, loud," Grotts says.

2. FLASHING MONEY AROUND

Peeling bills off of wads of cash won't endear you to the locals—nor does it curry much favor here in the U.S.—but showing the contents of your wallet and taking copious amounts of money out of foreign ATMs in full view of everyone will make you popular with pickpockets. The cash machine itself could be a thief in disguise too. "Look closely at an ATM before using it, as criminals have been known to place 'skimmers' on the machines, especially in areas frequented by tourists," says Elizabeth Finan, spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department.

3. ASSUMING EVERYONE'S THERE TO WAIT ON THEM

Just like money doesn't buy taste or love, having vacation savings to burn doesn't guarantee the royal treatment everywhere you go. There are two keys to not being an American jerk: "Being a little bit patient and not assuming that everybody here is here to clamor over your tourist dollars is important," says Anna Post, co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette 18th Edition. Back in 1922, Emily herself wrote a book chapter titled "Europe's Unflattering Opinion of Us." Unfortunately, very little has changed. "For years, we Americans have swarmed over the face of the world, taking it for granted that the earth's surface belongs to us because we can pay for it," she wrote. Try to buck those stereotypes.

4. ORDERING AMERICAN FOOD ABROAD

Don't be that person who orders French fries in the middle of Italy. "The absolute worst thing you can do is to ignore the local food in favor of what's familiar to you: always seeking out the American-style burgers and pizza and Caesar salads on a menu or, worse, eating at fast-food or chain restaurants you know from home," says Laura Siciliano-Rosen, founder of Eat Your World, a website featuring local eats around the globe. Not sampling exotic food means you'll miss a large chunk of the area's culture that will enrich your travel experience. That said, everyone has heard at least one horror story about getting food poisoning abroad. "Wash your hands a lot and be smart about the basic things—avoid tap water and ice and unpeeled fruits and vegetables—and you can eat plenty of local food," Siciliano-Rosen says.

5. NOT BOTHERING TO LEARN BASIC FOREIGN PHRASES

English is indeed widely spoken all over the world, but not making any effort will just make everyone hate you. "If at all possible, at least say a greeting in the other person's language, and then say, 'Do you speak English?' right after that," says Post. "One thing that I've been told grates is to just start speaking English in a foreign county. Yes, it's likely that a lot of people, especially in touristy spots, will speak English, but the presumption that they do is really obnoxious." No need to bust out an entire language dictionary either. "If nothing else, learn how to say hello, thank you, and please," Post says.

6. BRINGING BACK SOUVENIRS THEY THINK THEY ARE ENTITLED TO

Not so fast hauling that vase out of the country and into your foyer. Absconding with a piece of a country's history—whether you knew it was authentic or not—isn't smiled upon. "Some countries, like Turkey, Egypt, and Mexico, have strict laws on antiques," Finan says. "If you purchase a souvenir that authorities believe is a national treasure, you may be arrested. In countries with strict control of antiques, document your purchases as reproductions if that is the case."

7. NEGLECTING TO RESEARCH A COUNTRY'S CUSTOMS

Accidentally making a jerk move abroad usually means you haven't studied what that country's jerk moves are. Post says there are six major areas to educate yourself about before you go to a new locale: greetings, gift giving, exchanges of money (whether to put money in someone's hand or on the table), handshakes, body language, and food. Food etiquette has many facets, Post says, "whether it's the eating of the food, the not eating of the food, complimenting the food, trying the food... In some places, a compliment may mean you want more."

8. RELYING ON CREDIT CARDS FOR PURCHASES

Carrying zero cash and using your debit card to pay for a bottle of water is growing more and more common in the U.S., but when you're abroad, you can't count on plastic. "Credit cards are not widely accepted in some countries," Finan says. "Although it is a good idea to bring a credit card or two, leave all unnecessary credit cards at home." If you run out of cash, the U.S. Embassy can help you with everything from contacting friends and family on your behalf for wire transfers or giving you a loan to get back to the States.

9. PACKING SOMETHING DUMB

Other countries' security can make going through airport security in the States look lax. Abroad, if you bring over an item that so much as looks dangerous, you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law. "A foreign country's laws can be different from laws in the United States," Finan says. "For example, some countries have strict laws on weapons—in some cases, possessing something as small as a pocketknife or a single bullet can get you into legal trouble." Clean out your suitcase before you start packing.

10. FORGETTING THEY ARE REPRESENTING THE REST OF US

You can't cancel out the bad behavior of every American doofus traveling abroad, but you can make a difference by being a positive example of a U.S. citizen. "Americans in general have a pretty bad reputation to try to live down," Post says. "Any time you can go the extra effort to use every courtesy that's available to you to show appreciation—like for the time that someone gives you in a shop—even if they don't return it right there, I think that that is part of what it means to be an ambassador for your country when you travel."

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