A Field Guide For Not Completely Sucking As An American Tourist

Felix Plakolb
Felix Plakolb

Itty bitty shorts. Loud voices. Idiotic oblivion. High-maintenance requests.

The list of stereotypical American tourist offenses continues. I could go on for pages.

A long time ago, I would have laughed off such stereotypes as nothing more than just that: superficial stereotypes. But half a dozen years, numerous countries, and 3 continents later, I’ve come to admit that there’s truth to be had behind the [embarrassingly] bad rap of American tourists.

I don’t like admitting it. But I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve cringed as a fellow hotel guest or tour-group follower made an embarrassment of herself, and my country’s culture.

Whether we like it or not, stepping out into the world as travelers makes us unofficial ambassadors for our country and culture.

It’s time to start showing respect and love through our travels – no matter what country you hail from or where your wanderlust leads. Let’s change the vagabond reputation.

Even if, like me, you hail from the land of the free and the home of the brave.

When you meet someone on your travels, how do you want them to remember you? You may very well be the only American they ever meet. So leave a legacy you’re proud of.

Ready to rock it as an American tourist and show the world your true compassionate/awesome/caring/vagabonding/epic self Here’s the most common Dos and Don’ts for how not to suck as an American tourist.

Do . . .

1. Research before you go.

The world’s at your fingertips. It’s really not that hard to check your guide book or do a quick internet search (“cultural courtesy in [ ]” or “manners in [ ]”). A little reading will save you a lot of hassle and headache down the road.

2. Respect cultural modesty.

Flaunting too much skin in a culture that values modesty will only attract unwanted attention and, more importantly, communicates that you care more about looking hot than respecting the local culture. Ouch.

Look up the normal attire of a country before you visit, and check to see if it varies by location. (Some tourist sites, like cathedrals, will not allow entrance to those who don’t adhere to certain modesty standards).

3. Attempt basic phrases in the local language.

Spend a few minutes on your flight or train ride learning simple phrases in the local language. Nowadays, every tour book has an index of simple phrases (or you can simply use Google). Words to know:

• Hello/Good day (or whatever the typical respectful greeting happens to be)
• Please
• Thank you
• Where is the restroom?
• Do you speak English?

Often, foreigners are willing to speak to you in English only after you politely ask the last question. Try to get the pronunciation correct – but don’t stress too much, because there’s no way you’ll sound like a local. What you’re aiming for is effort, not skill.

4. Speak respectfully and quietly.

Around the world, public places tend to be quieter than American public places. This especially holds true in Europe, where laughing or speaking loudly at a restaurant or while using public transport can get you dirty looks. When in doubt, keep your volume low, even when talking to your fellow tourists.

5. Pay attention to those around you.

Cultural courtesies vary from one location to the next within the same country. Would you act the same in a mosh-pit as you would at a funeral service? Of course not!

The best way to stay on cue in any setting: copy the locals. They know what’s going on, what’s expected, and what would be downright awkward. This technique has saved my skin in numerous foreign language religious services and has gotten me fed in crowded food markets where I had no idea what to expect.

6. Say thank you.

A simple “thank you” goes a very long way, especially in the native language. But even a gracious smile when you’re at an absolute loss for words can make all the difference. A gracious spirit shines through one’s actions. Those around you will know that you really do care – not just about snapping a nice Instagram selfie, but about experiencing their culture.

7. Learn to laugh at your mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes. (Yep – everybody). That means even the most culturally-sensitive globetrotter is going to slip up in a major faux pas, at least once. Messing up or looking like a fool doesn’t mean you’re a sucky American tourist, or that you should pack your bags and head on home. The fact that you care means that you’re exactly the type of person that should be traveling the world. Remember, a simple, sincere “sorry” goes a long way. As long as you learn from your mistakes and take advice from others, you’re well on your way to making the world a brighter place.

Don’t . . .

1. Speak more loudly to be understood.

English-speaking tourists have this thing for speaking super slowly and loudly when someone doesn’t understand them (no, this doesn’t just happen in the movies – I’ve seen it far too many times). How would you like it if someone spoke to you like a 3-year-old? ‘Nough said.

Though, ironically enough, I’ve seen locals only pretend not to understand when someone acts like this . . .

2. Treat your tour guide like a servant.

Just because they’re getting paid doesn’t mean they have to put up with your every whim or complaint. I think tour guides may be the most patient humans on the planet – because they have to be. Don’t be that person they laugh about over drinks later when they can finally escape to their friends and family. Treat your guides with respect by asking thoughtful questions, showing genuine interest in what they’re talking about, and by following their instructions. You just may end up with a really great friend.

3. Shout in public places.

Unless you want to instantly draw attention to yourself as a public nuisance. Yuck. Let’s not.

4. Initiate physical contact.

I’m not even talking about sexual/flirtatious physical contact. Something as seemingly harmless as a handshake can be extremely inappropriate in some cultures! Your best bet? Wait until the local initiates, then handshake/hug/high-five/whatever. If you initiate, it puts the local in the extremely awkward situation of choosing between embarrassing you or embarrassing himself.

5. Get glued to your smartphone.

Looking at your smartphone, laptop, or other electronic says: (1) That your current setting is not worthy of your attention, (2) That those around you are not worthy of attention, and (3) That you aren’t interested in learning anything from your surroundings.

6. Assume you’re the expert.

Tour guide makes a statement about his home country.

Random tourist interjects that actually, he’s wrong and it’s actually [ ] instead.

Used to dealing with know-it-all tourists, guide politely dismisses the interruption and attempts to redirect the focus.

Random tourist doesn’t back down, instead insists that they are in the right!

The other travelers just trying to be nice people, throw the annoying tourist off the tour bus and apologize profusely to their guide.

The end.

Aside from the last point (which only happens in my wistful imagination) I’ve seen this play out too many times. Never ever assume you know better than those around you. You’re in their country, after all.

7. Compare to your home.

If we travel to learn new things and gain new experiences, why do so many people spend so much time talking about the awesome-ness of their home while abroad? Your home probably is awesome. I certainly love my home. But remember that you didn’t travel across the world to focus on your home/country/culture. Share only when asked. Until then, remember to be the learner, not the teacher.

Don’t forget that a learning attitude and a smile go a long way. Cultural respect is not something to stress about, but to rejoice in.TC mark

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