When the bans on international travel are lifted, what can we do to be better received as American citizens?
I feel like the term “these unprecedented times” has become as tired as the yoga pants I’ve been wearing daily throughout this pandemic. Like my “lockdown loungewear”, I cannot wait for that term to be banished firmly into the past.
Until then, I will acquiesce that it certainly has been a “year of global, unfathomable firsts” — to the point where if pigs were to fly past my window right now, I’d just sigh and wave…
One of the “unfathomables” is that American citizens (excluding those who hold permanent residence in countries outside of the United States) are, as I write this piece, banned from travel to many parts of the world where we were once welcome.
There are multiple assertions and opinions as to how and why we got here – our inability to stem the staggering numbers of coronavirus cases within our own borders (we make up 4% of the world population but account for 25% of Covid cases globally); our partisan politics; our cavalier attitudes about wearing masks; our insistence on placing individual liberty over social responsibility; and our government’s lack of cohesiveness in combatting the Pandemic, to name a few.
It doesn’t mean we don’t try! Americans have been caught on boats sneaking into waters off the coast of British Columbia, hiking in Calgary “on their way to Alaska” or attempting surreptitious entry to Italy in private jets.
I saw an Instagram meme that captured it perfectly — a photo of an American passport with the caption, “Most useless possession of 2020.”
Until a vaccine is made universally available so that all Americans can travel freely around the globe again, allow me to take off my mask to reveal two “truths” (for those who are not already in the know) to my fellow US passport holders about travelling as Americans outside the States:
2) We never were.
Many of us have long believed (and still do) that we Americans are loved and admired the world over and that any change in how we’re perceived abroad is entirely due to Covid.
Let’s not blame Covid for the reputations we gained well before The Pandemic.
Much of the perceived “prestige” we held as Americans “BC” Before Corona was associated with the rights and privileges that come with holding a US passport. Our American dollars (and generous tipping culture) certainly weren’t unwelcome either.
In fairness, it isn’t that we’re universally disliked. Not at all! American tourists, among other things, have a reputation for being cheerful and smiley. This positivity – especially when it’s channelled as a sincere curiosity to learn about different cultures – is always welcome.
So when the travel ban on Americans lifts, what can we do as guests not only to regain our social standing but improve upon it?
As an expat living abroad now for over 20 years and after having talked to people in the service industry (those who interact with tourists the most) across multiple countries, here are my top three recommendations. (Very obviously) these recommendations are based on broad brush-stroke generalisations and do not, in any way, apply to all Americans.
1. Tone it down — your volume, your desire to showcase every detail of journey, your need to make it known that you are American.
Trust. Everyone can tell.
Sure, there are tourist stereotypes abound, and while Americans by no means have the monopoly on being boisterous, we as a nationality, are known for being loud. VERY. LOUD.
I was once out with friends (whom I adore) here in Europe and as a table, we were having a great time, laughing heartily and practically shouting to override each other’s voices. When the annoyed stares directed at us were becoming more frequent and intense, my friend’s response to my suggestion that we “use our inside voices” was, “So? We’re paying customers too.”
It’s this “It’s all about me” attitude that does us no favors on the international stage.
To that end, I personally am always struck by how Americans think nothing of sharing intimate details of their lives with perfect strangers. I always find it a bit jarring when I’m back in the States and am made to listen to the person ahead of me at the grocery store tell the cashier about a recent gallbladder surgery, for example. Likewise, I’m even a bit taken aback when I’m at a restaurant in America and the server asks how I’ve spent or am planning to spend my day. That simply isn’t done here in Europe. Unless it’s the hotel you’re staying at where their jobs are to help maximise your visit, servers won’t introduce themselves by first name and they won’t inquire after your comings & goings. This has little to do with indifference and more to do with cultural norms around respecting your privacy.
My girlfriend was in a café in Paris while an American customer in a huge cowboy hat from Texas felt compelled to make it known to anyone with ears not only where he was from (because it was otherwise a mystery) but also list all the places he’d visited during his short time in Europe. Absolutely fine to do this IF you’ve been asked, preferably at a volume audible to only the person interested.
Americans love their bucket lists (!) and telling others what we’ve checked off that list when it comes to travel. This is due in part to the fact that as Americans, we find it amazing that we can cover multiple countries within such short travel times. Plus Americans receive, on average, 2 weeks of vacation time per year so when we’re on holiday, we maximise our time and visit as many of the “must sees” we can manage. That includes seeing “the best” or the “world famous” — just so we can exclaim loudly “how small the Mona Lisa is in real life!”, for example.
