What is an “Ugly American”? How to Avoid this Label



ug·ly A·mer·i·can noun An American who behaves offensively when abroad.

Traveling can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences. If underprepared and unsure of the region’s customs, it can also be a very stressful time for you and annoying for those around you.

Read on for how not to be mistaken for an "Ugly American".

  • Before you decide to jet off to a country, do your research. Learn as much about the culture and people before you arrive.  If you do not speak the language, learn a few key phrases and invest in a translation app or book.
  • Money makes all trips possible.  So before you make landfall, be sure you are aware of the currency used by the country you will be visiting.  Typically, if you exchange your money before you arrive, you will be able to avoid a higher currency exchange fee. Banks offer this service for a small fee or even free.
  • Traveling to a different country means long flights and little leg room. If you have been on a plane in the last decade, then you know that your personal space on a plane is decreasing as you read this.
  • Airlines are trying to figure out how to add more passengers onto every flight, so it is really important to respect other’s space.  Have your luggage neatly tucked away and leave as much room as possible for others.  Just because you have someone sitting next to you, that does not mean that you have an open invitation to talk to them. Respect other’s privacy and make sure that if you are in a conversation that it’s mutual.
  • When you arrive at your destination, most likely you will need a taxi to take you from point A to point B.  If you encounter a reckless taxi driver and you feel unsafe, immediately ask the driver to pull over and let you out. Do not yell at the driver, but record the car number and get out safely. Once you are out, call the company and let them know about the awful experience.
  • One of the greatest joys in traveling to new countries is the chance to take in the sites. Respect the fact that these sites hold an enormous historical and cultural value and should be left as you found them.  Don’t carve your initials on anything or leave litter for someone else to pick up.  When the museum says “No Pictures”, please obey and put your camera away.
  • Dining out is definitely something that you will be doing.   Know what the culture’s dining customs are and what times are set aside for lunch and dinner. Or is it called supper?  What local cuisine should be a “must a try”?
  • If you end up disrespecting the culture or their food, it is highly likely that you will be labeled as an “Ugly American”. If you want to learn more about dining styles abroad click here.
  • If the menu is in a different language or you do not recognize certain dishes offered, then ask. It is ok to be unsure.  When asked politely, most wait staff persons are so happy to help.
  • Every country has a different policy in regards to tipping. Do yourself a favor and do research on the tipping customs and the percentage that is customary to that country.
  • If you happen to run into some inconsiderate neighbors in your hotel, take the appropriate actions. If the problem escalates, call the manager on duty and have them resolve the problem or get you a new room. Avoid taking matters into your own hand, which usually intensifies the problem.
  • It is also important to know about the government and laws.  Not every country is a democracy and laws can vary drastically in different nations.

For years, we have been known as the "Ugly American.”  It is an image that we, unfortunately, deserve.  Please keep these tips in mind next time you travel and do your best to show kindness and consideration for all people you meet.  Be a “Role Model American” not an "Ugly American".

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