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Avoiding The Ugly American Label

When preparing to do business abroad, especially if one doesn’t have experience, it is important to be aware of how one comes across. One of the disadvantages of being American is that the opportunities to actually travel outside of their home country are more difficult. Whereas an average European can cross an international border in the morning and be back home in time for dinner, according to some surveys between 40% and 50% of Americans have never left the country. And many of those who have were on cruises or in resorts. One of the common misconceptions of many who have traveled, especially to Europe, is that “everyone speaks English”. The reason that many Americans think this is that they spend their time in international tourist areas (such as major cities like Paris, Rome, etc.). Given the international reach of the English language, it makes sense for locals here to learn English as it allows them to communicate with tourists from all over the world.

However, the Ugly American label comes from the cultural attitude that accompanies many Americans as they travel abroad that assumes, often correctly, that people will cater to them and their needs (i.e. by speaking English). Whether intentional or not, this comes across as arrogant and can be quite off-putting. If one is looking to do business in another country, it is important to foster goodwill among those who one is looking to engage with. To this end, there are several rules that should be followed:

1.) You are an American diplomat.

Although you may not be part of the Foreign Service, you are an ambassador for America every moment that you are overseas, whether on business or on vacation. The interaction that people have with you is going to color their views of Americans. In many cases, you may be the only American that they will meet. Other countries have their own media environments which colors their view of America and Americans, whether positively or negatively. Keeping in mind the importance of your role is key in all of your interactions.

2.) Remember that the American media is not the Holy Gospel.

Like all countries, America has a media infrastructure which colors its view of the world. But this is just one view. Looked at from other locations, the world looks very different. I once knew someone years ago who embarrassed their travel partner by loudly proclaiming how much they hated the leader of the country in which they were traveling. The individual was quite well- educated and an avid reader of the New York Times. Clearly, the NYT didn’t think much of this leader and the individual took as gospel that said leader was bad and assumed that nobody would support him. The fact that this leader was democratically-elected and therefore had a strong base of electoral support within the country, doesn’t appear to have been seriously considered. Expecting the people of a foreign country to largely agree with NYT’s assessment of their country is naïve to say the least.

3.) Insulting the leader of the country you are visiting is highly offensive.

To follow up on point #2, imagine going into somebody’s house to visit a friend, and then insulting their cousin who is living with them. Whatever you think of the cousin, you aren’t going to be popular in the family if you insult them. They probably aren’t going to want to have anything to do with you in the future going forward. Even your description of the cousin is accurate and even if the person you are speaking to fundamentally agrees with you on this point, they are going to feel bound to defend their cousin because you, the “foreigner”, are attacking them. This is what happens when you attack the leader of country in which you are visiting. No matter what the truth is, doing this is really bad form. In addition, it should be noted that some governments have highly developed surveillance systems which could make it impossible for you to do business in some countries if your negative attitudes become known. Furthermore, even expressing a positive opinion of the foreign government, while potentially safer, can be problematic because the people you are dealing with may not like the government and not want to do business with you. No matter what your opinion (whether positive or negative) of the government is, keep it to yourself.

4.) Always accept food that is offered, and always like it.

When you are interacting with people in a foreign country, they want to show off for you. If they are offering food/drink, it is because it is often considered the best that the country has to offer. It doesn’t matter that you don’t like what is being offered, eat it and pretend to like it. Also, don’t ask it what it is. My father, in over 35 years of overseas business travel and living has had to consume some rather, shall we say, culturally questionable foods from an American perspective. I myself consumed a sea slug at a Chinese wedding. I was told that it was considered a delicacy and I felt duty-bound to consume it. (I’ll let you guess as to whether or not it was good.) It can often be better simply not to ask what you are being served. The only allowable exception to this rule is a serious medical condition that would preclude you eating the food (such as a documented food allergy and/or the order of a doctor).

5.) Obtain a basic level of fluency in the language of the country in which you are looking to do business.

One of the advantages of being an American is that people overseas don’t think Americans can speak anything other than English. The low expectation of American’s foreign language skills can create goodwill for you since merely the honest attempt of trying to speak their language will show respect for them. If possible, sign up for a class taught by an actual live teacher in that language (don’t ask about Duolingo and other such classes, except as possibly a supplement to the live class). This isn’t to say that you need to become fluent enough in the foreign language to conduct business in that country. It would likely require you to either actually major/minor in that language at university level or to actually live in that country for some time to obtain this level of fluency. However, what you can do is learn enough to do the following:

1.) Say that you don’t speak the language very well.

2.) Shop for food.

3.) Order food.

4.) Ask directions and understand the directions being given.

5.) Purchase train/plane tickets.

6.) Find the bathroom.

For Americans, it is more realistic to do this if one is traveling to Western Europe or Latin America. With tougher languages that have different alphabets and/or that are more complex, developing this level of fluency might not be realistic. However, with Youtube it is possible to at least learn how to say “Hello”, “I’m sorry, but I can’t speak German/Italian/French/Arabic?” and “Do you speak English?” Simply this will get you some goodwill and go a long way towards avoiding the Ugly American label.

6.) Always follow the local rules.

For many Americans, there is a natural aversion to following rules. Many feel entitled to ignore many of the rules of the country that they are visiting. Knowingly flouting the rules betrays a level of disrespect for the country you are visiting that will be jarring to your potential business associates. While you can’t be expected to know every local rule, make it a point to do your best to follow everything to the letter. If you run afoul of a local regulation by accident, you are much more likely to be well received if you apologize and then endeavor to follow said rule going forward.

While this is not a comprehensive list, following these general principles will go a long way towards making a good impression and will engender goodwill as you attempt to do business in that country.

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