An American who lives in Italy recently related this story to me:
I was riding the train not too long ago from Arezzo to Milano and sat beside a lovely Italian student. She was in her mid 20s and was most interesting. At one point, she looked at me and said, "Do you mind if I ask you a question, since you're an American? Why do all the Americans wear those funny hats on their heads when they come to Italy? What is the significance of the t-shirts they wear--the one with the American flag, the eagle and the names of places they've traveled before? Do they always wear tennis shoes - don't they own nice shoes?" They were tough questions - I couldn't answer them for her.
How to Avoid Ugly American Syndrome
Are you planning a vacation to Europe? Are you aware of “Ugly American Syndrome”? You know how Americans tell jokes about foreigners (the French always seem to be a popular target for a laugh)? Well, guess what? They tell jokes about you! And from what I have observed the European stereotype of the ugly American is embarrassingly true.
I saw a play in Ireland in summer 1999 in which American tourists were satired--they were dressed in white sneakers, fanny packs, t-shirts with a sports team logo, and baseball caps. They complained about the cigarette smoke and asked for decaf coffee. Quite amusing since the actors resembled my parents a bit. (Though, I must admit I also asked for decaf coffee in Ireland.)
Some stereotypes and how to avoid them:
1. Americans are loud. Talk less loudly. Many Europeans speak English very well. There is no need to speak extra slowly and there is certainly no need to increase your volume. If you meet someone who does not speak English, speaking loudly will not help them to suddenly do so. Americans also talk very loudly with each other. I know that might be harder to avoid, but observe other people around you and speak at the same level. It's not a contest--you don't need to be louder than them.
2. Americans complain because things are different from home. Well, you do. Ok, not all of you. Many are open-minded and want to experience difference. Why the rest of you bother to leave home, I don’t know. A couple of things Americans usually complain about:
- Caffeine. Most Europeans do NOT drink decaf coffee. So don’t ask for it. Even if a restaurant or café claims it has decaf, they don’t. You won’t know the difference until it’s too late.
- Smoke. Most European restaurants do NOT have a non-smoking section. So quit whining about the smoke. You are not going to get lung cancer from a two-week vacation. Besides, if you are travelling during high tourist season, you probably won’t have a problem finding a smoke free (or at least a less smoky) restaurant because they’ll all be filled with other American tourists. My advice: Suck it up
- 3. Ugly white tennis shoes. I see this all the time. American tourists are soooo easy to spot because they wear brand spanking new blinding white sneakers. I know where this comes from--it’s from all the suburbanites reading tour books warning them to “wear comfortable walking shoes.” Americans, who drive their cars everywhere, generally put up with uncomfortable shoes more than others. So how to buy comfy shoes is a mystery to them. They go to their local sports store or nearest LL Bean catalog and purchase special shoes just for the trip. If you don't own comfy shoes that you can walk miles in, they please buy some! But don't get white sneakers. Try Birkenstocks, Doc Martins, or some other shoes that don't look like they were meant for exercise.
5. Fat Fanny. I bet some guide book told you that a "fanny pack" would be a good idea. It would keep your hands free and deter pickpockets, right? Whatever. Seriously, would you wear one of those silly fanny packs at home? To work? To school? Then why on your trip? Backpacks are fine--get a small one. For women, use a purse! The same one you use at home should be fine. Yes, yes, I know "Beware of pickpockets." And you should. But wearing a fanny pack is ASKING a pickpocket to come get you. Do you know why? Because ONLY American tourists wear them! Don't be afraid to use your normal purse or school backpack (but please, please, pleeeeeease don't wear the backpack on your front). Simply be aware of it at all times and wear purses bandoleer style.
6. T-shirts, sweatshirts, and blue jeans. A trip to Europe is not a weekend driving in the country--even if you are spending the weekend driving in the countryside. Europeans, generally, don't dress as sloppily as Americans. Think "business casual" all the times. When in doubt, wear all black. You'll be mistaken for a British tourist. If you cannot afford a new all black wardrobe, then purchase a Canadian flag patch to sew onto your backpack. (But if you sew it onto your fanny pack, everyone will know you're an American trying to be Canadian).