Travel Safety for Americans, 2008
Ticket prices have gone down a bit, and many people are traveling. But, unfortunately it’s still “war-time”, and sentiments towards the citizens of certain places may not be ideal right now.
As an American visiting a foreign country, the last thing you should want to do is to stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, people world-wide want to dress like Americans, but there are still very obvious markers that may make you vulnerable. Not only do you have a greater chance of getting lured into tourist traps, but you’re also a more obvious target for mugging and kidnapping. Here are a few things you might do, say, and wear to keep from looking like the stereotypical “ugly American”:
- Skip the jogging shoes. White athletic shoes (also called tennis shoes or sneakers) are typically American. Any athletic shoes, however, are likely to identify you as American, especially if you wear white socks. Many travel books tell you to wear comfortable walking shoes, but Birkenstocks, Doc Martins, and any shoes that don’t look like they were meant for exercise will suffice. Wear socks; darker ones are preferred.
- Leave the baseball and trucker caps at home. These are distinctly American.
- Buy accessories at local stores, especially ones that you see the locals wearing, like hats and scarves. Sometimes not wearing something could signal that you are a tourist. For example, in some countries, hats or scarves are worn by the majority, or, in winter, most people might wear neck scarves. Also, women and girls wear head scarves in some religious establishments. It would be wise to research this in advance and be prepared to take something with you if you plan to visit religious places. A scarf is also one of the best, most easily-packed gifts to bring back home.
- Avoid logo-bearing clothing with easily readable brand-names or university logos. In fact, don’t wear any slogans (like “I Love Jackson Hole”) that will tie you to a specific place or sports team.
- Dress a little nicer than usual. Casual dress (wearing sneakers, sweatshirts, t-shirts, jeans, or shorts instead of slacks or skirts with shirts or blouses) is not as common outside the United States. Jeans are not universally accepted as appropriate in all social situations. Take some pairs of trousers or skirts in lieu of jeans. And don’t wear shorts, especially if you are a woman. Look around and see whether people tuck their shirts in, or leave them hanging out–sometimes this differs for men and women in the same country.
- Mind your color-scheme. What colors do the locals wear? Mostly black and other neutral shades, like in London, or bright, bold colors like in the Caribbean? Wear colors that you see on the local people. Your hot pink sweater vest or bright blue collared shirt might be fashionable in Atlanta, but it may go over like a lead balloon in Paris.
- Accept the condiments you’re given at homes or restaurants. Requesting typical American condiments is a tip-off that you are an American visitor. Mayonnaise is practically worldwide, but “ketchup” is an alien concept in most places outside North America. Use the typical seasonings of your host country, and if you don’t like them or can’t bear to eat without your ketchup, bring your own in small packets, and dispense it discreetly.
- Give up the ice. In many parts of the world, you will be served your drinks with little or no ice – much less than you’re accustomed to at home. You can ask for ice if it is available, but it will identify you as an American, and draw unwanted attention. Besides, having iced drinks with meals will hamper digestion.
- Eat local food. Many American tourists visit U.S. chain restaurants for every meal, afraid to partake of the local cuisine, but becoming a regular at the local McDonald’s and Pizza Hut will instantly tip everyone off that you’re an American. Do make sure that your meat is cooked beyond the “pink” stage; well-done in the middle is safest anywhere.
- Use local table manners. For example, in Europe, a fork and knife are used differently from the way they are in the U.S. A fork is always held in the left hand with tines down; the knife operates in the right hand. In France, one will often see place-settings with what Americans perceive as upside-down flatware, with fork-tines downward, for example. In some Asian nations, chopsticks might be appropriate. Videos abound on the internet on how to use chopsticks; it’s easy to do, especially when the foods don’t require cutting into smaller pieces.
- Order like a local. In some European countries, for instance, a salad is the last item served, not the first. In others, people don’t even eat what those in the U.S. think of as “salad”.
- Don’t request decaffeinated coffee unless it is on the menú.
