10 Ways to Get Yourself Labeled as an Ugly American

For some reason, the people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive, or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.”
-Burmese journalist in the 1958 novel “The Ugly American” by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick.

The stereotype must have come from somewhere. Few Americans traveling abroad will admit that they are of the ugly-acting members of their nationality. Yet the stereotype persists. Loud, obnoxious, arrogant. Where did it come from? Is it actually true that residents of the United States have a hidden personality that only comes out once they have traveled outside of their borders? True or not, much of the world believes in the Ugly American phenomenon.

Not every US passport holder falls into the stereotype, however, it doesn’t seem to disprove anything in the eyes of people from other countries. You may get an incredulous “You’re American?” when you reveal your point of origin. Congratulate yourself if you are from the US and you hear such exclamations of surprise. You are not an Ugly American.

How can you avoid having such a negative adjective placed before your nationality? It easy. Just avoid the following actions:
1. Responding to someone who doesn’t understand English by repeating yourself word for word in a much louder voice. It’s not so much the fact that they are speaking at higher volume that is amusing, it is the expression of frustration on their faces when the louder sounds do not produce the desired level of understanding. Oops, your ethnocentricity is showing. “Everyone must understand some English. Maybe if I speak a little bit louder.” The whole we-don’t-speak-the-same-language dimension hasn’t even enter your head.
Of course, there is always the chance that the person you are trying to communicate with is pretending not to understand English because they don’t want to talk to you.

2. Constantly comparing a country’s government or infrastructure to the US. I’ve heard this many times: a statement complaining about some aspect of a country (usually the food, cleanliness standards or transportation) prefaced with “Well, in the US…” The reason you travel is to see something different, have some cool experiences (whatever that entails) and gain some understanding, right? Does anyone really travel to other countries for the sole purpose of loudly comparing their destination to their home country? The whole comparison thing is just another way of telling local people that you think their country sucks. How endearing.

3. Talking too loudly. This has nothing to do with being understood. For some reason, perhaps some subtle, acquired cultural trait, some people just start talking louder once they are outside the border. There is always some guy who seems to think that he is in a bar and he has to talk over the loud music. But there’s no bar and no music. If he happens to be in a bar, he adjusts the volume upwards further. Find this guy and ask him where he’s from. 90% of the time, he’s from the states.

4. Seeking out other ugly Americans to hang out with for the duration of your trip. Lots of people travel in groups. Fair enough. You’re in an unfamiliar place and perhaps a little on edge. You feel more comfortable having other people with familiar customs and habits around. That’s absolutely fine, unless the others in your group make it easier to perform the other nine actions on this list.

5. Wearing any sort of over-the-top patriotic apparel such as a t-shirt with an eagle holding the American flag in its beak. Come on, this is self explanatory. I get it. You are proud of your country. Fine. Nationalism has its place. But people are sensitive to fervent displays of American nationalism. Something to do with our willingness to flex military muscle.

6. Not interacting with local people unless you want something from them. This is, more or less, an issue of respect. Conversing with local people in a way that doesn’t bring to mind the uncomfortable memories of colonialism is always appreciated.

7. Acting like you can score with the local women (or men) because of your nationality. You’re ugly (physically) in the US and you are still ugly when you leave.

8. Not caring that you are totally unaware of the political or social situation in a country. For many people, this is the biggest one. Literature’s ultimate Ugly American, Pyle, from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, is a perfect example of not understanding, or caring to understand, what’s going on in a country. Use the BBC to keep up with the news. If you can talk intelligently about the current events of a country you are visiting, no matter how obscure they are, you might even be able to cancel out one of the other nine nasty habits on the list that you indulge in.

9. Constantly breaking norms and customs. All you have to do is get the little travel book that tells you not to wear your shoes indoors or touch people on the head or whatever. It takes five minutes to read. Five minutes to learn how to not make an ass out of yourself.

10. Protesting any wrongdoing by saying “I’m an American.” Or worse, using that same phrase as an excuse when you are the one in the wrong. Yikes. You have just admitted that you think you deserve special treatment on the sole basis of your nationality.

Still worried about being labeled an Ugly American? Try wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a red maple leaf, the national symbol of Canada.

So, for the sake of all American travelers who, while perhaps physically ugly, do not exhibit the above-mentioned ugly behaviors, let’s try to change the Ugly American stereotype.

Are Americans scared to travel abroad?

Over at Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, Matt takes Americans to task for their well-known reluctance to travel abroad, citing the oft-repeated statistic that only 15% of Americans own passports. He attributes the dearth of US travel abroad to a number of factors, including American fear and ignorance of the rest of the world, but I’m not sure these go very far in explaining the real reasons behind the phenomenon. So why don’t Americans travel more?

For starters, Americans only receive (or demand) about two weeks off in vacation time per year, compared to a month or more in many European countries. Now, perhaps this is the fault of the American worker, who doesn’t value his or her leisure time enough to demand more vacation time, or maybe it all goes back to the famous Puritan work ethic. Either way, I simply don’t think it’s true that Americans are afraid to travel to, say, Australia or China.

But Matt disagrees: “Americans are just scared of the world. I mean really scared. Maybe even petrified. In this post 9/11 world (even before it), Americans have been taught the world is a big scary place. There are terrorists outside every hotel waiting to kidnap you. People don’t like you because you are American. The world is violent. It’s poor. It’s dirty. It’s savage. Only Canada and Europe are O.K. but, if you go there, they will still be rude to you because you are American.” This is course the stereotype, but do lots of Americans still feel this way?

So if Americans aren’t scared, why don’t they travel abroad more? Well, America is also one of the most varied, multi-cultured countries in the world, so perhaps Americans don’t feel the need to travel beyond their borders. From natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, the Florida Everglades, and Denali National Park, to vibrant, multi-ethnic cities like New York, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco, Americans can see a wide range of people and places without ever crossing a national border.

It’s entirely natural and expected that Americans don’t travel as much as, say, Germans, because (and I hope I’m not stepping on any toes here) America is a larger and more varied place. Add to that the extra cost and time it takes Americans to travel abroad, and I’d say we’re getting close to an answer.

Matt also points to cultural ignorance as one of the reasons behind the relative lack of overseas travel. This explanation has special appeal to any American traveler (like myself) who’s ever been to Prague only to return and hear the question, “So, did you learn any German?”

Matt calls it cultural ignorance, and he may well be right. But I prefer to think that Americans are simply comfortable with their lives as they are and don’t feel the need to travel abroad. And perhaps they’ve (okay, we’ve) been chanting “We’re number 1!” for so long that they’ve forgotten what else is out there. Admittedly, my preferred explanations– comfort and incuriousness– may not show Americans in the best light, but it’s a lot better than calling them scared and culturally ignorant.

Bottom line: I wish my fellow Americans would travel abroad more, but only for the same reasons I wish more Moroccans and Russians and Indians would travel abroad more: because the world is an endlessly interesting, stimulating, and eye-opening place, and seeing more of it only makes us better.