Travel Expert’s Advice On Not Being The Ugly American While Traveling


You may come across some travelers that have certain attributes like being loud and obnoxious, or basically showing qualities that are deemed offensive. Sometimes these people don't realize they are acting this way, but other times that's not the case. This kind of person has been called “Ugly American,”  and it is a popular travel term, but it doesn’t apply to just Americans.

The following can help anyone from any nationality avoid their "Ugly American" tendencies. 

Be Genuinely Curious

Imagine you are a young child exploring for the first time. All the questions in your head as you see new things. The excitement in your eyes. Of course, you don’t want to be doe-eyed and unaware of your surroundings, but very curious nonetheless.

When you engage with people, ask them questions. Be genuine about your curiosity, they will know if you are being fake. Ask them follow up questions. If you forgot to ask them a simple question in the beginning, just ask them the question and not let it be in the forefront of your mind. This mental distraction will take away from the experience.

Ask open-ended questions, avoid asking yes or no questions. Form questions that have them tell you a story. This interest and curiosity you are giving them will be reciprocated back to you. They will be interested in you and want you to tell them stories about yourself and your experiences. Rapport will be built by being genuinely curious.

Have an Open Mind/Don’t Compare

The first thing when avoiding being the ugly American is need to address how you look at things. You want to learn to go into situations with an open mind. This of course, is easier said than done. So what does it mean to go into situations with an open mind?

First, you must set aside any preconceived notions on how everything is “supposed” to be. When you have a prejudice, even if you don’t mean to, people will feel that coming from you. You don’t compare how it is to what you know back in America. Especially when you don’t speak the language, people feel the vibes well.

If you are well-intended, you will likely be given a pass, even if you do something culturally wrong. This means that you are comfortable with observing other cultures and not judging. Even if something is weird or even would normally make you feel uncomfortable, you need to be okay with seeing it.

By seeing these things, you are not endorsing or agreeing with it, you are simply observing.

Be an Individual

Even though you may come from America, you are an individual. Most people will be curious on where you stand on American politics. You don’t have to be defined by a statistic when traveling. Doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are, you can and will be judged as a person, not a group. Use this to your advantage.

Many people from other countries may not like certain American ideals, but they will like you for you. You are an unofficial ambassador. Be the example of the American you want the rest of the world to see us as.

Research the Customs and Cultural History

Do your homework. Find out the norms and differences of the place you’re traveling to. Knowing these will allow you to be respectful of their traditions. You won’t be shocked when you get there either. It’ll also show to them you care enough to find out their culture and history before you visited.

They will appreciate it and will start most of your interactions off on the right foot. In particular, hand gestures, body language, tipping, food etiquette, greetings, history, etc.

Learn Some of The Language

Before you travel, know how to say the following in the local language:

1.       Do you speak English?

2.       Hello/goodbye

3.       Nice to meet you/How are you?

4.       Please/thank you (very much)

5.       Yes/no

You can learn other phrases. I encourage you to. These are the must-knows. There will be many words that are cognates. And when you really have to go to the restroom, you will communicate that even if you don’t speak the language. Lol. If you learn a few basic phrases, locals will be grateful that you took the time.

Be Humble

Be proud of where you come from. But don’t be obnoxious about it.  No one person is perfect. Just because you grew up a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Know that others have a great deal to contribute to you and your journey. Be receptive of their opinion.

Avoid being insulting to people by belittling their heritage or cultural norms. Be humble not only with your speech, but by action as well.

Have a Dress Code

If you are not wanting to look like a tourist, don’t wear tourist clothes. While you’re exploring a place, wear regular clothes (if you don’t know what regular clothes are for the area, research it). You can wear the souvenir shirts when you get back home. Avoid athletic attire for the most part.

You’ll want to blend in for the most part for a couple reasons. One, petty criminals target tourists. Two, you want to be “first glance” hidden. Meaning it would take a second glance to know you are a traveler from America. Third, avoid rude wording and distasteful clothing for that particular culture.

Be Part of The Show, Not a Spectator

Interact with people. Engage in conversation with the locals. Share your stories. Play games with them. Laugh with them. Don’t just watch what others are doing and take pictures of it. And be sure not to interrupt others having fun so you can get a “good shot” to share with your friends later.

Part of travel is to share with your friends back at home. But a good portion of traveling is to keep to yourself.

Enjoy The Good and The Bad Times/Don’t Complain

Enjoying the good times is easy. When the weather is perfect, when everything goes your way. But also enjoy the times that didn’t go your way. Your perspective on your travels will be noticed by everyone you meet.

When in Doubt, Do as The Locals Do

Be observant of your surroundings. If everyone is talking in a lower voice around you, follow suit. You don’t want to be the loud American that is noticed everywhere you go. Sometimes being unseen allows you to watch things happen in its natural state. Listen and observe more than you speak.

Last Word

The most important thing is to create a lasting memory. A memory that you are proud of. A good memory. Following these simple tips will allow you to make lasting memories while also being respectful to others.