Americans Abroad: How Not to Be an Ugly American


So I’m flipping through the channels last night and paused on a program that was discussing a new etiquette book for Americans who travel overseas, a book designed to help Americans be better accepted abroad. Now I know that it’s a heart warming self-conception of ours that we are beloved the world over and that everyone everywhere admires and respects us. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case; for half a century, Americans abroad have been termed “Ugly Americans” and not because of our appearance. We tend to be louder, brasher, more aggressive, less respectful than other cultures, even when by our own cultural standards we are being meek or modest. The stereotypical description of the “Ugly American” is that we are “overbearing to people of different cultures, oblivious to nuance, unsophisticated in politics and arrogant in temperament” (from: As with all stereotypes, there are exceptions, and as with all stereotypes, we tend to think of ourselves as that exception. Indeed, you may be the poster person for the Un-Ugly American, but we didn’t get this reputation based on any one person’s behavior, right? A whole group of folks for a whole lot of decades have contributed to this view of us, and it looks like the government is trying to get us all to cooperate in shifting that view in a more positive direction.

I was in Paris eight years ago, and while everyone was pleasant to me and I never felt anyone was rude, I do realize that I probably walked a lot farther than necessary after asking directions or paid just a little bit more than other tourists or locals, etc. After all, according to the program I saw last night, only 17% of French people surveyed gave Americans a positive evaluation. Granted, this is all post- 9/11 and the freedom fries thing, so France may not be a good example. As much as I love the U. K., I do know that Americans can stand out like a sore thumb over there; we seem arrogant and loud and a bit obnoxious, even when we are just hanging out. Anyone who’s seen the Fawlty Towers episode in which the “American” comes to stay has a pretty good idea of how we come across: demeaning, demanding, and derisive. We can look at a castle that has stood for centuries longer than our country has existed as the U. S. and declare it “cute” or a village as “quaint.” We stomp around proclaiming ourselves “World Champions” in games in which only we participate (the World Series, the Super Bowl), and we have been known to treat cultures and peoples like exhibits at Epcot. We mean to be enthusiastic and complimentary, but . . . well, that’s just not how it comes across. And let’s not even get into what non-European countries think of us. Sigh.

Cultures and countries other than our own tend to be polite, particularly to individual and small group travelers, so maybe this is all news to you. They may resent our “Ugly Americanness” but depending on their profession, they may be dependent on the tourist dollars we spend. This is not peculiar to other countries: I lived in a tourist area here in the States for many years, and we really hated the tourists, but that’s where our bread and butter came from, so . . . it didn’t show. But the State Department is sufficiently dismayed by our global reputation to be considering issuing a copy of the etiquette guide to Americans to be distributed with passports. I don’t think that’s a bad idea. We’ve tended to be isolated in our country, and our strong sense of patriotism and pride in our country does sometimes come across wrong to other cultures; we can seem that we feel that we are superior to others, even if we don’t consciously think this to be the case. We hold our way of life, our culture, and our traditions so dear that we can easily forget that other people around the world feel the same about their own lives, cultures, and traditions.

Here’re the tips that are being publicized for Americans abroad:

Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller. (In many countries, any form of boasting is considered very rude. Talking about wealth, power or status – corporate or personal – can create resentment.)

Listen at least as much as you talk. (By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you’re visiting about themselves and their way of life.)

Save the lectures for your kids. (Whatever your subject of discussion, let it be a discussion not a lecture. Justified or not, the US is seen as imposing its will on the world.)

Think a little locally. (Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. What we call “soccer” is football everywhere else. And it’s the most popular sport on the planet.)

Slow down. (We talk fast, eat fast, move fast, live fast. Many cultures do not.)

Speak lower and slower. (A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.)

Your religion is your religion and not necessarily theirs. (Religion is usually considered deeply personal, not a subject for public discussions.)

If you talk politics, talk – don’t argue. (Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking US politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)


Following are some tips for business travelers that might be extremely useful to vacationing Americans, too:

From CareerJournal | Teaching Americans How to Behave Abroad

Now, I’ve never personally had a bad experience overseas, but we have thick skins, we Americans, and we may be silently checked or otherwise judged an “Ugly American” without our even realizing it—that is a part of the definition, after all: being “oblivious to nuance” and being arrogant and not listening as much as we talk; they can’t possibly think anything is wrong with ME, I’m an American, after all. So as our government tries to combat anti-American sentiment abroad, we the citizens who travel abroad are being asked to reign it in, be a bit more open to our host country and its people, and to consider that there may be something worthwhile about that country other than the photo op. We’re to be ambassadors of sorts, and I think it a privilege to rise to the occasion.


