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Why do Tourists From the US Get Such a Bad Rap?

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

I hate that we from the United States get such a bad rap as international tourists … but at the same time, it feels kind of well-deserved. From social media to news stories to talking with other travelers, everyone has heard or read stories of people from the United States acting badly.

Point of Person Privilege: This is just my own pet-peeve here, but this seemed like the perfect place to talk about it … Even though the colloquial term in the United States is to refer to ourselves as “Americans,” this shorthand is inaccurate and in this blog post, offensive to the other inhabitants of ... America.

After all, I don’t think our kindhearted and overly polite neighbors to the North or hard working and enterprising neighbors to the South really like being lumped in with US (pun intended). And that isn’t even beginning to address all the amazing people and cultures who call Central and South America home.

Proud to be a United Stateian

“American” technically refers to all people living in North, Central, and South America. I think this is only part of the reason why we from the US get a bad rap when traveling. Our world view and national identity is messed up before we even leave. So keep in mind … the next time you use the term “American” to identify yourself, that’s totally fine, but you are being as inclusive as possible. Consider instead identifying yourself by state or region.

Fat Mama Tip: Geographical identifiers can be helpful when introducing yourself or talking about places in the US while you are traveling abroad. "I'm Fat Mama from California" usually doesn't need any more explanation. But, "my brother Jackalope lives in Wisconsin" usually needs a follow up like "that's in the Northern, Midwestern United States." This is also far more accurate than just saying "I'm an American" or "I'm from America."

I have gotten off on a bit of a tangent … my whole point in bringing this up was not to drive home the fact that be you Canadian, Mexican, Brazilian, Chilean, or from the United States, that you are, therefore, American … but rather to explain that this is why I always engineer my sentences to say that we are from the United States rather than the easy, colloquial, inaccurate, misnomer, American.

I do, however, think this is part of the bad rap tourists from the United States get when we travel abroad. I mean the gall we have to identify our small (and really in comparison, no matter how you look at it, it is small) part of the world with the label provided to two entire continents (actually a whole hemisphere), which one out of thirty-five countries occupy.

I know I’m being dramatic here, but do you see what I’m getting at? We in the United States love to think of ourselves, really our county and culture, as this bigger-than-life thing that is due awe and respect. Often, we (and I am definitely guilty of this too) get so wrapped up in this view that we forget other countries are awesome too! And for WAY MORE than just visiting.

BUT, I don't think our nationalism and self-identity as “Americans,” which other countries and people can find so off putting, is at the heart of why us from the US get a bad rap as tourists. No Mama! I think it ... partly ... comes down to one simple thing. Vacation days … or more specifically the lack thereof.

Is this an over simplification? Yes!

Are there other social, educational, and deep-seated ideological reasons for the disrespect some tourists from the United States show foreigners ... even though when they travel, they themselves are the foreigners? YES!

Is there a subset of tourists from the United States (and other places too, but let's focus on our own problems for now) that simply lack the necessary elements of curiosity, humility, and respect to be successful global citizens? YES!

But hear me out ...

You get a vacation, and you get a vacation, and you get a ... no, not US

Did you know that the United States is the ONLY industrialized nation that DOES NOT require employers to provide employees paid vacation days? In fact, many nations even provide paid vacation days to part-time employees. But NOT in the United States.

Check out this chart on Wikipedia to compare each country’s minimum annual leave with what your company has chosen to gift you (or not) as a perk. Normally I don’t like using Wikipedia as a source, however this article’s references check out and I have found a ton of other articles and news stories backing up the data.

A 2014 article published by the BBC states clearly the US work force’s relationship to vacation days (and let’s be honest, things haven’t gotten any better since 2014):

Even for those Americans who do receive paid time off, actually taking it can prove to be a Herculean task. The overall culture of the American workplace is one where people often feel that if they dare to request vacation days, they will be stigmatized as lazy or disloyal. Many leave their earned time off on the table each year. Experts say this serves to create an imbalance in the work-life equation, rarely seen in other advanced economies.

An eye-opening survey released by careers website in April found that the average American employee who received paid time off last year had used only half of it.

