I’m an American traveler. As somebody who enjoys getting out and seeing the world as much as I possibly can, I’ve met a lot of people along the way who have offered up their opinions and ideas about U.S. travelers, and the U.S. in general.
I’m going to start off by saying that this is not a political post. Despite the recent tumultuous nature of my country’s politics and my very strong opinions on the matter, I really try my hardest not to do politics on this blog, but I did want to offer my commentary and perspective on a subject I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years, which is my perception of how we Americans are perceived in the world. I’m constantly reading about how horrible American tourists are online. It seems to be a popular subject and hating on us seems to be cool at the moment. Even though there are several hundred million people in this country, it gets a little hard not to take it personally sometimes, you know?
Let’s talk about some specific stereotypes that I’ve heard uttered over the years…
Ouch, that hurts. I mean, there are plenty of Americans who are, in fact, quite loud and obnoxious. I’ll be the first to admit it (those people certainly annoy me as well). However, there are plenty of us who aren’t, either. Personally, I don’t like to draw a lot of attention to myself while traveling and prefer to blend in as much as possible. I don’t like being targeted as a tourist and all that entails, so if I can get by being mistaken for a local, all the better.
Of course, many things do give me away depending on where I’m traveling, from my ethnicity to my accent, I can’t always hide in the crowd. One thing I’ve noticed is that it seems like everywhere I go, I get mistaken for a Canadian. People always ask, “are you from Canada?” and seem genuinely surprised when I tell them I’m from the United States.
Am I to assume the fact that I’m well-spoken, polite, and not dressed like a slob means I can’t possibly be an American? Or am I just being a little too sensitive and reading into things too much? Trust me…there are many Americans out there traveling and being perfectly polite. You just don’t notice them because…well, they aren’t drawing attention to themselves.
We’re too focused on ourselves and don’t want to see the rest of the world.
Let me give you a little insight into this one…we Americans don’t have a lot of vacation time. It’s sad, really, but it’s true. It really is hard to get time off of work to travel in this country, and we can’t just quit because the bills continue to demand being paid. Many people are afraid they will lose their jobs if they take too much time off. Sigh. It’s also extremely expensive to leave the United States. Remember: this is a BIG country, so flights abroad can be really far away and can get really pricey. It’s not like Europe where other countries are just a hop, skip, and a jump away. I live close to Mexico. I can fly to Canada in about 3 hours. Any other countries are extremely far and involve crossing oceans and spanning continents. Even the Caribbean is usually around 7 hours of travel for those of us who live on the West coast. Most people I talk to say they wish they could travel abroad with the kind of wistful longing reserved for unattainable dreams. I say those dreams are certainly attainable, but that’s a different blog post entirely.
None of us have passports.
Actually, a lot of us do have passports, and more Americans are getting theirs every day. Most people I know have passports, in fact. I did a little fact checking on the subject and found that according to the U.S. State Department, there are around 109 million U.S. passports in active circulation, as of the time of writing this article. That’s a lot of Americans traveling abroad! And while, sure, a lot of those people are probably just going to Canada or Mexico, allow me to remind you that we’re smack in the middle of a giant continent and it’s pretty expensive to get to any country that isn’t Canada or Mexico, so cut us a little slack, as there are a lot of people who are struggling financially out there for whom Canada or Mexico might be a pretty big trip that they had to save up for!
Also, might I note that if none of us had passports, why would you all be writing articles about how annoying American travelers are? If we didn’t have passports, we wouldn’t be showing up in your neighborhoods! Just saying.
We wear stupid clothing while traveling.
Ah, the white tennis shoes, fanny pack (don’t laugh, British and Australian readers…I’m talking about one of these), and t-shirt with the name of the place you are currently visiting. Some stereotypes are certainly true. I’ve seen them and giggled myself on plenty of occasions. Then again, just as many of us are dressed in a normal, subtle manner, blending into the background. You just don’t notice us because we blend in. As for the people in the silly clothing, lighten up. They aren’t hurting anybody with their mismatched attire. They just want to be comfortable as they tromp around all day. I get it, I do. Personally I tend to want to be fashionable and end up lamenting how much my feet hurt in my trendy shoes all day long.
The whole “tipping” thing.
