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Don’t Live Up To This Ugly Reputation Abroad

Updated: Oct 6

When I was in college, I spent a semester abroad. I chose London, as I had fallen in love with it a few years earlier while visiting my brother doing the same program. That, and I was terrible at learning other languages, and that wouldn’t be an issue in England.

I had been lucky enough to have traveled to several foreign countries before this point, and partly due to it having been in conjunction with my mom’s work, and partly just having been exposed to other cultures from a young age, I was on my best behavior. By best behavior, I don’t mean in the traditional ‘didn’t misbehave’ sense, but rather made an effort to not stand out as an obnoxious tourist.

Knowing that most of the students traveling abroad did not benefit from this upbringing, my college strived to educate us about what to expect and how to act when we were overseas. We attended several preparatory seminars and given several articles to read. One of the articles, which really was the crux of all of the material, was all about how not to be the “Ugly American”.

Now you may be thinking “Um, was your University teaching you how to be more attractive?” while picturing a seminar full of make-up and fashion tips. Nope! In this case, ugliness was truly more than skin deep. They were drilling into us how to fit into the European lifestyle, so we didn’t stand out as being tourists.

There is the stereotypical tourist that transcends cultures. The ambling group, taking up the whole sidewalk, as they take pictures of every. single. thing. Someone who stops others on the street, big map in hand (yes, this was pre-smartphone) asking where the closest subway (Tube, Metro, etc.) stop is, while literally standing in front of it. These are all the most obvious ways to call out your outsider status.

Some are subtle – the way you dress for instance. According to this article, and others I found more recently, wearing jeans, sweatpants, and sneakers was a dead giveaway of your American status. So yes, they did give some fashion advice during those seminars. Wearing what we might consider business casual, such as slacks, a blouse, and nicer shoes (flats, wedges, heels, nice sandals, boots depending on season and current fashion trends).

Cardigans or jumpers (sweaters) are preferred over sweatshirts, especially sweatshirts with Uni or sports teams graphics.

Other dead giveaways are less subtle. We American’s have a reputation of being loud, entitled, and brash. These traits only get more prominent when you add a couple of pints into the equation. Just because you have a thought or opinion, does not mean that you have to share out loud. This is particularly true if your opinion isn’t a very good one. Just because you aren’t familiar with something doesn’t make it ‘so weird’.

Don’t dismiss something just because it’s something different; you are in a different country to explore! Open yourself up to new experiences and keep an open mind! Remember the world does not revolve around you! If you’re on an escalator – stand to the right and walk to the left (or vice versa depending on the country). Look both ways before crossing the street because the cars won’t stop for you just because you are a pedestrian!

Be aware of any hand gestures. This is one that not a lot of people know or think about but is something that you really should research before heading to your destination. A great example is what we know as the peace sign. In the States, it doesn’t matter which way your fingers face when you flash your two fingers, the meaning is the same. However, if you were to flash those two fingers with the back of your hand facing out, you are in fact denoting a VERY different sentiment. In a gesture that is rooted strongly in history, you are essentially flipping someone off.

As a dumb 20-year-old kid, we thought these seminars and articles were so silly. We would roll our eyes at some of the things we thought were common sense and would even make fun of each other (particularly after a few drinks) for being an ugly American. For instance, while riding on the Tube and one of our friends was getting loud others would jokingly admonish him for being an ‘ugly American’. Of course, by doing so, we were pretty much being exactly that ourselves. Later in life – primarily due to working in a customer-facing industry- I realized how uncommon ‘common’ sense really is and some of the ‘no-duh’ advice, was better stated than left unsaid.

The best way to avoid becoming the ugly American yourself is to do your research! If you are using a travel agent, they should be able to provide you with some dos and don’ts of your destination(s). This may be as simple as advice on how to dress and manners to follow, or as important as laws about clothing restrictions or chewing gum (seriously, don’t be caught chewing gum in Singapore!).

If you have researched and/or traveled to a foreign country, what is some advice you have found helpful to avoid being an ‘Ugly American’?

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