Travel and the Myth of the Ugly American

trave parisIn my time with Thomson Reuters, I have had the good fortune to experience travel to a few countries I may not have otherwise been able to visit. Last year, I saw Bangalore and Hyderabad in India, London and Paris in Europe, and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The photo here is of Paris. Lovely, right?

An American in Paris – the situation is rife with joke-material. Both the Americans and the French have a reputation for rudeness, but sometimes it seems each group is only aware of that particular reputation in the other. Recently, someone on Twitter made a joke about condescending French restaurant servers and it got me all fired up and inspired the post you’re now reading.


Neither the French nor the Americans have cornered the market on rude and condescending behavior. Although it IS true that the British and Canadians are polite to a fault. (See what I just did there? I guess sweeping generalizations are fine as long as they are positive ones, but in fact they also perpetuate inaccuracIES so please consider that last sentence with a grain of humor, OK?)

I have friends from the United States who love to travel to other countries. When traveling, if asked where they are from, they don’t hesitate before answering “Toronto.” Canadians don’t have the same reputation as those of us from the lower part of North America. Some people from the US don’t want to be lumped in with people from the US. This makes me sad. I’d rather combat inaccuracies in this myth – or correct behavior if it’s accurate – than deny our homeland. If all the polite US travelers say they’re from Canada, it only exacerbates the myth.

Maybe Canada has the reputation of being polite to a fault because us Americans from the States are liars!

Is it warranted, though, this Ugly American myth? I imagine sometimes it is, but I do think the legend of it is bigger than its reality. Maybe I’m naive, but that is what I truly believe – that we’re not as bad as the jokes and comments would indicate. This is my second visit to France and I think their reputation for rudeness is overstated, too.

In my own travels, I have been honored to receive such amazing hospitality from all over. While I worry tremendously about being the rude American, I have never been treated as such. Not once.

And let’s face it – rude is contextual. In some countries, eye contact is aggressive and considered rude. In other countries, failing to make eye contact is rude. There is behavior that is woven into the fabric of our existence that is foreign to others. I am a typical American in that I tend to speak up, I gesture a lot, am rather direct. I try ever-so-hard to tone that down when I’m in other countries, but it’s difficult when it’s just part of me. And I truly believe that those who know me accept this as part of me and don’t expect or even want me to be different.

Which is the essence of this post, really. As a traveler to other countries, I feel obligated to do some research so I know about the local culture, what is rude and what is accepted, and I try to adapt my behavior so I am not the stereotypical Ugly American. On the flip-side, the people receiving visitors must also give latitude and embrace the differences of those visiting.

When there is graciousness on both sides, it works.

I hope I am worthy of all the hospitality I have been shown over the visits I’ve made to other countries. I hope I’ve done my part. I certainly have learned a lot about hospitality by being on the receiving end of it. If you ever come visit me in St. Louis, I promise I will take what I have learned and be a better giver-of-hospitality.

Let me know when you’re coming! I’ll bake a cake!



Have you traveled to other countries? What do you do to prepare for your trip so you don’t offend?

Have you extended hospitality to people from other countries visiting you? Are you inclined to judge or to understand when they exhibit behavior which is normal in their country but less so in yours?

Do you find the stereotype of the Ugly American or the Rude French to be accurate or over-stated? And what about positive stereotypes – the polite Canadian or Brit? Are those as potentially damaging?

I give a wide berth for humor and so I do enjoy jokes based on these, as long as I know the intent is truly just to make one laugh.

4 thoughts on “Travel and the Myth of the Ugly American

  1. I have noticed that Americans are louder than many other visitors. They’re also friendlier than Europeans who tend to keep to themselves more. Like you say, no country has cornered the market on rudeness and a little research and mutual understanding goes a long way!

    • Thanks for the comment. I do happen to be loud-ish and it’s a HUGE effort to remember to tone it down when I’m elsewhere. I think it’s especially unsettling to Asians (to speak in generalities) and I’ve often wondered the reason why. I think in the US, we have more space – houses are larger, more space in offices, more space in restaurants. Maybe that’s why we use more volume?

      In my travels, I notice some cities are so much more crowded, perhaps people – in general – make themselves (including their voices) smaller, less intrusive.

      Just a hypothesis.

      • Speaking for myself as a Malaysian who has lived in London, NYC and Sydney, I think the Europeans tend towards more restraint, whereas Australians and Americans tend towards self aggrandizement, which in traditional Asian culture is a big no-no. That in turn translates to the volume of a conversation – the louder it is the more attention you appear to be seeking, which again in Asia isn’t really done. Having said that I’ve come across lots of loud Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists. In fact I think the latter will be the new global ugly tourist in a few years!

      • Speaking as a Malaysian who grew up in Asia and have lived in NYC and London, I believe the reason why is that in Asian culture it’s all about being self effacing, which reflects humility – a major tenet of Confucianism – and being loud in a public space just seems to be asking for attention, which goes against being humble. I’ve noticed that the Europeans tend towards restraint, whereas Americans and to a degree, Australians, lean towards a little more self aggrandizement. Different cultures, different expressions. I was constantly being told to speak up in NYC and that I was “too loud” in London. You just can’t please them all! 😉

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