Even after traveling internationally just once, you will probably begin to notice how you, or other Americans abroad, might stick out like a sore thumb. Actually, I’m sure travelers from any country experience this after they get a bit of experience under their belts. There are lots of things you could notice, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on in this post. What I want to focus on instead is what it’s like to be in these situations and to occasionally cringe at the actions of our compatriots. Then I want to touch on what you and I can do to maybe help our fellow Americans become better travelers.
I was inspired to write this post after recently reading through a post over at The Wayfaring Voyager titled “Why I Hate American Travelers (Okay, not all of them.)“. The author, Alex Schnee (hey, that means snow in German!), made a lot of good points about how running into other Americans abroad typically goes down. I agreed with her a lot, but I also had some additional thoughts to share. So, after reading through, I quickly found myself typing out a nearly 3oo-word comment in response. I shared my thoughts there, but I want to repeat and expand upon them here. Read Alex’s post here for some extra context for the following blabberings.
Encountering Other Americans Abroad
Like Alex, it’s easy for me to notice other Americans abroad, usually by first hearing the accent within a sea of German. It’s almost as if our brains are fine-tuned to search for familiar voices. The instant I hear them, I can’t help but try to parse out what kind of traveler this other American might be.
Really, it’s hit-or-miss. Sometimes they come off as normal travelers, just visiting or touring around. However, sometimes they come off as what everyone else in the world thinks of as “Americans”. Cringe. Sure, as a fellow American, I can feel a little ashamed that these people are also representing my country. I definitely realize that this sounds, and is, a little elitist. I realize that most people haven’t traveled as much as I have, and an even larger majority haven’t lived in another country as I have.
Regardless, far too often I see other Americans abroad acting in a way that comes across as ignorant, arrogant, or oblivious to their surroundings. Of course, this isn’t entirely their fault, and plenty of times that perception is false. However, many times it is not. So, what can we do to change this? Instead of just cringing and moving on a little ashamed, I like to give these people the benefit of the doubt. I believe that many of those who come across as “typical” Americans just haven’t been made aware of it yet. They aren’t aware that they’re being loud, disrespectful, or arrogant.
Now, I am in no way saying that people should be out publicly shaming or scolding these people. What I am saying is – that in the right setting, interact with them. If you are in the right setting, it can be an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow. If you just boarded a 6-hour flight, that probably isn’t the right time or place. However, there definitely are times when people will be open to a stranger interacting with them. For me, I quite often hear other American voices in the street or, more-likely, in the Biergarten.
A few times, I’ve initiated a conversation with a group of Americans I thought were coming off as “Americans”. You know people being loud, walking around the sidewalks or in the public transport taking up the entire way, not speaking a lick of German, etc. Actually, now that I think of it, it’s quite hard for me to put into words what makes Americans especially bad travelers, but I think it’s something you might need to learn through experience.
Anyway, I’ve tried to get them to see a new perspective of travel and how they might be perceived, without any kind of confrontation. My personal goal is to get them to see Munich differently. Less as a stop on their trip, and more as a place with its own people who have their own families, jobs, histories, and stories. Once people begin to think beyond basic one-dimensional stereotypes and tourist sights, they become better travelers. They start to realize the importance of learning a little about the place they’re in and its culture. More importantly, they start respecting local customs and start appreciating actual travel – not just checking off stamps on their passport. Then they don’t cause us other Americans abroad with a bit more experience to cringe so often.
Don’t be a dick
This isn’t something that can be done easily or quickly most of the time. I recognize that in doing this, it’s really hard to not sound just as arrogant or even elitist. So instead of rudely calling them out, I just start up a conversation. It’s usually a pretty standard conversation, asking them where they’re from, what they’re doing in Munich, and how they’re liking it. Through this discourse, however, I pepper in little bits of my own story when it’s relevant. I’ve found that other Americans are usually really interested. People inquire about how I found myself living in Germany, the process of moving here, and what it’s like to uproot everything.
If they’re genuinely interested, my experiences help them actually relate to Germany. That is how you can help other Americans abroad to see travel and foreign countries differently. In a way, you can act as a link between them and wherever they’re visiting. I think that once people have a way of relating to a foreign country, in this case through someone of the same nationality, they are more open to learning about and actually understanding it. Again, once they do this, they become much better travelers and induce far less *cringe*.
As you might expect, I’ve had success doing this in Bierhalls or Biergartens. I guess that magical Bavarian brew (really just the alcohol) loosens everyone up, so people are more open to new ideas and perspectives. Fair warning – alcohol affects everyone differently, and you really need to walk a thin line here, in many ways!
So – yea, in response to the original post I linked above, I hate some American travelers too. But I love interacting with them and having a chance to show them other perspectives. I do this so that (maybe) they might look at travel and other cultures in a different light. More simply, I want them to become better travelers so they don’t represent us in what I perceive to be a bad light. Hopefully, this would lead to fewer cringe-inducing travelers across the globe, but who knows.
Near the end of her post, Alex wrote about being a sort of ambassador to foreign countries while traveling abroad. This is something I think about a lot too, but that’s not exactly what I’m getting at here. I’m talking about acting as an ambassador to other Americans from the country you’re in. I think that’s a bit easier of a pill to swallow, right? I’ll get to what she was talking about pretty soon in another post.
What do you think? Do you actually avoid these kinds of conversations, or do you enjoy them? Do you try and help people see why they might be acting a little too obviously “American”? Let me know in the comments!