When you’re able to flex your international travel muscles again, maybe check your volume, refrain from oversharing, notice your (superfluous) need to make your nationality known and adjust accordingly
2. Ease up on the complaining, comparing, demanding …
I was shopping in London (again, “BC”) with my daughter. As I stood waiting outside her dressing room, a man (whose wife was also trying on clothes) chose to entertain the entire store with his deep reflections on the superiority of the American restaurant experience over the inferior cuisine, slow customer service and value in Europe “where you get far less food for your money!” If he’d taken the time to observe his audience and listened to this salesgirl’s accent, he would have realised she was in fact, from Spain.
Dining on this side of the Atlantic, especially in countries like France, Italy and Spain, is not an experience to be rushed. Ever. So this man’s condemnations fell on deaf ears. I could see she was doing her best to be polite as he disparaged Europe as a whole but oh if thought bubbles were visible…
As a rule of thumb, it’s never a good idea to point out the shortcomings of one’s host. And yet, it’s something I have witnessed time and time again by my fellow Americans – the expectation that our American standards are the ones the rest of the world should uphold and that all our needs must be catered to.
I actually experienced that in reverse. My family was in Florida last summer where we’d invited a few of my (adult) son’s non-American friends whom he’d graduated with from high school to holiday with us. Nevermind that the waitress was dubious about their driver’s licences (from England, Lebanon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria) to order a beer. She struggled to believe (and added it was the first time in her entire career as a server) that none of us asked to make menu substitutes or demanded anything “on the side.” She also noted that none of us said “gimme” when ordering. A (not very discrete) parade of staff from the kitchen came over one-by-one to get a gander at the “odd table with questionable foreign IDs” who ordered straight off the menu with no special requests. Afterward, random customers from other tables came up to congratulate us on our “well-behaved family” – asking where we were from – which begs the question: “What was it about us that signalled we weren’t (behaving) American?”
3. Apply the “When in Rome” rule.
Respect the local culture. Learn a few words of the local language. Dress appropriately.
Things we give little thought to in North America or even Western Europe are considered major cultural transgressions in other parts of the world. In Japan, it’s a huge faux-pas to eat or drink on public transport. In many countries, removing your shoes is an expected “must do.” In some Arab nations, public displays of affection could get you in serious trouble – as could chewing bubble gum in Singapore, which is illegal.
It’s about respecting the local culture in small ways. Learning how to say token greetings and niceties in the language of your hosts goes a long way and can even impact how well you’re treated as guests. It also requires very little effort on your part.
In terms of dress, a taxi driver in Greece told me that when anyone is dressed too casually (t-shirts, baseball caps, gym wear) in an otherwise formal setting, the locals pass it off as “Americanised.” This blanket descriptor is assigned to anyone from any country or culture who thinks it’s okay to dress down because “that’s what Americans do.”
To be clear, it isn’t at all that Americans don’t dress well. It’s that we will often place our individual comfort over all else. Americans equate casual dressing with non-constriction and practicality, which, in fairness should be that way when we’re traveling! I’ve also seen many equate the cost of their casual wear (“yes, but this track suit is designer and very expensive!”) with therefore being appropriate for any and all occasions.
The problem arises when our American culture of personal comfort (yoga pants and trainers at high tea at Claridges in London, for example) clashes with what many cultures outside of America view as disrespectful for that particular setting.
There are also obvious religious considerations around dress when you’re visiting places of worship, for example, but in those cases, not having the appropriate clothing will bar you from entry.
For dining and out of pure respect, a safe bet is to check with your hotel or restaurant ahead of time about the dress code.
If you think what you wear doesn’t matter when you’re travelling outside America, consider this. On holiday in Corfu, I was out for dinner in a favourite summer gown with my husband and because of social distancing, I asked to be seated in the far corner of the outdoor restaurant away from the other diners up front who were all well-dressed and visible to passers-by. They seemed reluctant to put us in that section but complied. Once seated and because of the way the restaurant was configured, I could see that further back, there were couples dressed very casually (leggings, shorts, t-shirts, trainers, jeans and baseball caps, etc.) who had been strategically placed away from the public or discreetly positioned behind large planters. Translation? “Respect (or in this case, disrespect) cuts both ways.”
We Americans often assume that “The American Way” is the best way or that our culture is or should be the global standard. If that were the case, what would be the point of travel beyond our borders?
We travel for new experiences — to open our minds, to learn new approaches, to heighten our awareness of “other.” In doing so we can begin to question our own assumptions about how things “should be done.”
Hopefully very soon we will be allowed to grace the planet again with our presence and our navy blue passports. The very least we can do is show our own grace as American citizens – with a new-found humility, cultural deference and perhaps even some gratitude for allowing us back.