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How to Avoid Being the "Ugly American"


Incessant picture taking, wearing informal athletic clothes around town, fanny packs, croc shoes…..it isn’t hard to spot a typical American tourist! Whether it is in our own beloved NYC or across the pond in London, Americans have earned a bad rap when in the world of travel. This gave birth to the unflattering nick-name ‘the ugly American’ although of course American tourists are not the only ones who can behave inappropriately while abroad. Cultural insensitivity, rudeness and inappropriate dress are all telltale signs of somebody who didn’t do their homework before traveling. Assuredly, locals do not appreciate the lack of effort. Here at Athena we know students are competent, independent and respectful young people looking to have a life enhancing experience abroad. To help these young folks avoid the pitfalls of the ‘ugly American’, we have a few pieces of advice for those wanting to blend in with the locals and avoid the unpleasant stereotype.  


First thing’s first, what are you wearing? If you just looked down and saw a bald eagle flying across a glittery American flag on your T-shirt, pay attention. Clothing is one of the quickest ways to ‘stand out’ in a foreign country! (…unless you’re a 6’0 blonde studying in Kyoto, Japan...clothing might the second thing people notice.) Americans, especially college students, tend to dress more casually by wearing jeans, showing more skin, wearing flip flops, or by rocking the sweat pants. We also tend to dress more ‘provocatively’ than other nations with tank tops, shorts, sandals and mid-drift baring tops. So when it comes time to pack your suitcase for a summer in Venice or Seville, we suggest leaving the sweat pants and Americana gear at home. (Check our Packing Blog for more helpful tips on how to pack for a semester abroad!)

If you feel like your wardrobe isn’t sufficient, don’t worry. You will by no means need a new wardrobe. It takes only a few items to change a suitcase of clothes.  Adding a scarf, a light sweater, pants that are not jeans and a comfortable pair of shoes are the basic pieces to blending in.  Asking for these as a birthday or Christmas present before the semester is a great idea. And remember, if the wardrobe is only two or three outfits deep… it is almost better. Folks in other countries usually wear their clothes much more often than we do in the United States. No one will care if today is the third time this week for the red sweater.

One more piece of advice for clothing is to make sure you are aware of religious practices. In almost any city, showing skin in a religious building of any kind is considered very disrespectful. So if you are heading in a cathedral in Rome, Italy or Cadiz, Spain, grab a jacket or sweater before you go and cover up those shoulders!

Picture Taking.

Alright, now you have the perfect set of clothes to blend in with the locals. What’s the second biggest sign of a tourist? The incessant picture taking! We know, we know. Your mom wants to see what you look like in front of Big Ben, the London Eye AND the permanently stern faced guards when you come home from a semester in London. And of course, every plate of food NEEDS photographed because, well, it was just so cute the way they drizzled the sauce. On the flight home, you sift through the 3,000 photos and reminisce snapping away at the memories. But, do you remember tasting gelato for the first time? Did you fully enjoy the company of your fellow world traveling friends? Or were you too busy worrying about missing a photo opportunity? ….We understand and absolutely encourage everyone to take pictures of their once in a lifetime experience, but we also encourage the idea of finding a balance in picture taking. Find a way to capture the best moments while soaking it up in person. Smell the pasta sauce cooking in Florence, soak up the sun in Seville, savor the brew in the Dublin and pull out your camera to capture the truly memorable parts of your stay. 

It’s also really important to remember that you are traveling to somebody’s home where they eat, work, and play every single day. Intruding on their lives with obnoxious pictures can annoy, offend or disrespect a local and it can even make you look like an ugly American. If your host country’s culture is heavily integrated with religion, take extra caution with pictures. Watching a religious ceremony or visiting a religious establishment can be moving and captivating, but make sure if you are allowed to photograph, to do it in a respectful way. Watch your flash; avoid snapping pictures in their face, etc. A good rule of thumb for photographing people is to ask if it’s OK to take their picture while they are doing whatever it is you’ve found photo worthy. They might say no, and you’ll lose a nice picture but in the eyes of many travelers, respect is more important than the picture.


Another complaint about tourists is their lack of cultural sensitivity expressed through conversations. All too often tourists yelp phrases that go a little something like this:

“Why are they doing that? It’s SO weird!”

“Ugh, don’t these people have manners?”

“Ew. This place is so gross and dirty!”

How would you like it if somebody came into your home and made remarks like these? I bet you wouldn’t like it very much! Even if you are in a non-English speaking country, locals can still hear the tone of your voice, and maybe even understand what you’ve said. So be careful what you say! The ‘ugly American’ is often viewed as culturally insensitive because of comments like the ones above. When in a foreign country, again, you are in somebody’s home; treat it with the respect you would want in your home.  Even if you find the bathrooms in Greece to be appalling, just write down in your diary or divulge with your friends in your bedroom. There is no need to blab about it in the grocery store where locals can hear and potentially understand what you are saying.

In addition to watching what you say, be mindful of how you say things because ‘the ugly American’ is perceived as loud and obnoxious. To avoid this, simply be aware of your voice level and take the time to think about what you are saying! It is usually a good idea to avoid political comments and to avoid calling things weird or stupid…even if you genuinely feel like the Spanish custom of taking a Siesta every day is mind boggling! Simply keep it to yourself, the custom isn’t going to change because you don’t understand or like it.

Remember that all countries have their own customs and unless you want to show up in Kyoto not knowing how to properly eat a bowl of rice, we encourage you to research on your own. Some things to research:

  • ·         Table Manners
  • ·         Greeting and leaving expectations for friends, elders, strangers
  • ·         How to politely order food
  • ·         How to politely ask for help
  • ·         A few key phrases like ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and general ‘where is___’ questions are good to  learn in the local language if you haven’t taken language courses beforehand
  • ·         Photography taboos
  • ·         Cultural taboos in general (for example, window shopping in Italy is considered rude)
  • ·         Tipping expectations
  • ·         Taxi etiquette
  • ·         How alcohol is consumed (for those over 21)

We want students to be aware of cultural norms upon arrival, but if you happen to forget that greeting a friend starts with a kiss on the left, you aren’t going to be punished and the world isn’t going to end because of it.  Locals of your host country truly appreciate your effort!  Simply learn from the mistake, brush it off and carry on. It is all a part of the experience! Having a sense of humor and the confidence to keep trying, the journey can be one full of tales to tell. If you have a hard time remembering all the specifics of your culture or are nervous about all of it just remember to be respectful and learn about the new culture. You are representing the United States, so represent it a way that you can be proud of. We have full faith you do so. And if all else fails, just watch how the locals do it.

Travel on globe trotters!

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