Some 28% of workers told Glassdoor they feared falling behind in their work, while 17% feared losing their job. Another 19% said they didn’t take long vacations because they wanted to have an edge over the competition for a promotion.

So, what does this have to do with tourists from the US being perceived as rude or uncouth when it comes to global travel?

Well, since we don’t get the opportunity to travel, we are not practiced at travel. Since we are not practiced at travel, we don’t really know how to behave when we leave our home country. Since we don’t really know how to behave, we do what most people do when they are nervous or scared or trying something new … we let our lizard brain take over.

It makes sense. The more you travel, the more you see what the world has to offer; the more you see of the world, the more you understand that the United States is just one small place. The more you understand the United States is just one small place, the more at ease you feel. The more at ease you feel, the kinder you become. The kinder you become, the more you can relate to other people … do you see where I am going with this?

Remember how I said the lack of vacation days are at the root of US tourists abroad being a$$holes when they travel?

Think about when you were a kid and didn't like a certain food. For me it was broccoli. I refused to eat broccoli. Gigi and Pappy regularly ate broccoli but out of the kindness of their heart, and my incessant screams, did not force that foul tiny tree on me.

Now, I based all my dislike of broccoli on three things.

  1. it was green

  2. it smells bad steamed

  3. it was a vegetable

Over all, these are rather prejudiced views. Especially for never having tried the stuff! But there you go.

My experience with broccoli was defined and prejudiced by those limited interactions. It wouldn't be until I was an adult and tried broccoli cooked in a wok with chicken and a delightful peanut sauce that I realized how much I actually like this veggie. Same with rude tourists. Not all of them, but you can't fix ...

Now, I don't believe in stupidity, anyone can learn. But I do believe in willful ignorance; and there is no fixing willful ignorance. And the United States has proven time and again that we suffer greatly from willful ignorance at all levels of society. BUT the best way to combat ALL forms of ignorance, willful or otherwise, is through experiential education (and in most cases prejudice boils down to a lack of personal experience).

What is the best form of experiential education?

Oh come on! Guess ... you know where I'm going with this ...

Practice Makes Perfect ... But You Have to Have the Opportunity to Practice

Travel, vacations, new experiences, doing things completely outside of your normal day- to-day are part of what make us better people. Not only do these new experiences help us grow our own personal skills, but they also help us see life from a new perspective. New experiences teach us to slow down and see the other side of the coin. Even when we don't realize it's happening.

These new experiences also start to teach kindness, If the participants are willing to accept kindness from others.

Okay, I know that sounds really hippy-dippy but bear with me.

To approach any situation with kindness takes real comfort, patience, and understanding, something that I strive for everyday and with every trip and every new experience. As a traveler, I regularly find myself in uncomfortable situations. Whether its because of a language barrier, cultural difference, my weight, or an everyday misunderstanding, things happen. I could easily choose to respond with anger. But I do my best to choose kindness instead. Let me give an example.

Senior year of high school, 2004, I got to go to Italy with an art group at my school (some day I will do a post all about this trip and how I got my first job to pay for it). Our second- to-last night in Italy was spent in Rome and dinner was served family style to the entire 40-person tour.

The meal was penne pasta in a pesto cream sauce and French fries (admittedly there was much more pesto than cream, and maybe more garlic than pesto). I don’t know if it was just because the other students were exhausted by the 10th day of our trip or if it was the typical United State tourist charm, but several of my classmates began loudly bemoaning the … let’s say … strong flavor of the meal. I even have a photo from that dinner of one student making a stupid disgusted face while “eating” his pasta.

In this situation, my classmates allowed their lizard brains to dictate their actions. They were uncomfortable. They did not know how to communicate to the restaurant staff who spoke little English. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were tired. Thus, they responded badly, acted rudely, and made mean comments. In return, the restaurant staff interacted with them as little as possible.

