There’s nothing wrong with being American. Globally, we’re known for exporting cultural hegemony in the form of music, soft drinks, and films. Many of our cultural icons, from Marilyn Monroe to Shaquille O’Neal, are among the world’s most recognized faces.
But sometimes, it can be to the traveler’s benefit to blend in—to not be quite as obviously American when traveling. It might be when traveling to a region that has a historically or currently fraught relationship with the U.S. government. It might be when visiting a region that is experiencing tourism fatigue and counts the U.S. as one of its primary source markets. It might simply be because it’s sometimes wise to avoid being conspicuous.
While it’s often difficult to completely conceal one’s nationality (unless you’re trained as a secret agent), here are some tips for being less loudly American, should the need to do so arise during your travels.
Rethink That Maple Leaf
Some years ago, a common trope was to sew a Canadian flag onto a backpack or other carry-on to diffuse assumptions. Many Americans might have done so without realizing they knew less about Canada than they thought (how many of you can name more than one Canadian Prime Minister or remember to pronounce the “a” in “pasta” differently?), giving the game away a bit early. That notion is probably best left in the past unless one has spent a significant amount of time north of the border.
Lower Your Voice
There’s no way to dress it up: Americans are loud. There are a number of theories on why that is, from our generally needing more personal space to our equating loudness with friendliness, but it’s a fact. Outside the U.S., personal bubbles tend to be smaller, and foreigners are often more mindful that a loud conversation might intrude upon others.
Americans tend toward overstatement. We describe mundane things as “amazing,” often claim to be “excited” over trivial matters, and respond, “Oh my God, thank you SO MUCH,” when a server refills our coffee. Americans tend to find enthusiasm friendly and approachable—it’s one of our cultural hallmarks—just know that it’ll be conspicuous outside the country.
A Word on Clothing
Some guides say people tend to dress up a bit more outside the United States. That advice may once have been true, but nowadays, it’s less so. Older guidebooks may suggest not wearing sneakers, shorts, or sandals when traveling, but these days those fashion trends have taken root in plenty of cities worldwide.
Fashion has gone global, and it’s not uncommon to see American sports team jerseys on Middle Eastern teenagers, an array of sneakers pounding Hong Kong sidewalks, or European city-dwellers in shorts on a hot day.
Another oft-repeated piece of advice is to avoid clothing with American logos or English-language slogans or sayings on them, but those items aren’t uncommon in many developing economies that do brisk trade in resale clothing (large lots of unsold thrift store clothing from the U.S. are sold abroad at deep discounts).
A good rule to live by is to remember that outside the U.S., most people compartmentalize their style choices: gym clothes are for the gym, beach clothes are for the beach, trekking gear is for trekking, and so on. Those safari vests with multiple pockets or the waterproof cargo pants that convert to shorts are a no-go in a major capital. The best advice is not to stick out. If nobody else is wearing a baseball cap, leave it in the suitcase. If you’re flying solo in your shorts or your sandals, choose another option. If cargo shorts have gone back in style among the locals, go for it.
Look for Small Talk Cues
Small talk is easy for Americans: “What do you do?” is a common opener. Not so in the rest of the world. In many countries, asking someone what they do is essentially a direct inquiry into someone’s social status, so it’s best to let them bring it up.
In France, for example, it’s common to acknowledge strangers, but not to engage in small talk. In Germanic cultures, it’s not uncommon to have vigorous debates with relative strangers about topics even Americans find taboo. A bit of reading before heading overseas can be beneficial when hoping to blend in.
Don’t Eat on The Run
This isn’t universal, but it’s far less common outside the United States to eat or drink while walking about town, while riding on public transit, or riding in vehicles. That doesn’t mean street food and takeout don’t abound in other countries, but food purchased from them is generally meant to be eaten while seated, either on- or off-site. Ambulatory eating is considered particularly rude in Europe, East Asia, and the Muslim World.
In the United States, a smile is a welcome expression. Outside the U.S., it can be a minefield. In some countries, it’s an expression reserved for the already-acquainted, friends, or family; in others, it can be taken as a sign of romantic interest. Still, other countries, like Canada and Australia, have similar “smile cultures” to the United States.
This doesn’t mean one needs to be frowny-faced all the time, but Americans are often noted for being quick to smile, and for smiling broadly, which many cultures find insincere.
While it’s always nice to keep abreast of how to travel more smoothly worldwide without being the stereotypical “ugly American,” these tips are meant in the spirit of understanding rather than as aids to masquerade. There’s no reason Americans can’t be their full, authentic selves when traveling abroad (after all, part of the exchange of international travel is not only experiencing new people but also for them to experience you), but if they do so with more self-awareness, it will be a more positive experience for everyone.