On a literal level, I suppose the title of this post merely states the obvious. However, I’ve witnessed firsthand too many times the reason why the pejorative terminology “ugly American” came into being. It boggles my mind and sensibilities as to how visitors to a country and culture foreign to their own arrive with expectations that their destination should closely resemble that of their place of comfort back home and that the residents of said destination should speak their language or readily understand customs of the visitor’s place of origin. With that expectation, it belies common rationale for undertaking a trip to a foreign destination in the first place.
Have you ever heard a fellow traveler overseas exclaim with indignation, “Nobody here speaks English!” My goodness, what a shock, given that you’re in Spain or Estonia! It irritates me to no end when visitors to South Florida (or worse yet, long time residents of SFL, but that’s an entirely different issue!) ramble to or at me rapid fire en español on account of the fact that I have a light tan and dark hair. While I may very well understand 91.5% of the gist of what they are saying, I tend to return a vacant gaze and a response formulated in my remedial German. When they return my glazed stare as if I have three heads, I calmly explain that I thought it was “Pick A Language Day” wherein they chose Spanish and I chose (grammatically incorrect) German.
Since I become quickly annoyed at such rude, presumptive behavior, I would readily expect inhabitants of non-English speaking countries to possess a similar attitude when Americans wrongfully presume that everyone should speak English. How many times have the French, or Parisians in particular, gotten a bum rap as being arrogant and rude? Well, frequently those who label the Parisian locals as being impolite approached them with a question or statement in English (oftentimes with an arrogant air), without so much as prefacing their inquiry with, “I’m sorry I don’t speak French….” Whether that introduction be in English or French, at least one is not making the automatic assumption that a Parisian ought to speak English just because the American traveler does.
When traveling to foreign locales, part of my pre-trip preparation is to ensure that I either learn in advance or bring along with me a few handy phrases in the tongue indigenous to my destination country(ies). Practically universally, I’ve encountered nothing but polite treatment by locals, oftentimes with a smile and reply to my poorly pronounced attempt at pleasantries in the native language ensuring me that I don’t need to butcher their language further since he or she speaks English quite well. When locals don’t speak English, they typically will play along with my pantomime and my limited knowledge of their language with a helpful willingness to answer my question or accomplish my purchase.
My dad led by example during travels of my youth. Even though he didn’t speak any language besides English, he never failed to make friends while traveling in Europe or elsewhere and somehow managed to communicate with locals, even if he had to play a game of charades or draw pictures on a paper place mat in a restaurant.
Of course, in America or points beyond, grumpy, unfriendly people exist everywhere, and at some juncture we are all going to encounter them.
But, just like in life in general, The Golden Rule applies to travel. Give it a try. It works.