Myths About Americans Traveling Abroad

Beket Ata

Before I left on my 13-month career break trip, my dad asked me if I was going to dye my hair. I laughed at the idea and immediately shot it down. His theory was likely that somehow as a brunette, I may not stand out as much while traveling in Central Asia. In my mind, dying my hair brown would simply make me look like a brunette American instead of a blond American.

His suggestion underlies a common perception about Americans traveling abroad – that we stand out as Americans. This was one of several myths that I found to be untrue during my months traveling around the former Soviet Union.
 

Americans Stand Out as Americans

 
When I arrived in Moldova, the man at the currency exchange immediately asked me if I was Russian. I shook my head and said “nyet.”

Polska?” (Polish?)

Nyet.”

Cheshka?” (Czech?)

Nyet.”

“Nemka?” (German?)

“Nyet. Ya Amerikanka.”

He seemed shocked, but excited when I finally revealed I was American. His reaction was typical of most people I met along the way. Indeed, there was not a single occasion on my trip when I met a local and they immediately guessed I was American. Not once.

Now, was I the stereotypical American traveling around? Not really. I spoke decent Russian, which allowed me to pass for Russian at first glance. I had purchased a good chunk of my wardrobe while on the road, so I wasn’t decked out in a “typical American” outfit – no cargo shorts, no white tennis shoes and no logo-emblazoned t-shirts. But I did carry a North Face day pack and wear Gap jeans and stumble over my Russian on more than one occasion. In my mind, I thought it should be clear to people that I was American, but it really wasn’t.

Not only that, when I met other travelers, I rarely knew until I heard them speak whether they were American, British, Australian, Canadian or none of the above. If I can’t pick out a fellow American while traveling, why would we assume the locals can?

Kiev, Ukraine
 

People Hate Americans

 
I firmly believe this could not be further from the truth. In my experience, most people can differentiate between the American people and the American government. Even if they disagree with American policies, they don’t take it out on Americans. As soon as I revealed I was American, I was greeted with shrieks of delight and peppered with curious questions. A teacher in St. Petersburg, Russia excitedly introduced me to her class, proud that a real live American was there to help her students learn English.  The driver of a marshrutka in Kyrgyzstan rushed to have his picture taken with me as soon as I told him I was American. The passport control officers as I first arrived in Georgia proclaimed multiple times how much they love Americans and how Americans will always be welcome in Georgia.

Even when I was in Egypt several years ago (pre-revolution), a group of men who initially said they hated Americans backtracked once I revealed my home country. Instead, they explained that they really just hated George W. Bush and were afraid he planned to invade Egypt after he was done in Iraq.
 

The Rest of the World No Longer Admires the USA

 
I have read a few blog posts in the last few months speculating that the rest of the world no longer looks up to the USA – that the economic crisis took its toll and lowered our country’s stature in the rest of the world. Again, from my experience this is not true at all.

First, I was amazed at how much the people I met knew about the USA.  One guy I met in Georgia decried President Obama’s recent announcement in support of same-sex marriage. A Georgian taxi driver was eager to pick my bran about the upcoming US presidential election and another driver explained to me why he favored Mitt Romney because he though a Romney presidency would help Georgia’s chances of getting into NATO. My host father in Armenia quizzed me about Mormons in the US and was fascinated with JFK’s presidency. And a 60-year-old man I met in the mountains of Tajikistan knew more about what the US was doing in Afghanistan than I did.

Second, I met plenty of people who still dream of visiting the United States.  This was most often the case in Central Asia. The first three people I met in Uzbekistan asked me about getting a visa or green card to the US and every teenager I met in Kazakhstan seemed to dream of going to college in the States. My hosts in Moscow were proud to own an American car and were learning English so they could eventually take an old-fashioned road trip across the USA.
 

Americans Are All Loud and Obnoxious

 
This may be one of the most common American stereotypes abroad. Now, I’m not going to say that there aren’t some Americans who may be loud and obnoxious as they travel overseas. I certainly have met a few myself (I’ve probably been one myself on occasion as well). But for every American tourist who talks too loudly or gets too drunk, there is an Australian, a Kiwi, a Russian or some other nationality doing the same thing – or even worse. I personally have encountered far more non-Americans than Americans who have been rude or obnoxious, dressed inappropriately, gotten stupid drunk or ignored all local social norms. I’m not saying it’s okay by any means – I just don’t think Americans should get all the blame.

Wayne's Bar, Nice, France

Now, I realize this post is based on a lot of stereotypes. They are stereotypes that I have seen frequently in the media or in the posts of other travel bloggers that I simply feel are not true – based on my experience. I realize I was traveling a bit off the beaten path, so my mileage may vary.  Someone traveling through western Europe or southeast Asia may have a completely different perception of these stereotypes.
 

So I’m curious – in your experience, how true have these stereotypes been? 

 

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41 thoughts on “Myths About Americans Traveling Abroad”

    1. Great post Katie!

      I agree with you for the most part. You were also in parts of the world like the X-Soviet countries that most Americans are not going to travel too. People who go to those places are usually more open minded, curious, and interested in a world outside of their own. Therefore, they are usually more respectful to the culture they are in.

      I will also say that in Central Asia (where one of the biggest dreams of the youth is to see the ocean one day), they don’t see many tourists, and therefore you are their window to the world and they want to connect with that.

      Good writing. We just got on board with your twitter.

