Dear American Tourists

Dear American Tourists, please stop being so rude.

It is no secret that American tourists do not have the best international reputation. I am an American. I live on a Dutch island in the Caribbean, where my husband goes to medical school. We were asked during orientation to be courteous and not perpetuate the poor reputation American tourists have. I do not think of myself as a rude person. I think most Americans do not. I have noticed, however, that in every country I have ever visited, “the locals are so friendly.” Maybe I have only traveled to friendly places. Maybe not. Maybe, everywhere else seems so friendly because America is generally not very friendly at all.

So what is our problem? Why don’t people like us, and what can we do to change that?

I would say that many things are cultural. People have different ideas of how to greet one another (one friend here said that he was sternly corrected for saying “hello” rather than “good morning,” which is proper here). People have different standards of eye contact. People have different rules for tipping, eating, asking for directions, etc etc.

There are some things that you can control when it comes to cultural courtesy. You can Google whether tips are expected or insulting in a certain area of the world. You can ask what a proper greeting entails. You can watch to see whether greeting strangers as you pass is considered kind or creepy.

There are also some things that you cannot control. You will not pick up on the majority of cultural nuances. You will trespass because you are used to signs designating private property. You will shake hands “wrong.” It happens. People probably won’t care too much; they will hear your accent and realize you are foreign. They will probably ignore it or laugh a little. They might become annoyed, but, hey, you’re learning.

Finally, there are things that are very rude no matter where you are. Dear American tourists, please do not do these things.

Please do not act as if you are better than other people. Your taxi driver and your waiter are not there for you to unload your grouchy jet-lagged crabfest upon. And just because people do things differently than you would does not mean it is “wrong.” It’s just, well, different.

Please do not act as though America is superior to all other nations. We Americans all love the stars and stripes, and that’s a good thing! However, people don’t want to hear a string of comparisons that belittle their own beloved nation. America is a culture where things are dichotomistic, time-oriented, and efficient. Most places aren’t like that. So don’t freak out when things are relaxed, confusing to you, or just plain irritating. If you wanted things to be American, you would have stayed in America. So enjoy the culture, embrace it while you’re there, and look for the good aspects.

Please do not be ethnocentric. No matter where you come from, it’s easy to place anyone different from yourself in the category of “Other.” You know what I mean, those Other people. The ones who look or dress or work or speak differently. I think that if we aren’t careful, we often look at people who are different from ourselves as less intelligent, less skilled, less important. You see a woman in a third-world county who is illiterate and does not work outside the home, and has never touched a computer. You may have more education and technical skills, but can you keep eight kids clothed, fed, and healthy in a two-room mudbrick home with no electricity, no water, and no stove? Can you sort rice so that not one tiny stone ends up in the pot? Can you carry 50 pounds of stuff on your head with no hands? Do you speak three languages? Can you keep a garden that supplies most if not all vegetable needs for your family, plus provides a little income? That, my friends, takes some serious skill. Some things are easy to miss. Learn to appreciate them. And just simply LEARN! Don’t go somewhere expecting to be a guru of all knowledge. (Shout out to short-term missions trip people here.) If you want to teach, you must first be a student. You will get more respect if you are willing to ask to be taught. Plus, it’s fun. It’s an icebreaker. It brings much laughter.

Please do not devalue other nations’ autonomy. I cringed when I heard an American tourist say, “The Bahamas should just be another state. It’s basically just part of the U.S. anyway.” How uninformed. Please, Mr. Florida Guy. You visit Touristville where half the people are white and everyone speaks English, and suddenly you think you know everything about the nation! My advice is, forget the tourist traps and take a local taxi or bus to the places that the locals hang out. Then you can get a feel for how people live. Learn about their government and read about the very intelligent people who run the state. There’s so much more to a place than just its American-catering tourist industry.

Please do not offend the locals by the way you dress. There are places where a bikini is pretty standard. There are places where you really ought to cover up, even arms and legs. Know the difference. There is no reason to exercise your liberty to dress revealingly if it gives you, your organization, and your country a bad name.

Please be mindful when you take photos. In some places, you can get your camera confiscated if you take a photo of the wrong thing (military or police in some countries). In others, people simply don’t want to be in your scrapbook. In general, don’t objectify locals as if they were some interesting foreign specimen.

Please do not be pushy. Yes, you come from a place where you can get pretty much whatever you want almost as fast as you want it. When traveling abroad, be mindful that this is rarely the case. Do not intimidate, complain, or demand. Rather, be smart and be respectful.

Please just be kind and courteous. In the end, people know you’re a visitor. They expect you to be, well, a weirdo. However, it is possible to be a courteous weirdo. Say please and thank you, smile, treat people the way you would like to be treated. Kindness counts, and it can go a long way in improving our international reputation.

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4 thoughts on “Dear American Tourists

  1. For five years, I was a program manager in an International Training Unit. We sent teams of instructors all over the world. The first thing I did when I had an assignment was to recruit the team to a new area and make a Cultural Briefing book.
    This is so true, and as an American who has traveled pretty extensively. I get it!
    If I was still working, I would have them all read this post!

    Like

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