After I wrote my a blog post on managing cultural differences I received a comment from Candace C. Davenport who I met through Blogger Monday with Ann Evanston. Candace said

‘I’d also love for you to do another post on the connection between culture shock and ‘the ugly American’ syndrome. When I came back from a year of traveling all over South America, I experienced cultural shock just being in the airplane with all the tourists returning from S. America and all they were doing was complaining about the problems they had on their trips because it was so different than the US.’

I have been mulling this post over as I have grown to like my adopted country and I, as an outsider, don’t want to offend my new found friends. However, I do have to agree that the ‘ugly american’ does exist and can be quite a shock. Though  have to say that you see this phenomenon more when the ugly American is traveling outside of the US..

There is no doubt that some Americans are loud, boorish and nationalistic and that some Americans abroad remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American standards. Such people can be very unpleasant and give Americans a bad rap but now, having lived here for two years, this post is going to be a defense of my adopted country.

Have you ever heard of lager louts and chavs? Not exactly the best of British.

And how about the stereotypical German tourist. Pushy, rude and arrogant with a habit of putting their towels on pool chairs before dawn at holiday resorts.

According to an Expedia survey French travelers are the biggest skinflints, the worst tippers and the least able or inclined to speak foreign languages. They also finished next to last in terms of their politeness and behavior.

My point is that there are ugly people the world over and their worst traits seem to come out whilst traveling or living amongst a culture that is not their own. Sure, I think some Americans are very loud but I have made friends with many perfectly nice Americans who are most definitely not loud and obnoxious.

What has been your experience of ugly tourists/travelers? Are you embarrassed by some traits of people from your country? Do you think all these stereotypes exist for a reason or that they are wrong?

  1. Loved your post! As a hotelier, I spent years traveling around the world and working for hotels outside of the U.S.

    Interestingly enough, the complaints about “ugly Americans” usually originated from Western Europeans. My colleagues in the Caribbean and Latin America complained about Canadians (especially French-Canadians) and the French as far as being poor tippers. The comment about German tourists and the towels on lounge chairs made me laugh because the hotels had constant problems with that!

    I could go on an on but my point is: people are people and they’re all annoying just in different ways perhaps!

  2. Thanks Lou for writing about this. I would have to agree that there are “Ugly Americans” in every culture, but it is just more embarrassing in your own culture.

    To expand of my earlier comment a bit more (which led to your post), I had just spent a year traveling through Mexico, Central and South America (this was in 1971-2). I did everything from taking trains, buses (always second class!) to hitching. I did that to actually meet the people. People would invite me in and want to get to know me more as well. It was an incredible cultural experience for me. From not knowing any Spanish (now how ugly was that of me!) to being able to converse with the people at the end, that trip is something I’ll never forget.

    What got me however, was when I was flying home. The plane was full of tourists who had only visited the capital cities or famous land marks of the countries they visited. They stayed at 3-4 star hotels and expected everything to be like it was at home. They were going at full speed (5 countries in 3 days type of thing). So when something was not up to speed (like a plane or bus or train being on time), all they could do was bitch rather than take a breath and enjoy where they were at.

    I will admit that there were times during the trip when people asked where I was from that I would say Canada rather than the US because people tended to dislike people from the US so much. Now, I do realize that that happened 40 years ago (wow- am I that old???) and it was during the Viet Nam war times, and things have really changed a lot, but the lesson I learned is just not to expect ‘X’ when so many other wonderful ‘Ys’ could happen and to take a breath and just enjoy the journey. I think the ‘Ugly (insert what ever nationality here)’ are people who haven’t learned that lesson yet.

    Thanks for the post!

    Candace Davenport
    Our Little Books

    • Oh yes, I’d agree about those kind of American tourists and we used to laugh at them in the UK saying they had ‘done ‘ the UK in 2 days haha. However, we found them amusing as Brits but I cringe at the lager louts in Ibiza type of thing where they sleep all day and binge drink all night and complain if they can’t get British beer and fish and chips so that proves your point that your own cultures ugly people are for more embarrassing than anyone else’s.

