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How to avoid the ‘stupid American’ stereotype while traveling abroad

<i>urbazon/E+/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>The United States sends millions of tourists around the world each year to see places such as Heroes Square in Budapest
urbazon/E+/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
The United States sends millions of tourists around the world each year to see places such as Heroes Square in Budapest

By Kim Davis, CNN

(CNN) — If you watch shows such as “Emily in Paris,” you can be forgiven for thinking the world is enchanted by Americans who travel abroad. Silly gaffes, like mistaking a public urinal for a monument and taking selfies in front of it, come across as charming quirks on television.

However, as a single American woman who moved to Europe and made a LOT of faux pas of my own, I can assure you that the real world is definitely not amused.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but sadly, we’ve gained a reputation around the world for being, well, “stupid Americans.”

Is it offensive? Yes. Could we get upset about it? Sure. But with tens of millions of Americans traveling abroad every year, the likelihood is that you’ll encounter us wherever you are in the world.

Therefore, our reputation is completely understandable.

The reality is, we ALL do “stupid” things, especially when we are in foreign places and we don’t know the local customs, cultures or surroundings. No one is immune from this humiliation, not even genius scholars.

However, smart travelers know that doing “stupid” things abroad can not only be disrespectful and embarrassing, but it can put you at risk of being arrested, hurt or the victim of crime.

That’s why, instead of letting labels upset me, I choose to focus on how I can become a master traveler. After 20-plus years of exploring the world, I think I’ve managed to crack it.

So, here are my top 10 tips on how you can avoid the “stupid American” stereotype and become a “Smart American” abroad.

Read social cues

People in most countries are extremely polite. They would never tell you that what you are doing is offensive or socially unacceptable. Instead, they will most likely smile and nod, before quickly changing the topic, running away or ghosting you.

This behavior definitely makes for a very civilized society, but if you’re a tell-it-like-it-is New Yorker like me, it can be very hard to pick up on social cues.

For years, I foolishly thought that what I was saying or doing was of genuine interest to those around me. I had no idea that I was embarrassing myself and chasing people away. As you meet people abroad, try to notice if they are genuinely interested (for example, asking lots of follow-up questions, making eye contact, building on your stories, asking to join in, etc.), or if they are just being polite.

If your Spidey sense starts to tingle, it’s probably time to change the subject or move on to a new activity.

Keep the volume down

It is very true that most Americans have a wonderful zest for life. We don’t think twice about gabbing away with friends (or strangers) on public transportation or laughing whole-heartedly at the dinner table. That’s just our way of being friendly.

However, in many places around the world, speaking loudly is considered extremely rude and highly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to visit major cities and see people traveling in complete silence while on a packed train. You’ll also notice that you can’t hear the conversation at the table sitting directly next to you in a restaurant.

When I first moved to Europe, people would regularly ask, “Why are you shouting?” I was always shocked. I was just using my normal speaking voice! I didn’t think I was being loud at all.

Turns out, I was indeed shouting, at least relative to everyone else around me (imagine how traumatized they’d all be if I did actually shout.).

Over the years, I’ve learned to become more aware of my surroundings and to control my volume level accordingly. It’s a skill I will always struggle with, as my default level is apparently a nine out of 10 to most, but it’s also a skill that has had a major positive impact on my business, romantic and personal relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, when I’m home in New York, I let it all out and no one even notices. However, when I’m traveling abroad, I’m always careful to keep it to, what feels like, a quiet whisper.

Blend in

Normally, I’m all for originality and standing out in a crowd. However, when you’re traveling abroad, even to a place you know well, standing out is like wearing a flashing sign that says, “I’m a tourist, come take advantage of me!”

Whether it’s pickpockets, grifters or someone more nefarious, there are always bad actors lurking about, looking for fresh prey.

Unfortunately, criminals can often spot an American a mile away by either their accent (another reason to keep the volume of your voice down) or their fashion (khakis, golf shirts, sneakers, baseball hats and white socks are usually dead giveaways.)

The moment these predators know you’re from out of town, they will pounce. That’s why it’s smart to blend in with the locals and avoid drawing any sort of attention to yourself. Not only will it make you a smart American, it’ll also make you a safer American. 

Be curious

No one likes a know-it-all. That’s why one of the best ways to win people over and skyrocket your knowledge is to be curious. Be a sponge and absorb as much new information as possible. Being genuinely interested in a country, its people, its culture and everyday life is one of the most flattering ways to show respect and connect with a community.

Judge Judy always says, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” In other words, listen twice as much as you talk.  If you can listen without feeling the need to talk about “how we do things back home” or show off all the things you read in a book, then you will make friends everywhere you go.

In fact, the more questions you can ask, the more people will think you’re intelligent! No one expects you to know everything. It’s attractive when you can say, “I don’t know about this, please tell me more.” It shows humility and opens the door for others to share their wisdom and stories with you, which will always help you grow.

So, try to forget everything you know, open your mind and be curious. If you do, people will respond with kindness, appreciation and believe that you are very wise.

Be street smart

Every city has its own scams, and it’s important for you to read up on what the most common scams are in the area you’re visiting before you travel so that you can be street smart.

One of the most popular scams is when a taxi driver takes the “long way” to get you to your destination, racking up quite the bill. Not every city has Uber. Local taxi drivers instantly know whether you’re from the area or not, simply by the way you make your request when you enter their vehicle.

When I traveled to Rome for the first time, I got into a cab and asked the driver, “How much to get to this hotel?” He replied “80 euros.” I immediately told him to stop. I removed my bags, which made him very angry, and exited his car. I then called the hotel and asked, the same question. They told me it would be no more than 5 euros.

