How to: Avoid being an Ugly American


Back in 1981 I was laid off but then rehired a few months later by an engineering/planning consulting firm for a job no one else wanted to do. The job involved being in Europe for six months and I jumped on it.   They sent me as the planner and sent hmmm, I’ll call him Bubba, as the engineer. Bubba had been raised and educated in the Deep South and thereby, making a generalization that was true in his case, had been limited in his exposure to other cultures.

Our first dinner out was an interesting experience of cultural differences. Although we were in a city with a huge American military presence, the menus we had been given were entirely in German. To me it became a great brain exercise, pulling my memory of the 6 weeks of exploration into German we had in 8th grade in order to select what 9th grade foreign language we planned to schedule. So, I remembered nouns are capitalized; pronounce ie and ei combinations on the 2nd vowel; that there are masculine, feminine and neuter nouns; and I could still count to ten. My vocabulary was extremely limited and what I could maneuver from the written language was enhanced by the 3 years of Spanish and French I had taken, being well read and enjoying the concept of where our English words are rooted, and the smattering of Yiddish I overheard but was not taught.

So, in that restaurant I was able to find the word Fleisch that I first took as “meat” but as soon as I saw “Schwein” and recognized that as “pork” realized Fleisch was probably “beef”. Beyond those simple categories I could not offer any advice on the menu selections, but we pointed and said “bitte” and then waited to be served.

And waited. And waited. The beers came out about 10 minutes later. About 10 minutes after that Bubba showed his colors. His exposure to German had been watching Hogan’s Heroes on tv, so he clomped his beer mug down hard on the table and shouted “schnell!”

And guess what? We waited more. They brought my plate out about 15 minutes later. I waited to start eating. After all, it is common here in the U.S. that plates are served at the same time and we start eating together. So I waited. And waited. And finally, 10 minutes later, I said, “Sorry guys, I’m eating before it gets any colder.” About an hour later we all had been served with Bubba’s arriving last.

Bubba ate at McDonald’s almost every night after that. When we asked if he wanted to go explore on the weekend with us he refused. His constant comment was that “This is not like home.”

Well, of course not! It’s Germany!  Why should it be like the United States?

Bubba is a perfect example of the Ugly American. That phrase was initiated into the American lexicon in 1958 when the book by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer was published. The movie was made in 1963 and basically tells a fictionalized account of a real expat living in a Southeast Asian country and is really refers not to the hero, who makes an effort to know the people and live within the culture of his assignment, but is really about the behavior of the American government employees who isolated themselves into enclaves and never experienced the country they have supposedly come to help.

As international travel has become affordable for so many more people than ever before, there are a lot of people who head overseas without taking any time to actually prepare about the places they will visit. They join a cruise or a tour group who takes them by the hand and leads them.  They join the herd and are spoon-fed sound bites of what is a sad contrast to the real story of what they are seeing.  These people then post on Travelocity or other travel forums that they’ve been there/done that.  They mention some great things but most of the time the reviews are either the same old same old comments (because they are not really exploring or analyzing what they are seeing, merely skimming the surface) or they post complaints how things did not measure up to American standards.

The Ugly American is the person who:

  • Stops in the middle of the sidewalk to take a photo or discuss the next place to go, completely oblivious to anyone around them. Look around and position yourself where your needs do not affect others.
  • Talks more loudly and slowly but still in English when the person they are trying to get help from does not speak English. Generally no effort is made to learn a few simple words, even thank you or hello and goodbye. Or how about “Do you speak English?”

  • Walks into a hotel room in a foreign city and heads back to the front desk demanding a bigger room with an air conditioner. Much of the world does not climate control as much as we do.  They also don’t use as much of the world’s energy resources per capita as we do.

    Haggis in Scotland

  • Demands their coffee half this and part that as if they were in Starbucks.  Expects the food to be recognizable. Refuses to try local foods because it is different. Come on, isn’t the point of travel to experience new things?

  • Makes a fuss in a public restaurant about the smoking. Many countries in Western Europe ban smoking inside restaurants, but that leaves a lot more of the world where the habit of smoking is still strong. Try to remember it was that way here also only a few years ago.
  • Wears clothing that is inappropriate in the location being visited, including tee shirts, shorts, baseball caps, and tennis shoes. Most major cities or countries have websites with information about suggested clothing.

