It was a hot day, so when the couple finished a morning stint at the beach, they opted for a little shopping - in their swim wear. Wrapping a see-through, flimsy scarf around her bikini bottom, and he in his flip flops and sloganed t-shirt, they sallied into a sheik little shop on the main thoroughfare. Onlookers gasped and stared. Mothers covered the eyes of their gawking children. Mature men and women snickered or shook their heads. "They must be Americans", one salesclerk whispered knowingly to another. Unfortunately, she was right.
When traveling, whether for business, pleasure or vacation, it pays to mind your manners. Americans especially are becoming increasingly known for their disrespectful behavior while abroad. Did I say becoming? The image of the "Ugly American" is already far too widespread. The stereotype of the loud talking, wise-cracking, inappropriately dressed, wealth-flaunting American foreigners who flaunt their lifestyle while traveling is unfortunately, all too real in some aspects in far too many cases. With anti-American sentiments growing worldwide, international corporations from Microsoft to McDonald's and business publications like the Wall Street Journal have addressed the theme time and again. Here is some advice on how to foster a better, more intelligent, educated and respectful image when you travel abroad.
Know the local geography
Planning a trip abroad? First order of business - get a map and study it. Have an idea of how the city and its environs are laid out. Know important sites and landmarks. Many good travel guides provide essential information on getting around. This can be especially important if the local language uses a non-western alphabet writing system. On a recent trip in Colombia my wife and I listened in amusement as a foreigner explained to his family the compass directions - incorrectly. He had the directions of north and south reversed despite having the Pacific Ocean sunset in plain view.
Not enough can be said about paying attention to local dress code and customs. In many countries it is disrespectful for women to dress casually, showing bare skin or body parts, in public. Bare hairy chests or legs on display, even for men, can be considered offensive in many cultures. If you're not sure what's appropriate, ask discretely or check informative websites for information on local customs. A useable rule of thumb is no bare legs, torso, back or arms when in public places. Emulate the dress of the locals to be sure you're being respectful of their cultural norms. Embera Indian women, normally topless in their culture, cover up with a colorful wrap when they visit non-Indian towns and villages along South America's Pacific Coast so that they are respectful of the social norms of their neighbors. Embera men, with their normal thong loin cloths, wear T-shirts and pants outside their villages for the same reasons.
Watch what and how you speak
Your speech is reflective of who and what you are. It can be a useful tool for the melding of cultures or a battering ram of discontent. Don't create resentment by continuous babbling about your "affluence", power, business or social status. People don't care to hear how "inferior" their way of life may appear to be to you.
In part 2 of this three-part series, we'll look at what to say and how to say it when traveling abroad in: "Mind Your Manners When Traveling: Religion is Taboo, Politics are Out".
Please feel free to e-mail me with comments or questions at: [email protected]