The next taxi I entered, I told the driver, “Please take me to this hotel. It’s just down the road so should only be around 5 euros, right?” He replied, “Yes,” and we were on our way. By letting him know I wasn’t a “stupid American,” we were all able to live happily ever after.

The point of this story is do your homework. Get an idea of prices for taxis, food, charges, tipping, etc., ahead of time so you don’t get ripped off or taken advantage of. Know the local scams and know how to reject people who approach you with their games.

And most of all, don’t let your excitement to be in a new place lure you into a false sense of security.  Be careful about meeting new people, especially from dating apps. Stranger danger is real.

Read the news

America is so vast that the news tends to focus on what’s going on locally in each state, with a touch of what’s happening across the rest of the country. However, it rarely features international news.

As a result, many Americans often have little to no knowledge of what’s going on around the world, thus unfairly adding to the “stupid American” stereotype.

Luckily, there is a fast and easy remedy. If you’re planning to travel abroad, simply read the news headlines of the country you’re visiting before you travel.

You don’t need to know the country’s full history, but it will help tremendously if you know the basics: Who is the current president / prime minister of the country? What are the hot topics and major headlines? What is the country’s national sport and how is their team doing? Where is the country located on a map, and what countries surround it?

Having this information available at your fingertips will not only make you look well-informed, it will help you avoid being left out of conversations.

Learn some of the language

Do you need to be fluent when you go abroad? Not at all. Do you need to learn the basics? Yes. Absolutely.

Most major cities will have plenty of English speakers, but they won’t always be around when you need them. Whether it’s an emergency or just being able to order from a menu, it’s important for you to know some basic words and phrases to get you through the day.

I recommend you start with: “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” “Please”, “Help,” “Sorry,” “I don’t speak ___,” “I’m allergic to ___,” “I would like to go to ____,” “Where is ___” and a smattering of your favorite foods.

Sure, there are apps that can help, but memorizing these phrases will go a long way, not just with communication but also with cooperation.

Even if you butcher the words, most people deeply appreciate it when you at least try to speak the local language. It shows respect that you made the effort, and you’ll be surprised at how many doors it can unlock for you.

Be an ambassador

In many ways, we are all mini-ambassadors of the United States when traveling abroad. For better or worse, how we act will directly reflect, not just on us, but on all Americans.

Yet, there’s something in human nature that makes many people act differently when traveling abroad. It’s as if something snaps inside their brains and, suddenly, they become this completely different person who can do and say things they would never consider doing in their daily lives.

As you can imagine, this can lead to some bad situations (I’m talking to you, Americans who were arrested for sleeping in the Eiffel Tower).

While it might be tempting to take on a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” attitude when traveling abroad, I recommend you think of travel as if you are a sporting fan who is going to see your favorite team at an away game.

You are a guest in their house. You can’t expect the other team to have the same food, entertainment, transportation and hospitality. Your support for your team can be an automatic insult to the host team (even if you don’t intend it to be insulting), and if you don’t follow the rules, you’re going to get kicked out of the stadium.

But what brings us all together is that we all share a love of the sport.  It’s the same with travel. Remember, you are a guest. Like any good visitor, you want to make sure you make a positive impression so that you are always welcomed back.

Don’t pack a lot of underwear

One of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard came from a friend who is a Swedish trumpet player. He roomed with an American while on tour. He said, the man opened his luggage and exposed over 50 pairs of underwear.

The trumpet player asked, “Why have you packed so many pairs of underwear for a two-week tour?” The musician replied, “I wasn’t sure if you had washing machines in Europe.”

Stories like this are amusing to us, but my friend was beside himself. Do Americans really think that Europe is backward? Well, apparently, some do.

If you’re traveling abroad, you may be surprised to know that many countries are far more advanced that the United States in some areas. For example, there has been a high-speed 200 mph train connecting London to Paris since 1994. Yet, America still doesn’t have a high-speed train network of its own.

Britain and most of Europe has been using contactless card payments for everything from dining to transport since 2007.

Gothenburg, Sweden, is so safe that companies display actual products in front of billboards, and no one steals the items. The list goes on. The point here is, for most travel, you won’t need to pack 50 pairs of underwear.

Beat them to the punch with humor

My biggest secret weapon against being called a “stupid American” is calling myself a “stupid American” first and laughing about it.

Let me explain. As I said above, I accept that everyone does stupid things, and I am no exception. I’ve done a LOT of really “stupid” things when traveling in the past, and I’m sure I will do plenty more “stupid” things in the future.

That’s OK! I know in my heart that I’m not actually a “stupid” person.

So, instead of getting offended or upset about it, I just laugh and get others to laugh with me. For example, whenever I don’t understand something, I’m confident enough to say, “Sorry, I know I’m being a stupid American here, but could you help me with this?”

I find this approach instantly disarms people. Instead of becoming frustrated, it makes them eager to help. Instead of driving a wedge between our cultures, it brings us closer together.

By beating them to the punch and stating the phrase “stupid American” before they even have a chance to think it, it flips the script and delivers a bit of reverse psychology that makes people think and say, “No, you’re not stupid. I’m happy to help you.”

At the very least they will laugh with you, not at you. Don’t believe me?  Notice how I used this same technique with you at the beginning of this article. Believe me. Implement this tip and no one will ever roll their eyes or doubt your intelligence ever again.

Kim Davis is a TV presenter, journalist, and marketing expert who is dedicated to inspiring audiences with her stories of adventure, adversity, and success. Join Kim @kimdavisreal

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