Over the years, Americans have developed a certain reputation when traveling internationally. Not all of us fit the stereotype of the loud and uncultured visitor, of course. But all you have to do is type “obnoxious American tourist” into Google, and you’ll find pages and pages of results.
This month, The Huffington Post published an article called, “The Rudest Things You Can Do When Visiting Another Country.” Several etiquette experts and travel bloggers contributed.
Every country has different cultural norms, so there’s no “one- size fits all” rule. But there are things you can do to avoid inadvertently drawing negative attention to yourself.
1. Don't Assume Everyone Speaks English
No doubt, English is an important and widely-spoken language. It’s taught in many schools and those who work in hospitality have decent command of it.
But that doesn’t mean you should expect all locals to speak English.
There’s no excuse not to learn some basic phrases.
Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, said, “do not speak louder (in English) hoping that the other person will suddenly understand you.”
2. Watch Your Volume
Generally, Americans have a way of making their presence in a space known. Our voices carry, even in a room filled with people.
That kind of volume may fly in the U.S., but good luck in Switzerland. The Swiss like order, so being loud just about anywhere outside of a nightclub won’t sit well with locals.
France is similarly reserved.
I was on an early morning train from Paris to Normandy. I don’t even think it was 9 AM yet. This American woman was loudly talking to her companion and it grated my nerves. I knew I wasn’t the only one.
I was chatting with two other Americans across from me, and we debated whether we should ask her to mind her volume. In the end, we didn’t. But she must have gotten the cue at some point, because she did quiet down.
3. Research In Advance
Research is a great way to learn about cultural norms and “no nos.”
Take off your shoes when entering a Japanese home.
Don’t put your feet up on Swiss train seats.
Smiling and engaging in small talk with strangers isn’t the norm in France and Germany.
If you’re entering a French site of business, “bonjour” and “merci” go a long way. There’s no need to add on “comment- allez vous?” That could be construed as invasive.
In Spanish-speaking countries, “usted” is used to address strangers, elders and those in positions of authority.
If you happen to run into the president of Mexico, avoid “como estas?” unless you know him personally. “Como esta usted?” is better.
4. Be Humble
Listen to Kendrick Lamar.
Would you go to somebody’s home and raid the refrigerator? Hopefully not, unless you have that kind of relationship with the person.
It’s really no different when traveling. You don’t make the rules, you abide by the ones set.
One etiquette expert told The Huffington Post, “you’re not there to change things or to do things the way you would do them at home. You’re there to experience the local culture and learn about new customs.”
5. Avoid Potentially Incendiary Discourse
If you’re in a country that is soccer-mad, make sure you aren’t wearing apparel in support of a rival team.
Religion? Avoid that like the plague. Are you a woman in a Muslim-majority country? Prepare to cover your head, especially when in a mosque. You can complain about the sexism all day long. It is what it is.
Sex? Totally off-limits in more conservative countries.
When in Britain, consider keeping anti-royal sentiment to yourself unless you know your audience. Even with Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the Windsors still have a following.
You get the picture.
6. Be Mindful Of Certain Gestures
In the U.S., the thumbs up signal and the peace sign have positive connotations.
Outside the country is a different story.
As reported by Business Insider, “just ask any traveler who has given a thumbs-up in Afghanistan. Or someone who has crossed their fingers in Vietnam or signaled ‘OK’ in Brazil. All those gestures have offensive connotations away from American soil.”
Here’s an interesting one. If you go to metal concerts, you’ll see a lot of people doing the “sign of the horns” with their index finger and pinky extended.
But, Business Insider notes, “in many European and South American countries, it mocks cuckolds- husbands whose wives are unfaithful.”
That’s not a can of worms you want to open.