How to Be a Respectful Traveler
—and Not The Ugly American
Traveling somewhere new—especially internationally—brings a lot of preparation. Between figuring out flights and lodging and transportation and your itinerary, there’s a lot to navigate. And while you’re focused on all of that, you may not think about how you’re going to adjust to a new country and culture. It’s exciting, going somewhere new and meeting new people, but it can also be overwhelming and you may even be worried about how you’ll be treated by the locals. The good news is there are things you can do to ensure your experience abroad is rewarding for everyone involved and you aren’t perpetuating the stereotype of The Ugly American—a loud, rude, critical, self-centered tourist. No one wants to be seen that way, and there’s a better way to represent yourself and your country. Being a respectful traveler comes down to two things: education and, of course, respect.
Not everyone speaks English—and you shouldn’t expect them to.
Thousands of languages are spoken all over the world. And a good majority of the world’s people are bilingual, trilingual, or even more-lingual. But sometimes, these other languages do not include English. And they shouldn’t have to. You are visiting another country, and yes, it can be frustrating to not understand or to have trouble finding someone who can help you—but that doesn’t mean you should take it out on the locals. A respectful traveler learns to adapt to their destination. Start with learning a few introductory phrases and important words, including “Do you speak English?” If the answer is no, move on to someone else. Don’t be rude or get frustrated with someone just trying to go on about their day. I’ve sadly seen this a lot in person and on TV, in shows such as The Amazing Race; travelers get frustrated or angry that their taxi driver or store clerk can’t understand them and become rude in response. This is not the way to promote a good image. If you are polite and understanding, most people will try to find a way to help you. I even had a security guard walk around with me for 10 minutes, trying to find someone who spoke English and could help translate, when I questioned her about the location of the post office and our impromptu game of charades failed. She didn’t have to do that, but she returned my kindness and went out of her way to be helpful.
If you know you’re heading somewhere in the near future, try an app like Duolingo to gain a basic understanding and vocabulary that could help with your trip. Though most people in Switzerland speak English, I found being able to converse, even rudimentarily, in German went a long way. And a lot of locals enjoyed when I attempted to speak to them in their language—even if I failed completely.
Don’t talk down to the locals.
Sadly, this is a scene I’ve witnessed first-hand quite a bit, whether with co-workers, other travelers, or on reality TV shows: someone can’t communicate well with a local or doesn’t understand why something is being done the way that it is or not as fast as they want, and their reaction is to be condescending and loud either to the local or about the local with a fellow traveler. Just because you think something back home is more advanced or a task isn’t being completed in the way you would do it or expect it to be done, doesn’t mean the locals are simple or wrong. Sure, you’re proud of your way of life. Well, so are they, and you’re in their home. You are not smarter or better, and frankly, it’s ugly to have that attitude. Also, just because a local can’t speak English well—or at all—doesn’t mean they can’t understand you, so be mindful of what you say and don’t talk behind their backs or as if they aren’t there. Even if a person doesn’t understand English, they most likely can interpret your tone or facial expressions. Basically, this boils down to a golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated.
Educate yourself on local customs and etiquette.
It’s important when you venture somewhere new that you understand a little about the local customs. Too many people travel without learning anything about their destination. The ignorance that comes from this could lead one to act in a way that is considered rude by the locals—you then color their impression of you and, by extension, all Americans, which furthers the Ugly American stereotype. For example, in some countries, using your left hand for eating or other activities is considered rude. This is because, in places like India and parts of the Middle East and Africa, the left hand is reserved for cleaning after going to the bathroom. And while giving a thumbs up is a harmless, even positive, gesture here in the United States, in many other parts of the world, this is the equivalent of giving the middle finger. You may not know these local rules unless you do some research in advance to discover some of these idiosyncrasies so that you can appear a more cultured and respectful traveler. Even if you still make a mistake or misstep, most people will appreciate that you’ve tried.
If you’ve done some research but feel as though you still lack some knowledge, start with being polite and observant. If you aren’t sure of something, ask. Most people appreciate when you are curious about them; it shows an effort to make yourself a respectful guest. Whatever you do, don’t expect the locals to follow our customs; it’s their home.