For an interesting study of the popularity of the U. S. in terms of country (not tourism, though both are linked, of course):

For further tips for the international American traveler:


12 thoughts on “Americans Abroad: How Not to Be an Ugly American

  1. I agree that we are not looked upon favorably by Europe. I can understand France…we have really bad mouthed them and boycotted them and all that political stuff. And my nephew who served in Iraq met a girl while he was in Germany (this was before he went to Iraq) anyway he met this girl who was born in Germany to American parents who lived there ….anyway because she was born to American parents she attended American schools until her father retired and then had to mainstream into the German school system. Well, the anti American sentiment was so bad in her school that she was attacked and beaten up on a daily basis by the German students. She is here now, she married my nephew and they live in a suburb of Washington DC. Anyway, it is sad really that we are viewed this way by other countries and it is partly the our own fault for being loud and obnoxious when we travel, but our government has to take some of the blame for it’s poor foreign relations policies and the arrogant ways we go about playing the schoolyard bully thing and treating other governments as if we believe they are infidels. It is good that the government is putting this information out there hoping the citizens of this country can be ambassadors when we travel. But don’t get me wrong…in part as I said, I do agree that we have a responsibillity when we travel to be respectful of others..we have that responsibility all the time whether we travel or not. BLut until we get the idea in this government that we have NO RIGHT to inforce our way of government on other countries we will continue to be hated the world over. If another country wants democracy as the model we have set forth as a way to govern themselves. they will find a way to have it. They do not need for us to tell them they MUST have it. As you can probably tell, I am for leading by example…not force. Free will is natural gift of the Universe. Free Will. Good or is the natural order of things.

  2. Bravo, Mavis!! I think you’ve really nailed a lot of my own views here. I do think that our help is needed in certain situations around the world, but I think that we should be there to support the country not try to turn it into a mini-America. That way’s not to world peace (as we should have learned by now). We love our country, as we should, and part of that should be allowing others to love their own countries or to make them into countries they will love, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the “American way.”

  3. I read this yesterday and thought about it all night, to make sure just what I wanted to say about this. Ya know what, I dont give a rats fanny what they think of us over there, in any foriegn country. Yes, this is a very American way of thinking. If someone decides to spend their hard earned cash in a foriegn country and help support their economy, I guess they should be happy for that. We arent going over their to stay, its usually a vacation, so any one wanting us to leave, can be happy it is only a vacation. Think about this in reverse. Say a french family comes here for a vacation. They land in our airports, rent our cars, eat our food, and spend their cash in our stores. If they ask directions, I really sorta doubt they will be given wrong directions, just cus they arent american. If foriegn countries wnat to refer to us as ugly americans, because we are a little too loud, or brash for their taste, maybe we could start spending more of our cash here at home. I wouldnt go to another country and expect them to change for me, and I certanly wouldnt try to act like a local there. I just dont think I could bring myself to go to a place that thougt of me as an ugly American.

  4. You have very good points here, Spartonmom. I’m not sure it’s personal, though, or that it’s the money alone. Having lived in a tourist area, I do sort of sympathize with the love ’em and hate ’em mentality that places dependent on tourism experience, and our tourists were almost exclusively American (we have a lot of regional friction and bias in this country that can be comparable with “foreign” travel and travelers).

    And I do think that we feel that way about foreign people here (not you, personnally), but we do the “Japanese tourist” with the camera thing and when Crocodile Dundee was popular, we thought all Aussie wore silly hats and wrestled crocodiles or were aborigines. Stereotypes are hard to shake, I guess, and when you’re a highly visible country, it’s even harder. I think that part of the “image problem” with Americans is that we tend not to care what the traditions are in other countries; for example, we might violate religious law by entering holy places in shorts in some countries, not even noticing that we are the only ones not covered or perhsps not caring if we do notice. And that means as much to some peoples as our respect for our flag means here. Or we may (loudly) criticise the plumbing, food, fashion (or whatever) of another country while visiting, and that’s just rude by anyone’s standards. If that French tourist came over here and was loudly complaining about everything, we might think differently about them, too.

    One of your main points that I think is spot on is the difference between visiting a country and moving there. I think that when Americans make a home in a new country, we do adapt and fit in rather than demand that the new country turn into America (unlike the recent wave of immigrants to this country). Maybe we could do mini versions of this while on vacation, too? I don’t think that the State Department is saying to not be American or ourselves, just to recognize that talking loudly (nad it’s not how we talk so much as what we say so loudly, I think) is rude to other people around the world, or that talking about money or religion is considered being nosy or too personal, that sort fo the thing; just maybe be more aware that everyone isn’t like us, and that they don’t want to be and that their differences can be fascinating.

