The term, Ugly American, refers to a badly behaved, rude or obnoxious American traveling abroad. If they are traveling in the USA, we just call them “Ugly.” A 2015 global survey by travel deal site Travelzoo revealed that Americans are among the worst-behaved in the world. It’s nice to know we are number one in the world for something. I have done extensive travel around the global in my military career and on business. I have made these blunders and a few others not listed. Travelzoo recommends four behaviors to avoid:
- Asking “Do you speak English?” — or worse yet, ‘American’. Okay, guilty on this account. Let’s face it; we know that in England, they don’t speak American. Do the best you can. The biggest goof is to ask someone if they speak English when their official language is English. That can happen easily. English is very global and is the language of business. I once sponsored an officer from Malawi and I asked if he understood English. Of course I said it slowly and almost in pidgin English. I was really embarrassed to discover it was Malawi’s official language. He spokes the “King’s English” which is nearly a foreign language to Americans. Here’s a few of the countries that speak English you may not be aware of: Kenya, Swaziland, Lesotho, Tanzania, Belize, Liberia, Botswana, Malta, Namibia, Dominica, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Gambia. On top of that, may countries, especially in Europe, teach English in school as a required course. In the USA, we’re lucky if we can master American in one dialect. I visited Aruba where students learn at least five languages by the time they graduate. In Germany, any time you need a translation, ask a kid. Their teachers encourage talking to Ugly Americans in their native tongue.
- Complaining about food portions. We don’t want to be known as the “Fat Americans.” Along with that, don’t order hamburgers or hot dogs. Don’t assume that hamburgers came from Hamburg or hot dogs from Frankfurt. Also keep in mind, most of the world eats with chop sticks. You should master this skill.
- Poor attire. When in Rome…
- Demanding to know prices in “real money” or American dollars. I witnessed an interesting incident in Korea. I was in a shop that sold hats. All the prices were in dollars and clearly marked on each hat. An American soldier who did not speak any Korean approached the shop owner with a hat marked $10. He said, in English, “I want to buy this hat but I don’t want to pay more than $7.” The owner said “Ne.” Korean for “yes.” Of course, “ne” sounds like “negative”. So the soldier said, “Okay, $8.” Again, the owner said, “Ne.” The soldier then replied, “Nine dollars and that’s my final offer.” The owner said, “Ne, ne, ne.” and pushed the hat into the soldier’s hands. The soldier paid $9 for a hat he could’ve purchased for $7 because of his limited knowledge of the native language. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.
As promised, here are a few other gaffs to avoid:
- Speaking louder to make yourself understood. It’s just plain stupid.
- Using a lot of hand gestures to make your point. You will probably end up using a gang symbol or making an obscene gesture unknown to you. The Michael Jackson gesture for “OK” which meant “Ass Hole” in a native language comes to mind.
- Not knowing the correct way to greet strangers. Let’s face it, most of the world bows. Shaking hands is a more Western gesture. When meeting a King or Queen or the Pope, you may have to genuflect. However, most countries do shake hands. Even so, you could still screw it up. For example, the Koreans shake hands differently. They extend their right hand and brace the elbow with the back of their left hand. They are also big on exchanging business cards right away. In many countries, strange men don’t shake hands with women.
I guess the only way to avoid a gaffe is to do your homework.
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