  • Has no idea what they are seeing until someone tells them about it in 3 minutes or they stand in the way of pedestrians reading the tourbook.  You planned your trip weeks or months in advance. Take a few hours and read about where you are going.
  • Expects to pay with dollars or some other currency other than the local one where the visit is short and they feel too much trouble and “too expensive” to go through a currency exchange. Aren’t you annoyed when you get a Canadian penny in your change?

  • Makes no effort to talk to local people about what it is like to live there.  Most people hang in their travel groups and never actually integrate into the visited culture at all, especially if it is a cruise port and the visit is only 8 hours long.  Are you really visiting the country or just its buildings?

Being a patriotic American does not mean you need to act like a dolt elsewhere. Don’t be so ethnocentric that you actually become the worse kind of ambassador the United States can have.

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6 Responses to How to: Avoid being an Ugly American

  1. “Are you really visiting the country or just its buildings?” I’m stumped. I travel to see history (how people lived hundreds and thousands of years ago) and historic buildings, the remains of what shaped the world and our culture on this planet. I want to eat the local food and see the sites in peace. I have no interest whatsoever in the people. They’re just like us, except they speak a different language, no big deal. Of course, I make a special point to avoid people in my own country as well. Why is this a problem for you? LOL

  2. You’re making an effort to understand the history and the culture of the place you visit. You are interested in eating local food. You are, believe it or not, in the minority of American travelers. Most go somewhere else with no idea of what to see or why, go to places they are told “everyone visits” whether or not they have interest (like my sister who said we should go to the Louvre because “everyone goes there” even though she has no interest in art) and eat food that they recognize. Even then, many say “it is not like home” as a complaint, not a point of recognition. Adding meeting a person who lives there to the visit is an enrichment…it helps provide that there are commonalities to all people and yet gives an inside glimpse that visitors typically never achieve.

  3. Kathleen says:

    I stumbled here because I was recounting for a friend the great food in Germany and the menu on this page came up. — Back in 1982-83 I was married to a guy in the army. We were station in Heilbronn. I never ate a bad meal in Germany. I never ate a SMALL meal in Germany 😀 What fun we had. The dollar was good and we were young (23). We drove on the autobahn, drank great bier and wine, and there were castles of one kind or the other on seemingly every corner. We actually HAD a McDonald’s in our town even then. I actually ate there once (in 22 months) because that day everything else was closed, and we were starving. The Germans stared at us because we ate our fries with our hands instead of the plastic fry-trident they give you. (Even thought they had no problem eating their burgers with their hands?) At one point another army wife was getting ready to go back to the states and had yet to see the Neuschwanstein castle which was 4 or 5 hours southeast of us. The guys were playing war and could not go before she left so we invited a third wife and went, just us girls, for the day. I drove. It was even more fun without the husbands because we could stop every 6 seconds if we wanted just to take pictures and check out yet another bakery. The point of all this is to say, near the end of our stay there I discovered that the First Sergeant and his wife (who were in their 30s **gasp**) were working on their second (or was it third?) tour in Germany and hadn’t been ANYWHERE. The wife didn’t drive and the husband was always too busy because he was in charge. I was stunned. My husband and I went to Paris, and Austria, and Switzerland, and the Czech border to see the Iron Curtain. I went to a Styx concert in Mannheim, etc, etc.

  4. I am continually surprised at how people want to go see but will not get off the beaten track nor eat the local food. I consider those people tourists, not travelers. I figure they gain something in their more limited experience but wonder how much more they would have enjoyed if they had someone take them by the hand so they could feel more secure.

  5. Kathleen says:

    I was pleased that because we lived there, we had the TIME to see the things that are never on any itinerary. Like Volks Marching, and like trash day (I don’t remember now what they called it) but the Germans could only put out one small bin of trash, with the lid closed. But two times a year each neighborhood (it rotated) could put out ANYTHING to be picked up, and they posted the respective dates and areas in the paper. It was an spectacular neighborhood event to wander the streets in the cool evening air and find some real treasures. Meet people who live on our street that we had never seen before, (so YOU are the Americans – our car parked on the street, the only one with US plates.) plus all the trash pickers who had come from all over. As I type it, it seems lame, especially with today’s storage wars, et al. But at the time it was truly unique and interesting and festive. 😀

  6. I hope you have other opportunities to dig into local communities when you travel in thee future. At the very least, budget for a local to take you on a personalize tour. I

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