    I don’t know because you raise good points, but don’t stay home just because of our international reputation! I think that meeting people individually can be a very good way to change perceptions; besides, I can’t see you doing the things that we’re accused of doing, anyway! Huggs.

  5. Hei Fuzz.

    Very interesting article with very good comments from all of ye.

    The positive thing with the Americans that I do like the best in you lot is that you in any given situation make it ‘lighter’ where the Brits get far too pompous, the French too snobby and the Germans too exact – the Americans bring it all back to the earth level, to normality.

    Yes, there are a lot about ‘The Innocence Abroad’ a la Mark Twain, but honestly, which nationality on earth can boast it being a dream tourist, visitor nation to the others!! There ain’t such.

    Take care. =)


  7. Oh, Drifter, I don’t think Spartonmom means to be arrogant; Americans (as Capitalists) do tend to focus more on the financial aspects of things, and I can see how Spartonmom might feel insulted that the State Department thinks we need to change our behavior abroad. Spartonmom is a BEAUTIFUL American, through and through.

    But I absolutely love the comparison you make, Drifter, of visiting a country to visiting a home; no one (I would hope!) would go into someone else’s home and complain loudly and to all that the plumbing is primitive or the food bland or the bedding inadequate (and I’ve heard all these and more complaints from Americans abroad, right in front of hordes of locals who shift uncomfortably and feel awful and probably angry, too). That’s a clever comparison, really, and I wish I’d thought to make it! We SHOULD all act as if we are visiting someone’s home when we travel internationally . . . because we ARE. Huggs, Drifter!!

  8. As someone that works in the tourist industry on a day to day basis, I found this post very interesting Fuzzy! I am confident there is an ugly American overseas because I see it so much it ceases to be ugly any more. We (certain segments of our population) have a sense of entitlement. That is the main problem right there. It seems that once our population reaches a certain age or econimic level, there is no reason to give back.

    Having said that, I can’t believe that this admiistration cares in the least about its reputation overseas. They should fix that from the top and work their way down. (Did I just say that?)

    As someone who sees thousands of travelers every day, let me list my favorite visitors to our western National Parks and Monuments.

    The European visitors…they are curious and visit in a very unobtrusive manner. They are not demanding and appreciate just about everything presented to them.

    Families and Adults for the northeastern United States. They are probably so far from true wild lands and places that they truly arrive with an amazing curiosity.

    The Australians are a kick in the pants!

    My least favorite visitors (and yes I know I am generalizing beyond belief her and probably appear every bit the ugly american…please accpt these comments with a grain of humor!)

    Asisan tourists…they have no sense of space or for the “quiet places of power”. Entire crowds are in a hushed voice becasue of a scene and this group will be using very loud voices. They also seem to have a poor sense of geography. We spend a lot of time explaining directions to them when we really just want to say get a dam map! They can be very demanding!

    Older americans mainly because of that sense of entitlement I mentioned before.

    Indian and Indian/Americans as opposed to Native Americans. The visitor centers close at 6pm! Plan your trip to arrive before 5:50pm!

    Bicyclists…they feel they extend so much effort saving the earth on two wheels that they don’t have to contribute to the well being of the government facilities that they use on a regular basis (user fees).

    With regard to the ugly american overseas, we probably don”t hear much about the college student that travels by themselves becasue they have a sense of wonder and approach all people and place meekly with that same sense of wonder.

    I have said my piece!

  9. A sense of entitlement, yes, I think that is a good way to put it. And you are right about tourists of all nationalities, too. Thanks for the great comments, Gregg!!

  10. I just read this cause I noticed the tag for it.
    I admit I had preconceptions about Americans, a little brash, a little obnoxious, loud, self-absorbed. But then I got to know several online, and of the ones I met, I can safely say none were like that.
    Likewise, when I visited the States for the first time last year, I was astounded. Yes, fair enough, things did shock me, everything seemed so….big, the cars, parking lots, all seemed to tower over me upon arrival. Food portions are bigger, generally, too.
    But the thing I noticed most of all was how welcoming people can be. Maybe it’s cause I have an English accent, but I found everyone to be very friendly (and it came across sincerely too) and not at all like I expected. I love it!

  11. It’s true, Americans do seem to love the English accent, but I’m so glad that people weren’t rude to you, just remember that when you visit New York or Boston (oooh, that would be WAY cool as it’s near me) where people tend to be more rude and boisterous, etc. They’re that way to other Americans, too. As to the food portions, yes, alas, that is true. But just you wait: You’ll be speaking with a twangy Yank accent in no time at all. hehe

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