I want to start off by noting how surprised I am that “Americanize” is a proper verb. I thought I was making it up when I wrote this, but apparently not which actually helps support my cause for this post. I want to talk about “The Ugly American”. You may have heard this expression before, and as someone who sees the ugly of America in so many things, I understood the term long before I started traveling to other countries. It wasn’t however until I stepped outside the U.S. that I realized just how obnoxious most Americans tend to come off!It’s really not a mystery to me why so many people are hesitant or cold towards Americans in other countries, but for those of you who might not understand, here are a few of the reasons why.
- Our words combined with how we say them tends to come off really harsh. In many European countries the languages are romantic, so the words seem to flow very elegantly into each other and their speaking just has an overall softness to it. Of course if someone is upset or yelling they can make something sound harsh in any language, but the sound of Americans just plainly talking sounds to me like someone taking a hammer to a tin can. It’s a little hard to describe until you are surrounded by people speaking another language and then you find yourself easily picking out the American voice in the crowd, but it really is abrasive. I’m not saying every American does this, I have met a small few who have softer voices like myself where it isn’t as noticeable, however that is far from the majority.
- We are very direct in our approach, most of the time much too direct and it can be perceived as aggressive or entitled. For example, I was standing in a laundry mat in Italy waiting for my clothes to be done when a woman passing by very abruptly stopped and asked (more like barked) “Do you live here”!?, to which I replied with a simple shaking of my head and she quickly stomped off. Clearly she just wanted some directions, but honestly had NO idea how aggressive she seemed, how loud she was, or how rude it made her look. I didn’t want to talk to her and I even understood her situation, so imagine being a native who is standing at their place of work and who might not even understand English! This woman walks up and quickly yells something at you expecting an answer that very moment. It really is much more entitled and abrasive than we might think it is, and many Americans are doing this without a second thought.
- We are loud! Why are Americans always shouting!? I have no idea why many of us think that raising our voice is going to help someone understand what we’re saying, because it 100% doesn’t. If anything, it gives the person you are talking to more anxiety or frustration about trying to communicate and distracts them from what your actually saying. It also sounds demeaning, like you are better than the person or that you think they are stupid. I know a lot of people probably don’t think that’s how it is perceived, but usually the inflection just sounds that way. If you are standing right in front of someone, chances are they can hear you just fine and changing how loudly you are speaking is not going to change how much they understand you.
- We tend to talk very fast. Even if the person you are talking to knows English, they still may not understand you until you slow down and enunciate. Again, that doesn’t mean say it louder, just say it slower and really try to separate your words. I find that natives do this as well if they think you speak the local language. If I meet someone who doesn’t know English, I also have to ask them to speak very slowly to pick up what they’re saying. Not the biggest deal, but you can frustrate someone if you don’t make an effort to speak at a slower pace.
So, here are a few tips on how you can avoid becoming part of “The Ugly American” club.
- Soften your voice, your speech, and your overall demeanor. Even if you’re lost, even if you’re frustrated, having a softer approach can really help you get farther with people who are just doing their everyday thing. I’m not saying be a mouse, but you can start the conversation by saying “excuse me” (in the native language if you know it), and carefully pose your question so it is to the point and easy to understand. If you have a map or something to write on, that can also be helpful when the language barrier is really strong. Remember that no one is required to help you just because you are a tourist. If you approach someone as a dumb, loud and lost American, they might be less inclined to make sure you don’t walk down the same street looking for the metro five more times.
- Remember, you are not the most important! If you are running late somewhere, that is your fault and doesn’t entitle you to cut a line of people or demand answers from someone who is busy helping others. If you don’t get what you wanted or expected from a place of business, you can of course state your case and be assertive, but never use the fact that you are “American” or “wealthy” to insinuate that you deserve something better than everyone else. That is a surefire way to get exactly what you DON’T want from natives, and honestly, people who pull that crap back home are assholes too! Just don’t do it.
- TRY to speak the local language. You will probably butcher it, you will probably be embarrassed, you will probably have to repeat yourself a couple times before the person understands, and the other person may even chuckle while you’re trying, but trust me and just try. For one, you’ll learn a little bit of another language which is good in general and will help in so many areas from train stations to cafes; two, you’ll usually be much more respected by whoever you’re talking to, even if the conversation continues in English; and three, many times people will correct your pronunciation or tell you the more common way to say things which gives you a more realistic approach to the language and helps you bond with whoever your talking to. Really there is no downside to trying to speak the native language. Even simple pleasantries said in the native tongue can make a world of difference when it comes to the experiences you will have.
- Lastly, try try try try tryyy not to rely on google translate or your phone in general the entire time you travel. Pulling out google translate to talk to someone without even trying anything else will usually get you a look. Like I said in number three, try to speak the local language, and as stated in one and two, approach the conversation modestly. You also really don’t experience where you are until you “rough it” a little. Get lost, stumble upon something you wouldn’t have read about on google’s top ten tourist suggestions, talk to locals, ask for directions, take random trains! Some of the coolest places I’ve found haven’t been big tourist destinations. Some of the best conversations I’ve had were combinations of broken English and my best shot at Spanish, Russian or French. Traveling should be in the spirit of adventure and experience, but you won’t really have an adventure if you can anticipate every step of the way. Having your face in your phone also makes you a target for pick pockets and people selling selfie sticks, so always be mindful when the phone is out.
I always get a little giddy and pat myself on the back when I tell someone I am from America and they are shocked. I have had people think I am from Ireland, New Zeland, England, Spain etc., but I have also had people spot that I am American just because of how I speak. With all this being said, I want to make it clear that I am not saying locals can’t be unrightfully rude or unhelpful to Americans. There are unfriendly people everywhere in the world and you’re bound to run into a least one of them if you are traveling long term.
What I want people to understand from this is why locals tend to have a generic predisposition towards Americans even if you yourself aren’t the typical “Ugly American”. SO many Americans touring in Europe have annoyed me with their habits and I am a fellow American, so just imagine what natives have to deal with on a daily basis? If they know you’re American, they might assume you are like the majority until you prove them wrong. So do it! Prove to them that you aren’t loud, dumb and entitled like so many others before you were unable to do! I have also left out any political stance from this article because there are way to many opinions that could be taken the wrong way, but political stances can also have an affect on how Americans are viewed. My advice there is to steer clear of having any politically driven conversations while traveling. You may find yourself having a conversation about things you really aren’t fully informed on, or about something that is perceived entirely different by the people around you. Don’t put yourself in that kind of situation.
I hope you enjoyed this topic, and if you realized you are doing one of the “Ugly American” habits I listed, you have the great opportunity to be more self aware moving forward!
Written in Naples, Italy. Ciao!