Or the obnoxious Brit…
Americans and Brits seem to be in a never-ending boxing match for the title of “world’s worst tourist.” We both tend to be loud and navigate the world with an air of entitlement that can only be gotten from an extended history of colonization.
But, we don’t have to be this way and traveling can be a lot more fun for everyone if we practice some basic cultural sensitivity.
Here are 10 guidelines to follow on your next trip:
#1 Learn Some Basic Phrases in the Local Language
One of the common complaints people have when encountering British or American tourists is that we tend to act as if it’s everybody else’s job to learn our language. English has become the Lingua Franca so, as native English speakers, we don’t have that same pressure to learn any other language.
Even so, memorizing a few basic phrases is a great way to show respect to the local culture. You don’t have to be anywhere near fluent or even crack a grammar book. Just commit these five phrases to memory (at least for the duration of your trip) and you’ll be golden:
- Thank you
- Excuse me
- I’m sorry
- Do you speak English?
It might seem like a waste of time to learn a smattering of words in another language. I mean, you’ll probably forget them within days of getting back home and, in the end, you’ll need to use English to understand anything anyway, right?
While that’s technically true, it’s also inconsiderate. It will take you about five minutes to write down those five phrases in the local language and then another 20-30 minutes to get them memorized. You can do it on the plane and be done before the flight attendants finish reminding you to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting a child.
The perk of doing so is that everybody you talk to while on your trip will see that you’re fully aware you’re in a different country that speaks a different language. They will appreciate it, even if you totally butcher “Þakka þér fyrir.” It’s the cultural awareness that counts.
#2 Learn Some Local Customs
Is that friendly opening chit chat that’s normal to you going to be seen as rude? Is that smile at a stranger going to be misinterpreted as a proposition? Should you be wearing any kind of head covering while in public?
Read up on basic signals of politeness and rudeness in the local culture before you get there so you’re ready to give it your best effort.
#3 Don’t Just Speak English Louder at Non-English Speakers
If somebody doesn’t understand what you’ve said, repeating the same sentence louder isn’t going to change anything.
Imagine a tourist in your hometown asked you a question in Tamil. Assuming you don’t speak the language, would you understand it any better if they shouted in Tamil at a higher volume? Probably not.
Instead of getting louder when someone doesn’t understand you, try rephrasing what you’re saying in a more generic form of English. Make sure you’re avoiding colloquial expressions or phrases that are only used in your dialect.
When rephrasing isn’t working or the person you’re talking to speaks little to no English, it’s time to break out your amateur miming skills.
#4 Don’t Talk Local Politics
Unless you’re talking to someone you know personally or you are a professional with an expert level of knowledge on the situation, keep your opinions on local political events to yourself. If politics are a special interest of yours, it’s fine to ask questions but avoid passing judgments or handing out your hot takes.
No matter how “obviously correct” your opinion feels, remember that you’re not from this country and you’ve got no skin in this game. That means your opinion is, at best, completely irrelevant and, at worst, woefully ill-informed.
#5 Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
A lot of what drives that “ugly American” behavior is an urge to stay in our comfort zones. We want to speak the language we know, eat the foods we’re familiar with, and practice the cultural customs we grew up with.
This urge to do what you’re used to is fine at home, but it can come off as incredibly rude in a place where your language, food, and customs are not the norm.
Instead of clinging to that comfort zone, just embrace the discomfort. Prepare to kiss cheeks you wouldn’t normally kiss or eat foods you wouldn’t normally eat or walk barefoot in places you wouldn’t normally walk barefoot. It’s all part of the experience.
You will almost definitely mess up a custom or accidentally do something rude. Just apologize and move on. Trying and failing to be polite is a thousand times better than just intentionally being rude because it’s more comfortable for you.
An added perk to learning to be uncomfortable is that you might end up discovering new interests and tastes that you’d never experience if you stayed in your comfort zone—which brings us to our next point:
#6 Shop and Eat Local
You wouldn’t take a 14-hour flight to Mongolia just to hang out at a McDonalds all day, every day, would you? That’s a long and expensive way to go for some chicken nuggets.
When you’re in a different country, spend your money and your time on uniquely local experiences. Shop at the local markets. Eat at the local restaurants. Look for local tour guides to take you on walking tours.
From an ethical standpoint, this ensures that your tourist dollars are enriching the local economy instead of being absorbed into a multinational corporation. From a pure tourist standpoint, it ensures you’re trying out foods and experiences that you couldn’t get back home—which is, presumably, the reason you wandered so far from home in the first place.
#7 Respect Cultural Sites
What feels like a tourist attraction to you is sacred ground for others. Please treat it that way. If there are rules about head coverings or not taking pictures or being silent, follow those rules.
You don’t need to convert to Islam to check out the inside of a mosque but show respect for the people in that space by observing the customs.
Treat it like you’re visiting someone’s private home where the house rules are different than your own. You might not agree with your friend’s strict eyepatch policy but out of respect for her, you’ll wear one while you’re in her house.
#8 Ask Questions and Apologize
When you’re not sure what to do or what dish to order or what you should wear to go visit that temple, ask somebody! By the same logic, when you do the wrong thing or show up to the temple in the wrong attire, apologize! You don’t need to make an elaborate excuse or justify it. Just say you’re sorry (ideally in the local language) and try to do better next time. People all over the world are usually empathetic as long as you show that you are genuinely trying to be polite and culturally aware.
#9 Don’t Go Absolutely Off Your Trolley (Yes, We’re Looking at You, Britain)
When asked what the most annoying trait of a British tourist was, everybody (and we mean everybody. No, seriously, everybody) said it was their habit of getting completely hammered on holiday and behaving about as well as you’d expect a drunk person on holiday to behave.
It’s not just the Brits who imbibe, of course. It’s just that they seem to take the job especially seriously.
So, here’s the tip: drink at least somewhat responsibly. On a scale of “just one glass with dinner” and limping back to the hotel at 4:00 A.M. with a new tattoo and only one shoe on, stop yourself somewhere around the third time you chant your local FC song.
#10 When All Else Fails, Tip Generously
Sometimes, even when we do our best, culture clash and lack of awareness can make us seem unintentionally rude. Fortunately, most countries either encourage or at least tolerate tipping. So, if you accidentally call the waiter’s mother a donkey when trying to order your dinner in the local language, you can, at the very least, leave a hefty tip so they still walk away from the awkward encounter enriched.
There are, however, a handful of countries where tipping itself is considered an insult. In which case, tipping after accidentally insulting the waiter’s mother will only double down on the offense and you might need to leave the restaurant in a hurry.
Wherever your next trip takes you, spending an hour or so on the plane looking up your five key phrases and the local customs will go a long way toward making you a much more welcome guest when you arrive at your destination. When you get there, avoid making assumptions, ask lots of questions, and be quick to apologize when you mess up. That’s all there is to it!