Ignore the stereotype of untraveled yokels: Americans tend to travel abroad fairly frequently. But that doesn’t mean that we’re good at it.
Per the National Travel and Tourism office, about 67 million U.S. citizens traveled outside of the country in 2016, and it’s likely that many of those people stuck out like sore thumbs—much to the chagrin of the locals.
There’s nothing wrong with being an American abroad, provided that you’re willing to do a little bit of homework ahead of time.
How did that stereotype get started? Well, when people travel, cultures clash, and our everyday habits can seem downright rude when removed from their cultural context.
The next time you travel abroad, be sure to remember…
You need to be careful when you pay for your meals.
To American travelers, tipping may seem like an obvious courtesy. Why wouldn’t you pay a little extra for fantastic service?
Well, for starters, the locals might not appreciate the practice. Really.
In the United States, waitstaff earn most of their wages from tips. American restaurants can pay waiters as little as $2.13 per hour, knowing their staff will most likely make it up in tips; while the restaurant is legally compelled to make up the difference between that paltry sum and the federal minimum wage, that doesn’t always happen. You should always tip in the States, because otherwise, your waiter might not make a livable wage.
In many other countries, however, labor laws are different, and wages are less dependent on tippers—and when you offer a few extra dollars for good service, the locals might think you’re throwing your money around.
This results in less genuine service and start of an expectation for tips that wasn’t there.
“People in [non-tipping] countries start to expect tips where they used to provide excellent genuine service to begin with, or they start to expect tips from Americans only,” says Emily Jones, travel blogger for Henry and Andrew’s Guide. “This results in less genuine service and start of an expectation for tips that wasn’t there.”
Of course, tipping practices vary from country to country, so check with the locals before you dine out or take a taxi.
Don’t do this after hailing a cab.
Speaking of taxis, don’t immediately climb into the backseat. While that’s perfectly acceptable in the United States and Canada, it can seem bizarre to drivers in some other parts of the world.
According to Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, a book on business travel behavior, Australian taxi drivers are often offended by American passengers who sit in the back seat. Author Terri Morrison writes that Australians generally dislike practices that enforce class separations (perhaps not surprising, given the country’s history).
You’ll find similar responses in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Scotland, and parts of Ireland. The good news is that this isn’t a major offense, and cab drivers in tourist-heavy areas will understand if you commit this faux pas. Remember, you can always just ask your cab driver where you should sit.
Watch your thumbs.
In May 2017, President Trump gave a thumbs-up gesture during his trip to Saudi Arabia. As The Washington Post reported, the U.S. embassy notes that the gesture is “considered rude” in the country and in many Arab countries.
Fortunately for Trump, the U.S. embassy is wrong.
I’m not sure why did the state dept think thumbs up was considered rude in Saudi?! I’m from Saudi and it isn’t !!
— Alkofide (@Alkofide) May 20, 2017
In the Arabian Peninsula, the thumbs-up signal isn’t interpreted as an insult, and it’s certainly not equivalent to “giving the middle finger,” as some media outlets reported.
Still, in rural parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Greece, and West Africa, some people see the sign as pejorative. If you’re not going to research gestures before traveling, you’re better off keeping your hands in your pockets—unless you’re in South Korea, where that’s a disrespectful practice in formal situations. Don’t feel bad if you mess that up; even Bill Gates had trouble keeping his hands out of his pockets.
If you hear a funny joke, make sure not to…
In Japan, people generally try to avoid laughing with their teeth showing, and women frequently cover their mouths while laughing. If you’re thinking that this practice has anything to do with germs, you’re wrong.
“Traditionally, it’s considered ‘unladylike’ to laugh out loud with teeth showing,” says Jones. “When it comes to laughing and covering their mouths, germs aren’t a big factor. It’s more of what Japanese woman have done historically, and what Japanese society finds as graceful and womanly.”