  3. I love this post – it brings back so many world travel memories!

    Years ago, a girlfriend and I traveled around Europe and we were so averse to being the “ugly Americans” that we went around pretending we were French! We spoke only French wherever we went, which was great practice for us. I don’t know if anyone actually believed us, but there you go. 😉

    I actually did a project for a sociology class while studying in Strasbourg, France where I interviewed a dozen or so French passersby at the Strasbourg Cathedral about their opinions on tourist stereotypes. I fully expected my findings to be that we Americans were just about the worst in the world. The result was actually hands down that the Germans were the most irritating to them. Not surprising I guess, when you consider that Strasbourg is right across the river from Germany so they see a lot of German tourists. I was relieved that they were considered fatter, louder and more intrusive than us though. Ha!

  4. I agree with Candace that it is particularly embarrassing when the “Ugly” is attached to your countrymen. And I’m constantly amazed by people that travel all over the world only to complain about how different it is from where they live…I hope so…otherwise it would be a boring world. I think there is always some truth in stereotypes but what is unfortunate is when you are treated as if you ARE the stereotype before you even get a chance to prove otherwise. I’ve lived abroad and traveled extensively and the biggest compliment I’ve received while traveling was when I was mistaken for a local…

  5. I think ‘ugly’ in the context means judging others by your customs to their determent or acting in a generally accepted unsocial manner.

    While I was stationed in Germany in the 60’s, I had the opportunity, as you pointed out, to see people of many different cultures exhibit ‘ugly’ behavior.

  6. Candace, you make a good point about the x’s and y’s. The ‘y’ to me is trying to be in the joy of myself where ever I am. {Thank you, Eckhart Tolle.}

  7. Stereotypes do actually exist, in all cultures and travelers. I like to think I am not one. The truth of the matter is we all have our own foibles and behavior we cant bear to tolerate. I agree that the best way to travel is to immerse yourself in the difference, engage, revel and delight in it. A chance to change is a privilege. Great thought provoking post and I enjoyed all the comments too. I too had a chuckle about the towels at dawn.
    As a designer the best part of my trip is discovering ideas and being ugly by constantly taking pictures, including making everyone wait to eat….

    Jen Duchene
    The Home Makeover Mixtress blending cool and cozy Style.

  8. Interesting, Louise.. I’ve always felt extremely fortunate to be born in the U.S., but our reputation around the world is not always great. And, from what I’ve seen traveling (whether in Europe, Asia or Central America), many Americans perpetuate the negative stereotype. And, as an American, it is embarrassing, and maddening.
    I have family in Italy (my dad is first generation born here), and they comment most about the following things us Americans do that bother them: we are loud and we are impatient… and then this funny one (my cousins always says this–whether I’m visiting them over there or if they are here); “why are Americans either too fat or too skinny? why are so few normal-sized?”. It sounds funnier in Italian, but, I get their point.

    • So true! There are a lot of very skinny and very fat people here. The loudness and the impatience does bother me on occasion I have to admit but someone once suggested that the loudness was because there is more space here – it’s an idea. Not everyone is that way by any means though – the loud ones just get noticed more! Thanks Heidi.

  9. Donna McCord says:

    I am relieved to hear that it is not only Americans who are considered ugly when they travel! I agree that there are annoying people in every culture, and it is probably unfair to stereotype a particular country. Unfortunately, some of those stereotypes are probably the result of accrued experiences, although I also believe those stereotypes do not describe everyone. When we travel, it would be great if we could embrace the new culture we travel in rather than compare it to our own — I think when people make comparisons, they are missing new experiences.

