How not to be an “Ugly American”…when abroad

US Passport
“Ich bin ein Amerikaner. Wo ist eine Starbucks?”

I’m about to take my first international trip. So, I can no longer say that I’m one of the majority of Americans who don’t have a passport. The need not to be an “Ugly American” is even more important when you’re a guest in another country. As Americans, we want to make a good impression on our hosts and represent our nation well. It’s also a safety issue: Standing out too much as Americans can make us targets for crime and violence.

The rules I gave for not being an “Ugly American” at home apply when abroad, with some additional guidelines when we are the guests.

Learn Metric

In the 1970s, the United States tried to convert to the metric system. In some ways, we have. We use liters to buy bottled water, soft drinks, wine, and car engines. We run races in kilometers (the K in a 5K). Dosages for medicine and nutrients are in milligrams. If you own firearms, your ammunition may be in millimeters.

Working with the rest of the metric system isn’t that hard if you use a few rules of thumb:

  • A centimeter is about 2/5 of an inch.
  • A meter is about a yard.
  • A kilometer is about 5/8 of a mile.
  • A kilogram is about 2 pounds.
  • A liter is about a quart.
  • In temperature, 10C is about 50F, 20C is about 70F, and 30C is about 90F.

Learn the Language

English is not a universal language. Even in countries where English is spoken, people have different accents and colloquialisms that may make their English hard for you to understand. So, you need to learn the native language, even if it’s English.

If the native language is not English, learn a few basic greetings, numbers, days of the week, and — most importantly — “Where is the toilet?” You can pick up more vocabulary as you look at packaging in stores, read menus and signs, and ask people for help. If they see you’re making an effort, they will probably be willing to help you. Be patient as they try to explain. You are the one with the problem because you didn’t learn their language before coming. Be appreciative of their help.

Learn the Customs (Especially the Taboos)

Spend some times learning the customs of the place you are visiting. For example, how do you hold a knife and fork? Do you tip, and how much? How do you present and accept business cards? Simple things show that you’ve spent time learning about a place and that you want to respect your hosts.

You need to avoid cultural taboos, especially since some of them can get you arrested. Pay close attention to rules on gift-giving for business trips, appropriate clothing, and when you’re traveling as a couple (especially LGBT couples), appropriate displays of affection.

Don’t Look or Act Like an Ugly American

Leave your patriotic t-shirts, NFL jerseys, and MLB baseball caps at home. Don’t talk about how much better food, cars, traffic, people are back in the good ol’ USA. Don’t talk about how we saved their country in World War II. Don’t eat all your meals at McDonald’s (or go there once and try things that are not on the American menu). Don’t bug the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. Don’t act like a drunken jerk at Oktoberfest.

The purpose of travel is to experience the world from other people’s eyes, to immerse ourselves in a different culture, and see ourselves as citizens of the world. Mark Twain may have acted like an ugly American at times in The Innocents Abroad, but he concluded, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Bon voyage.