Blogger Yumi Nakata, who grew up in Japan, writes that many Japanese people have misaligned teeth, and notes that some self-conscious people might want to cover their mouths for that reason. We couldn’t find any statistics to back that up, but in any case, if you’re traveling in Japan, you may want to cover your smile if you’re trying to fit in.
If someone asks where you’re from, use the correct terminology.
In this article, we’ve referred to residents of the United States as “Americans” several times, but that can be confusing for people in, say, Panama, Mexico, or Colombia. Why? Well, they’re also Americans, since they’re from countries in the Americas.
America is two continents, not a single country, and while that might seem somewhat pedantic, it’s a really important distinction for some people. Referring to the United States as “America” implies that those other countries don’t really matter in the same way.
By saying that you’re from the United States, you can cut off any confusion and show a little more respect to the locals.
If you make a reservation, keep this in mind.
In Germany and many other countries, people will expect you to show up on time. That might seem obvious, but the definition of “punctuality” varies greatly from country to country.
“Don’t turn up late for an appointment or when meeting people,” a guide to German etiquette from the Young Germany website says. “Germans are extremely punctual, and even a few minutes’ delay can offend. Be five to 10 minutes early for important appointments and be sure to call the people you are meeting if you really cannot make it in time.”
That’s also true in countries like Japan, where a rail company issued an official apology after one of its trains departed a mere 20 seconds early.
Even a few minutes’ delay can offend.
However, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Kenya, you’ve got much more flexibility. Professor Erin Meyer notes that people in these countries change “tasks as opportunities arise,” noting that “the focus is on adaptability, and flexibility is valued over organization.”
If you’re a lefty, beware.
In India, parts of Africa, and much of the Middle East, you may offend your guests by using your left hand while eating.
Without getting too graphic, this stems from how the left hand is associated with certain bodily processes in those parts of the world. If you’re a lefty, get used to doing things right-handed; if you need to pay someone, pass something, or do pretty much anything, stick with your right hand.
This is especially important when eating a meal with a group. Your left hand shouldn’t even touch the table, and while you may feel somewhat unnatural when using your non-dominant hand, you’ll avoid an embarrassing faux pas.
Be sure to dress for the occasion.
If you’re on vacation, you might be tempted to slum around in some sweatpants. That’s generally okay, but if you’re visiting a place of business or spending time with guests, make sure to dress appropriately. If you wear a hat to a German restaurant, for instance, you might raise the ire of the locals.
“What you should never do is to wear [a baseball cap] at breakfast/ lunch/ dinner table,” says Christian Vollemert, German travel blogger. “Doesn’t matter if it’s in a restaurant or private. That’s enormously impolite. Especially when you sit at grandma’s table…There might even be a small slap coming from the side, if you don’t take it off.”
If you’re visiting museums, memorials, or other culturally sensitive landmarks, you should be especially careful to dress well. Look up the local customs and don’t make any assumptions; you might think that you can wear your everyday shorts while traveling in India, for instance, but if those shorts don’t extend past your knees, you might attract some negative attention. If you’re visiting monasteries or other cultural sites in Greece, don’t wear shorts, period.
Before you kick back and relax, remember…
Nobody wants to see the bottom of your feet—that’s pretty much true in every country—but you might be actively insulting the locals by exposing your soles.
In many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, the bottom of the foot is seen as unclean. If you’re in Singapore, China, or India, you should never show anyone the bottom of your foot (unless you’re at a podiatrist’s office). Likewise, you shouldn’t point with your feet unless you’re trying to insult someone, regardless of whether or not you’re wearing shoes.
How big of an insult is it? Well, in 2008, journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi showed his displeasure with the policies of George W. Bush by throwing his shoe at the President. In much of the Arab world, shoes are considered unclean, so “shoeing” is an especially grievous insult.
Granted, there’s a big difference between showing your soles while absentmindedly crossing your legs and throwing your Skechers at your cabbie.
The takeaway, however, is clear: If you’re going on a trip, do your research, learn about the culture, and actively think about your actions. There’s nothing wrong with being an American abroad, provided that you’re willing to do a little bit of homework ahead of time.