Americans Abroad: A Few Things To Remember

It’s been a ghastly summer for Americans visiting foreign countries this year.

The fiasco in Rio involving the after-hours behavior of American Olympic athletes and the recent news of Americans frolicking in the public fountains of Rome are cringe-worthy and embarrassing, especially for those of us who regularly travel internationally for business and pleasure.  (Two obviously points: at the Olympics, no American athlete can for one moment forget that they are ambassadors for all of us, like it or not. In Rome, it’s best to remember that the fountains there are magnificent works of art that simply have water flowing through them. They are not an amusement park or a stage for childish antics.)

The American government’s often heavy-handed and arrogant foreign policy is one thing. Most citizens of the global community are intelligent and thoughtful enough to differentiate between the American people–warm, open, and easygoing most often–and the behavior of the US as a world superpower.

But we just can’t add insult to injury by behaving poorly when visiting other countries. To that end, I’ve detailed A Few Things To Remember. They may not be original, but it’s apparent that they’ve been forgotten, at least momentarily.

First, Dress Appropriately. If you’re not a supermodel or professional athlete, people in foreign countries probably don’t want to see to much of your body. Feel free to dress modestly, comfortably, and appropriately for the countries and venues you’ll be visiting. The internet is full of instruction on this. Use it.

Second, Be Polite. Pretend you’re meeting The Parents for the first time, or that you’re going to your boss’s house for a party. Have fun, but keep it between the lines.

Third, Speak A Little Of The Language. The legendary composer and music producer Quincy Jones suggests that you learn 20 words of a language before you visit a country. I’ve tried it, and it helps immensely. Just trying to speak someone’s language when you first encounter them in an airport, hotel, or restaurant is a tremendously gracious thing to do. The response from the natives will surprise you, in a good way.

Fourth, Have Some Perspective. As Americans, it’s easy to think that we’re the greatest country in the history of the world. That may be true, but history ain’t over yet. The Romans were once on top. At one point in time, the sun never set on the British Empire. Now it’s our turn. Don’t get a fat head.  Nothing last forever.

Finally, if you manage to ignore all of these suggestions and act like an Ugly American instead of Old Money, or someone who aspires to Old Money, don’t think that simply leaving a big tip at a restaurant or pub will help. It won’t.

I’ll still be the one, sitting quietly on the other side of the place, to get up after you leave, walk over to the proprietor or waiter, and, in my very bad foreign language, apologize for the behavior my fellow Americans.

And candidly, I’m really tired of doing it. So let’s up our game a little when we visit the people who reside in other countries.


  • BGT



13 thoughts on “Americans Abroad: A Few Things To Remember

  1. I could not agree with you more. I’ve also heard of the bad behavior exhibited by people’s children when traveling abroad for spring break and exchange programs. It’s simply an embarrassment to all of us as Americans.

  2. Well said, Byron. I once saw an American tourist who was outraged that the little hotel we were staying at in the south of France wouldn’t take U.S. dollars. He loudly and repeatedly expressed his disbelief that they wouldn’t accept what he kept referring to as “money”. I didn’t go over and apologize for him, but as an American, I was embarrassed by the entire spectacle.

    As for dressing better, that may be too much to ask for. I’d settle for decent manners. And you’re right, over tipping is gauche. Your suggestions, as always, are helpful to all who read them.

  3. Fantastic post Byron. I like the Rome analogy, we think our Western empire is the greatest ever built, therefore we fall in the same trap as every previous empire before us which have long disappeared. The luck to be born in the ‘right’ (if there is such a thing) country doesn’t give us the right to be arrogant towards those who were born elsewhere.

  4. At first I was a little puzzled by the picture of the lobby of the library at Vassar. Then I remembered that above the front entrance to the library is a stone frieze of the university shields of Oxford and Cambridge, among others. Is this the travel abroad connection you were going for?

    1. No, I put up the wrong photo. My wife took a picture of the Hapsburg palace in Vienna from a similar angle. I thought I was posting that photo. Good eye! – BGT

  5. I had the very fortunate experience to visit husband’s family in Europe (Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg) many years ago. They were so gracious, kind, and welcoming that I was overwhelmed at their hospitality to someone they did not know. I never knew that kind of welcoming, even from my own family. And it wasn’t that they were trying too hard, so to speak. This is how they lived, every day. Their homes and food were simpler than the grandiosity of the states, but I far prefer that lifestyle over much of what I see here. It was something I never forgot. Great post, Byron.

  6. While on my honeymoon in Old Quebec, I was in a lovely shop, which sold furniture made by local artisans. I was admiring a rocking chair. An older gentleman walked up to me and started talking in rapid French. I tried to indicate I did not speak French, but he kept right on going. I could have walked away. Instead, I simply smiled, occasionally nodded my head and waited. He eventually nodded his head, smiled and walked away. To this day I don’t know if he was trying to convince me to buy the chair, insulting me, or imparting the wisdom of life. My children have always found this a highly entertaining story and love to speculate on what he might have been saying. I tell them the moral of the story is that a little politeness and kindness goes a long way in relationships big and small. (I like to think he was flirting with me wink, nod).

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