Americans often have a difficult time being treated fairly while they travel overseas for various reasons which I won’t get into here (feel free to add some in the comments). Americans can make their trips run smoother and a touch more authentic by blending in more with the crowd and avoiding stereotypes.
- Dress Like The Locals – Do an image search of the place you’re visiting using Google, Wikipedia, or Flickr and take notice of what the locals are wearing. Don’t take for granted that in most of the world jeans are not the pants of choice, or that shorts will get you stares – even in the summer.
- Speak Half As Loud As Normal – Americans culturally speak at a higher volume than almost all other people in industrialized nations (the Brits and Germans are high up on the list too). Try to keep your conversations at barely above a whisper, don’t shout out across rooms or lobbies, and don’t exaggerate your speech to those whose first language was not English.
- Don’t Put Your Feet Up – Depending on where you travel in the world this varies, but the general rule will help to not set you apart. Keep your feet on the floor in public places, not up on coffee tables, backs of bus seats, or restaurants. Americans are known for their love of comfort at the expense of faux pas or style. Try not to get as comfortable as possible at ever opportunity you get. Accept that you’ll have to stand in line or get dirty waiting for a taxi from time to time.
- Watch Your Smiles – Americans are notorious for smiling without reason or keeping their mouths agape. Most people around the world won’t smile without (good) reason. They may assume you are naive or foolish for doing so. Also, don’t be offended if your bright face doesn’t evoke the same response from store owners, hotel clerks, or others you meet.
- Learn A Few Words Of The Native Language – Many times American tourists feel self-conscious speaking with an accent in the native tongue or that they will stick out. English, especially if people don’t understand it is sure to put you on the American tourist list. Spend a few hours on the plane or at the airport learning the language the easy way.
- Reduce The Accessories You Carry – Sometimes it can’t be helped, but backpacks, belt packs, cameras around your neck, large hats may not be absolutely necessary everytime you venture out. Try to combine, or keep multiple things in a single shoulder sling bag.
- Don’t Take Any Actions For Granted – Greetings, gestures, and other signals can be easily misinterpreted, especially if you assume that all signs are universal. A hand wave may not be polite, or a wink not mean the same thing in Thailand as it does in the United States. Study international faux pas and don’t get caught in an uncomfortable position.
The more country or culture specific you are the easier it will be for you to research the local customs and ways of doing regular things. Study the major historical points, the geography, and common customs of wherever you decide to go. Contact people online via blogs, chat rooms, or travel websites who have actually been to your destinations. Embassies and people whose families are Greek, South African, or Mongolian, etc. will give you special insight.
The basic goal is to discard some of the cultural stereotypes associated with Americans, and show the rest of the world that you understand and respect their culture. Remember not to take any custom for granted or assume that the US way is the standard way of doing things. It will help both tourist and local to learn a few things.
[photo by: stewartbremner]