I on the other hand I (yes, I am going to paint myself as the angel here, but I swear this is how it happened), took several bites of the strongly flavored pasta. Laughed at myself for how on fire the garlic made my mouth feel. Ate all the French fries I could get my hands on. Then, in the best Italian I could muster I politely attempted to say “Mi scusi, potrei per favore avere un bicchiere d'acqua e altre patatine fritte? Grazie.” But since the only Italian I had learned was in the 10 days I had been in Italy what I actually said was “Mi scusi, per favore acqua and more French fries? Grazie.”

Was my Italian horrible? YES! Did I mispronounce everything? YES! Did I speak slowly and absolutely garble the language? YES! Am I amazed the waitress understood me at all? YES!

But I approached my request and the situation from a place of kindness. I politely tried the food. I laughed at myself for taking too big of a bite of the garlicky pesto. I did my best to speak the native language of the country I was in, making sure to correctly say “please” and “thank you” which made a big impression. Far bigger than expected.

The waitress asked me to repeat myself to one of her co-workers, not because she couldn’t understand me, but because she was beaming ear-to-ear and wanted the other servers to hear me … unlike my classmates … at least make an attempt to be polite in Italian. And you know what happened? These two now SMILING servers came back with a pitcher of water and a huge platter of French fries.

Kindness is a Super Power

That experience more than any other in my life made me realize the power of kindness while traveling. Yes, we can all be kinder in our everyday lives, but I think it is extra important to remember to be kind when we travel.

I love this story so much because it shows how more than good manners a simple gesture, like saying “please” and “thank you” in the native tongue of the country you visit, can completely change someone’s outlook and opinion. By making that small effort, I went from an obnoxious tourist to a polite customer. More importantly I hope that I helped redeem my group of US travelers in the eyes of the restaurant staff that night.

This is why travel and new experiences are so important. My trip to Italy taught me so much about first-time travelers and the need to experience the world without direct parental supervision (thank you Gigi and Pappy). I realized that it was because I had previous experience traveling on youth leadership programs without my parental baggage that I knew how to behave without my mom and dad keeping me in line, reminding me of my manners, suggesting I speak in the native language. I had done all of that before. My classmates hadn’t.

Now, I’m not saying that every bad-behaving tourist from the United States is a first-time traveler. I’m not saying that their rude language, poor decisions, or awful antics are in anyway excusable. We all have brains and need to know when to engage them. What I am saying is that because those of us from the US do not have the experience or practice that LITERALLY every other county does with travel (since they get a TON more PAID time off to go and do it), we need to work extra hard to approach travel from a place of kindness.

Whether it is trying to say a few words in the local language. Learning about tipping practices in restaurants. Researching in advance haggling customs in markets. Greeting French shop clerks with a simple "Bonjour, Monsieur" because to not do so would be rude. Or being prepared to recognize local religious and cultural observations without acting as though it is an affront to your own beliefs. These are all very little things we can do as tourists from the United States to help us put kindness first. And hopefully start repairing our tarnished reputation as the unwanted Sackville-Bagginses of the tourist world.

Experiment Time

I know this post has been super soap-boxy and preachy and if you don’t agree with me that’s okay. If you think I’m being high-handed and judgmental, that’s okay too, I get it, I definitely come off that way sometimes.

But if you feel I'm wrong, then I want you to prove me wrong!

Here is my challenge to you … If you think there is no power in kindness when you travel, I want you to run an experiment. The next time you take a vacation, in or out of the US, make a list of deliberately nice things you can do. Some of my favorites are:

  • going out of my way to compliment tour or serving staff when they have done a good job

  • letting hotel clerks know how excited you are to be staying at their property and asking politely for their recommendations of must-do activities/points of interest

  • talking to locals in stores or service jobs about the best restaurants, bars, and music venues

  • bringing a bag of individually wrapped candies with you (Pappy's favorites are Hershey's chocolate Kisses) and leave a few for service industry people who help you (flight attendants, hotel employees, restaurant host and server staff, etc.). The smiles alone are worth the price of the candy

If you do just these four things with kindness, I think you will be surprised at the marked difference you will see in the service you receive and your overall experience.

But, it's just my theory. What do I know? Please, go prove me wrong.

Keep calm and quack on!

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