Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Wed November 09 2016

How Not To Be An Ugly American

Features & Advice Lisa Iannucci November 09, 2016

How Not To Be An Ugly American

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Earlier this year, a 24-year-old unnamed man wanted the perfect vacation selfie, so he climbed to take a photo next to a famous statue of Dom Sebastiao, a former Portuguese king. The result was catastrophic. He accidentally knocked over the statue outside a Lisbon train station and it smashed to pieces.

In another “Ugly American” situation, an American tourist accidentally snapped off the finger of a statue of the Virgin Mary at Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. The statue was 600-years old. The tourist claimed he was trying to compare finger sizes.

Accidents happen, of course, but when you are visiting another country, you don’t want to be labeled an “Ugly American.”

“I think to avoid the stereotype of being an Ugly American is just to realize that you are not in America and respect the customs, traditions, and laws of the country you are in,” said April Westerhold of Five Star Travel & Cruises.

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That’s not always easy to do. Some of the problems that tourists encounter are purely because of miscommunication. This can be avoided if Americans just learn a few words in the country’s native language. “Just a hello and thank you can make the locals light up,” said Michelle Weller of the Travel Leaders in Houston, Texas. “Then bring along your app that translates. If you cannot say the rest, just translate everything into the app.  I used this on my latest trip to Paris and the locals loved it.  We made a lot of new friends just by trying to speak the language.”

Weller also encourages travelers to have patience, something she practiced once on a trip to Paris. “Not everything will be the way you are accustomed to in the States,” she said. “Just smile and be polite. In Paris, when I arrived at my hotel, they had made a mistake with my room. Parisians are very formal and so many people take that as being rude. I did not yell or get angry, just smiled and said ‘No problem, I will rest in the lounge and have a coffee, when you are ready let me know. Merci.’ They not only comped my coffee, they gave me the Eiffel Tower view room – a huge upgrade.”

Weller knew how to say thank you in French, something Tom Karnes suggests to his travelers as well. “Try to speak the language, if only ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’” said the president/owner of LaMacchia Travel in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

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Karnes also said that knowing what to expect in a foreign land can also prevent you from turning into an “Ugly American.” “I just got back from Italy with a group and one of the biggest issues was our guest trying to go into a café and getting coffee to go,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way in Italy so don’t push it. We explained it from the beginning and most people understood, but there are always those that don’t.  These people are also ‘Ugly Americans’ in America.” 

Weller reminds Americans that not everything will be the way you want it. “I have seen Americans make horrible comments about why the macaroni & cheese they ordered in Istanbul was not macaroni & cheese,” she said. “Be prepared that a milkshake ordered in Paris is not going to be a milkshake like you expect! I had one American on a group trip say ‘They don’t even know how to make a milkshake.’ An attitude like this not only makes you look bad; it ruins the trip for everyone else.”

She advises Americans to be patient, be flexible and remember that you might hate the milkshake but be happy you get to see the Eiffel Tower. “Most people will never get to enjoy that beauty their entire life.”

Oh yes, and don’t climb or touch the statues.