Look. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural practice. We can’t help ourselves. The tipping culture comes from the fact that in our country, many service industry workers would be living in absolute poverty if we didn’t tip them. Personally, I think everyone should make a living wage, but since I know they don’t, I feel extremely guilty not tipping my server. When traveling abroad, it’s hard to break those habits. We’re just used to tipping and we feel guilty not to. I know in some cultures it’s considered rude to tip, and we Americans can get ourselves into trouble if we don’t do a little research ahead of time (tip: don’t tip in Japan!!!). Just know that it’s all meant with sincerity and in an attempt to be polite and do the right thing.
First off…we’re NOT all fat. There are Americans in all shapes and sizes. Just like everywhere else. Second…who cares? Are we really so judgmental? I’m sure people who are overweight aren’t happy about it. Let’s not make them feel worse by criticizing their appearance. Let them enjoy their holiday, for crying out loud!
A lot us are. A lot of us aren’t. I generally tend to keep fairly quiet. I can’t deny that there are a lot of loud Americans out there, but I tend to get just as annoyed as the locals when I encounter them. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a beautiful little restaurant in Florence, Italy. I was about to tuck into my risotto when a couple of loud American guys started talking about “finding chicks” from the table next to me. Great, I thought, I traveled all the way to Italy to listen to American bros talk about “finding chicks”. As if I couldn’t have heard that at home.”
Trust me. We’re all annoyed by those guys. Don’t hold it against the rest of us. Besides, I’ve heard some pretty obnoxious people having similar conversations who weren’t Americans. It’s not like we have a corner on the market, after all.
We only want to speak English.
Look, I’m not going to deny that these people don’t exist, because they do. I’ve seen them, and I’m always embarrassed for them. We’ve all seen the person just yelling the same thing over and over in English as though just saying it louder will make the person on the receiving end suddenly understand. We’re not all like that, though, so please don’t let the actions of a few color your opinion of us all. There are a LOT of Americans out there, and we are as different from each other as we are from people in other countries. I know a lot of bilingual people, and I know a lot of people who attempt to learn some of the language before they visit a country.
Personally, I’ve studied French and Spanish fairly extensively and although I wouldn’t consider myself close to fluent in either language, I know enough to get by while traveling and maybe even to make slightly awkward chit chat. I always take some time to study a language at least a little bit before I head over to another country, and always make sure to print out a few handy phrases as well as anything I might need to provide a cab driver, such as driving directions to my hotel, in the native language of my destination and bring it with me before traveling.
Honestly, it’s kind of fun to learn a little bit of a new language while traveling. A lot of Americans agree with me.
One thing I’ve noticed when traveling abroad, particularly in Europe, is that no matter how flawless my use of their language is, the moment they hear my accent and determine that I’m an English speaker, many people often switch to English. I guess to practice their own English? I don’t know, but it’s a slight bummer when I want to practice my language skills and everybody just wants to speak English with me.
Actual conversation in Italy I had with a sandwich cart guy:
Me: Ciao! Vorrei due panini di pomodoro e formaggio , per favore. (very proud of my Italian, by the way…)
Sandwich cart guy: Ok. That will be 6 Euros, please.
Me: Oh. Uhhh…ok. Sure. Here you go.
The struggle is real.
Honestly though, many travelers might not speak the language of their destination, but most people I know make an honest attempt at being polite and friendly while abroad. I certainly don’t speak Japanese but I got by saying Arigato and Sumimasen, pointing to things on menus, and giving my best attempt at following Japanese etiquette rules wherever I went. Most people I know would do the same.
I told you at the beginning of this post that I wasn’t really going to get into politics, and I’m not, really…but there is one thing I do want to say. One of the most common things I’ve experienced when talking to strangers or even friends abroad when they find out I’m an American is an assumption of what my politics must be like. You know what I’m talking about. Again, this blog is NOT about politics and the last thing I want to do is incite a political debate here so I’m not getting into specifics, but I will say that in a nation of over 318 million people spanning over 3.8 million square miles, with regions and cultures that are quite diverse and different from one another, isn’t it a little narrow-minded to assume anything at all? When you meet one of us abroad, don’t assume we’re always on board with everything our country is saying and doing. We might be just as upset about *insert issue here* as you are.
I’m almost afraid to open up the comments on this one, but I’m going to come out and say it anyway. What are your thoughts on the subject? Are you an American traveler who has been frustrated by these things? Do you live in another country and have thoughts on the subject from another perspective? Let’s discuss.