- Don’t ask for a seat in the “non-smoking” section, unless you are asked for a preference.
- Don’t drink “Coke” or soda-pop with every meal. That is strictly American. Wine and/or a little room-temperature water are typical drinks with meals in Europe.
Keep your map out of sight. Looking at your guide-book or map in a public area is a bad idea. Study it before you leave your hotel, and if you do need to consult your map, step into a store or any other less public place. Have the maps pre-folded so they may be easily accessed and read. Follow this suggestion for other items:
- If you must use a dictionary to translate a sign or menú, be discreet. For example, copy down the words of the sign and move aside to a less public place to work out the translation.
- Don’t carry obvious U.S. reading material.
- Keep It Down! Many Americans are recognized for being louder than is customary in other parts of the world. Large arm and hand movements and boisterous behavior should be avoided until you know how the locals act. Adults in many non-American cultures use lower voices in public places. It’s wise to be a little more reserved and quiet than usual while traveling or visiting. Children are “hushed” (quietly so as not to exacerbate an already bad scene) in other cultures more than in America; a screaming child is considered a no-no and an anti-social embarrassment.
- Don’t show off your stuff, or brag about what you have. And, don’t broadcast what you have just purchased.
- Avoid making obvious comments, whether negative or positive, about the local people and culture. Something as seemingly harmless as “Oh, I just love the scarves here!” will mark you as a tourist. And don’t assume people can’t understand what you’re saying, just because you said it in English. In many parts of the world, people are taught to speak English, together with their native language.
- Mind your personal space. When you’re at a shop or ticket counter, for example, don’t spread out your arms; when you’re sitting down on the bus or train, don’t stretch out your legs in a way that would encroach upon someone else’s limited personal space.
- Don’t chew gum. It’s not common outside of the U.S, and even within the U.S., it’s a breach of etiquette under most circumstances (that didn’t stop Bill Clinton’s mother from chewing it with her mouth open at his first inauguration).
Adapting to “Diversity” and Being Cautious
- If you look different (if you have different color skin, or are more overweight or underweight than everyone else), people are going to think you’re a tourist, or at least a foreigner, no matter what. An easy solution for dressing impeccably when abroad is to wear trousers if you’re male, and skirts below the knee if you’re female. Cotton shirts and blouses with long sleeves will protect you from the sun while keeping you reasonably cool, and covering one’s arms may be safer and more respectful than showing bare skin in some venues. Sleeveless evening dresses may be fine in some clubs and private homes, but carry a light pashmina stole to wear over it in the street. If you follow the steps above, you will not be automatically branded a typical North American tourist, and locals may treat you with more respect, or at least a healthy degree of polite curiosity.
- Don’t wear a back-pack or fanny-pack. A pick-pocket could unzip the fanny pack and effortlessly take out the contents without you feeling it. The same is true for a magnetic-closure backpack. A crime victim may never even realize what he is missing until the next time he/she needs it.
- If you are a woman, your best bet is to keep money, your identification, passport, credit cards, or anything of value you would need with you, in your bra, or in an interior coat-pocket. More bulky items that can be replaced could be carried in an across-the-shoulder bag.
- Men should carry wallets in their front pockets, which are more easily guarded.
- Wearing proper trousers at the waist gives more room for keeping things in your pockets, and besides that, you will be able to run faster if necessary in an emergency, without developing “pants-on-the-ground” syndrome. L.L. Bean company of Maine still purveys trousers or slacks for both men and women that rise above the navel in traditional fashion.
These are only guidelines. You can do whatever you want as a tourist; this is but a compendium of suggestions. There are some things you might want to avoid doing if you don’t want to be identified as a North American tourist. If you don’t care whether or not people think you’re an American visitor, that’s fine, too–but don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms while refusing to mesh with local customs. Remember that in many European and other world cities, Americans are considered richer and more easygoing, making them easier prey for scams and thieves than the natives.
Be aware of your surroundings, and bon voyage!