Respect local sites.
Sightseeing is an important and enriching part of any trip, but as with local customs, make sure you do some research on your destination and the sites you intend to visit. Pulling a Logan Paul, and wandering into a sacred or meaningful area with little knowledge and the intention of creating “entertainment,” is a textbook definition of the Ugly American—one of the ugliest. By educating yourself on the history, culture, and importance of a site, you’ll have a deeper understanding of where you’re going and more respect for those around you. You’ll also get much more out of the experience.
Don’t be so loud and dress appropriately.
Americans have a reputation for being loud and obnoxious. I’m not sure why it’s just the Americans; I would include a lot of nationalities in this category based on my experience. But that doesn’t mean we should perpetuate idea. Just be aware of your voice level, especially when inside or at a more somber location. Recognize that you would be annoyed by a loud group next to you, and make sure that’s not you. This, of course, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun but it’s important to be self-aware, especially in certain places.
This goes along with what you’re wearing as well. Some sites are considered sacred, and some countries are more conservative. If you are visiting a church or mosque or another sacred site, research the dress code. Generally, covering your arms, wearing long skirts or pants, and maybe even covering your head with a scarf is the respectful thing to do. Please, do it. You’re not making some sort of statement by wearing a tank top and shorts with flip flops—you’re just being the Ugly American.
Be careful when you take pictures—and always ask before you make someone your subject.
In the age of social media, this is becoming even more important. Some sites may be considered too sacred to be taking pictures, and it may be best just to live in the moment. If it’s a more popular location, there may be signs posted asking you to refrain from getting out the camera. You may also be able to tell by observing others at the location and whether or not they are taking photos. If you’re unsure, and it feels like a more solemn place deserving of a higher level of respect, follow your gut and make memories instead of pictures.
In some places, people will expect you to pay to take pictures of them. For example, snake charmers, monkey handlers, and others in the Jemaa el-Fna—the central square in Marrakech, Morocco—will expect you to ask and negotiate your price before taking your shot, and could get very angry if you don’t. That is not a situation you want to get into, especially when language may be a barrier. Err on the side of caution and ask.
And most importantly, some people may not want you taking pictures of them at all for whatever reason. Respect that. They are not tourist sites; they are people living their lives and not a spectacle or attraction. You should always ask before taking a picture, and if someone says no, leave them alone. Do not try and take a secret picture—one that will likely make them uncomfortable. People generally know if you do this, and that reflects poorly on you.
Sometimes, you’ll come across people who want to have their picture taken, which was the case when I visited the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam, back in 2007. The school kids on a field trip were fascinated by my not-so-great digital camera and couldn’t wait to have their pictures taken so that they could then look at the final product. We didn’t speak the same language but we clearly shared a genuine interest in each other, which made for one of my most memorable experiences.
Be environmentally friendly.
People living around the world may be affected by environmental issues more noticeably than we are at home. Aside from being a little greener in your everyday life because it’s better for the planet, it’s important to understand some of the local needs, so you can do your part to ease pollution and strain on the environment. By making even just a few changes—such a carrying around a reusable bag or drinking straw and forgoing the single-use plastics—you can have a positive impact. Many countries are strengthening their environmental policies and making efforts to be more sustainable. Doing some research on the steps your destination is taking to help the environment and then making some adjustments to your habits is a great place to start.
There’s not much to it, really. If you’re polite, curious, and interested in getting to know your destination and having a truly authentic experience, then you can avoid The Ugly American stereotype. We all have our moments—it’s okay—and sometimes, we’re not even aware that we’re doing something that would give us second-hand embarrassment if it were someone else doing it. But if you keep some of these things in mind, take some time to educate yourself, and try to remain self-aware, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Not only will you stand out as a conscientious, respectful traveler, but you’ll also give your fellow Americans a better image abroad.
What are some of your tips for making a good impression while abroad? Do you have any memorable experiences with the locals? Share with us in the comments!