  10. Hi Louise,
    Fun post…totally agree that “ugly’ isn’t just an American trait. Culture shock can be tough on all travelers and it comes across in interesting ways. I was traveling with a friend in Dublin many years ago when our plane had to make an emergency landing. Many thought they were going to die. My friend and I were called “f___ing Americans” when we landed and went to make arrangements for the next flight. Apparently we hadn’t allowed enough time to be in shock with the rest and we were insensitive? Same trip we returned a bowl of vegetarian soup that had beef in it when in England. I can’t even print what we were called…Most of my travels though were filled with kind people and fun adventures. I do think that all the stereotypes merit some truth…the situation had to be pervasive enough to become a stereotype in the first place 🙂
    Brandy Mychals

  11. Louise you make a good point. Offensive people are everywhere and it’s best not to judge based upon a few. I always find your blogs to be entertaining as well as informative.

  12. Louise,
    First of all, it was lovely to “meet” you here on your blog. The graphics are terrific and you pose a great self inquiry as to our rush to judgment, rush to compassion, and/or a rush to neutral observation when we encounter these sorts of experiences. Even though surrounded by your clever humor, the underlining message is still important for us to face who we become when around others who are not on our wave length.

  13. ChrisLWagner says:

    Louise, when I read the title of your blog, I have to admit it got my shackles up. I’m so glad that you pointed out that all cultures have bad apples. I traveled throughout Europe in 1980 and I loved talking to the locals about their country and tried to see things from their point of view. As a young woman, I thought that the world revolved around America and every other country knew what we were doing at all times. I learned that they don’t care and have their own ways of doing things. To this day, that experience kept my mind open to other ideas. Don’t get me wrong I’m fiercely patriotic and if I went back, I’d proudly say I was an American.

    • Thanks Chris! And sorry I got you going for a moment there – LOL. Your comment does lead me to one thing that does rather bother me about my adopted country – the insular views of many people. But I shall try and keep that one light hearted also – as it’s just an observation.

  14. June Sockol says:

    Good blog Louise. I always thought people travel to other countries to learn about the culture and to experience it. My parents are both Danish so we travelled to Denmark a few times when I was a child. I loved visiting the castles and everyone was so laid back. All my cousins were excited to speak to us so they could practice their engish.

    I am from Canada and even there they are more relaxed. If we are going anywhere with my sister, we get there when we get there. I’ve been living in the Bay Area for 12 years and always have to remind myself to slow down when we go back home to visit.

    Every country has their “ugly” travelers and it’s good to know it’s not just Americans. We need to remember every country is different and that’s why we want to travel there. The world would be boring if we were all the exact same.

  15. Irene Turner says:

    Yes, yes, and yes…I’ve experienced it, I’ve been embarrassed by it and yes, I think there are bad travelers from every country! Of course, being American by birth I am most embarrassed by my own country men, being German and English by heritage, I am embarrassed by them as well, and being Chilean also by heritage am shocked when they don’t know English….I guess you could say I am easily embarrassed. HA Good post, love it and know it

  16. Jean Bentley says:

    Louise, I haven’t traveled outside of the US in years so I don’t have any stories to tell but once again I enjoyed reading you blog and love the fact that you are defending the county you now live in.

  17. Jessica says:

    Good post. I’m an American that has traveled a fair amount and has lived abroad twice; I know exactly what you mean by “Ugly American”. I have witnessed said tourist and have been absolutely appalled by their behavior. There is a common joke amongst regular American travelers – we tell everyone we’re Canadian.

    A few stand-out sightings:
    1. In Vienna, a woman screaming at a McDonald’s employee about the lack of cheese on her burger (she was screaming loud enough for me to hear across the street). Child was also crying because he did not recognize the toy that came with his meal; mom then asked for the “American version”.
    2. In Calgary, a woman loudly complaining that she couldn’t find her hotel because the “streets don’t make no sense”. For whatever reason, she came up to me, map flailing about and demanded to know where her hotel was. I actually knew where I was (downtown Calgary is an easy to understand grid) and helped her find her hotel. The entire time she kept saying, “I am from Virginia where I understand the steets. What is wrong with YOUR streets?”

    I could go on…I can only hope that when I’m a visitor in a foreign country, the residents remember me for good reasons.

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