      Best,
      Peter

      1. Thanks Peter! And you’re right, I was in alot of places where they aren’t used to seeing many tourists, much less American tourists. I’m sure that made a big difference in how I was treated.

  1. I am not American but am Canadian and have only received absolute welcome and delight when they find this out. Some people assumed I was American when I spoke (no idea why but I assume b/c I speak English therefore must be American)initially. There was this 1 time in Berlin where at first they thought I was from the U.S. & they were all closed lipped. The second they found out I was from Canada they started peppering me with questions and were open. Don’t know what that was about. One person did say to me though they thought I would be a loud American. I did however meet a few American’s (a bunch of them in a German tavern) who told me that they lie and say they are Canadian (which sort of irritated me for some reason) just to be treated “nicer”. Not my words. Overall, I must admit I heard a lot of different reactions on American’s while in Europe and some were not good but some were. I never had a problem anywhere but I am fiercely Canadian & love to brag about my country. Some people did assume that I was African initially though b/c I am black(especially in Paris and Berlin) & they seemed to be reserved until they found out I bleed red and white. 🙂

    1. I couldn’t help but laugh as I read your comment. I’m American and I moved to Australia about 6 years ago, and every time I go ANYWHERE people assume I’m Canadian. Now, I’m from Texas, and it seems obvious to me that my accent sounds radically different from a Canadian accent, but I find that people expect me to sound like an old western movie. After I correct the assumption, I am almost always told that I don’t “act like an American.” So, at least in some parts of the world, there are still stereotypes out there.

  2. I do think that in Europe, you get the people that do not like Americans before you have said anything. I have had some harsh and/or not nice things said to me. I have had some what would be offensive things said to me if I was to be offended by someone I barely know. I typically brush them off except for one time. The big thing I get is that we as Americans waste food. And I have done my part to help in that stereotype, but not to the point where I deserve a nasty comment or two.

    But for the most part even in England, I met lots of people that were amazed that I was an American woman traveling alone. They loved it and didn’t expect it.

    I think in every country, you will get the stereotypes no matter what you do and you just have to move past them. On the flip side, you will break stereotypes on the country you are visiting.

    I think I had a point.

    1. Thanks Kristi. Perhaps I have just been fortunate then that even in western Europe, I haven’t experienced any negativity toward Americans. I’ve definitely heard some misconceptions – like a waiter in Italy who though we all own guns – but never anything negative.

      1. I realized after I reread and read your response that I came off as if everytime I travel, I get it bad for being an American. This is not the case. See, I knew I lost my point. I was just saying that I have had people say stuff to me and then I have had people be totally awesome to me, too (mainly because I was an American woman traveling alone). I did agree with your post. And I certainly would never say that I’m Canadian (not that being a Canadian is wrong, but because I’m an American). I don’t hide that and I even go so far as to provide information that I’m from Texas. I dealt with getting harrassed in my own country for being from Texas during the Bush years…so I’m used to it.

  3. I’ve experienced many of the same things you have, Katie, even though I’ve been traveling recently in slightly different parts of the world. I actually got into a bit of an argument with another American traveler earlier this year about this exact topic – she was talking about telling people she’s Canadian when she travels, and I asked her why. She said “because everyone hates Americans.” I told her I disagreed, and cited examples really similar to yours – of complete strangers getting really excited to find out that I was American; asking me questions about politics and life in the US, or telling me about the one time they visited New York or LA. I have never, ever been treated poorly for being an American.

    Stereotypes are usually based on some grain of truth, yes. But many of the stereotypes you listed above don’t apply solely to Americans anymore.

  4. mmmmmm not really agreeing but….. loud and obnoxious ?, 30 israelis together arnt exactly quiet are they, nor r germans when they have had too much beer, nor are the english on the costa del brava, nor r the aussie when they have been on the VB.. shall i go on…..?

    locals are hopeless at placing foreigners…!!! clothes and mannerisms are a dead give away!!! and for example…. i would have guessed that u r american merely from the fact that u have written..’have been gluten free since…’ on ur personal details….

    hope u dont mind…. but as a blogger u r open to criticism …… lol freedom of speech and all that… in my thinking other travellers dt really like americcans…… so full of themsleves more than any other nation….. 😛

    1. Curious where you’re from Trevor? You say you disagree but you seem to agree with the point about being loud & obnoxious – any group together can be that way, not just Americans.

      Funny you say being gluten-free gives me away as American – it’s actually much more common in northern & western Europe and has only become known in the US in the last few years. I’m not gluten-free by choice, but by necessity because I have Celiac.

      1. i am english…… not really like others thou….. the point i made about be gluten free… it was the fact that u wrote that comment…. thats very USA other nationalities would not write about it…… its like….. ‘i am an alocoholic’ a state ment…… cos nobody really gives a shi*……. travel bloggers do there stuff whilst on travels….. u need a new trip….

        got the Azer via… 160bucks 30 days from Medea Travel in Tbilisi…… 5 days. slightly quicker in Batumi but same price…… Krygyzstan is now visa free since July 2012…. Armenia, visa free for EU….

        1. A guy in Budapest told me flat out he loved American people and hated American politics. A guy in Malaysia refused to sell me a fruit smoothie, maybe because he thought I was American, maybe not, I have to infer since he didn’t say anything, just scowled and shook his head at me. (I was cycling around the country though so maybe I was simply a bit rank at the time!)

  5. I’m glad to know that you didn’t run into issues! I was talking to a Scottish friend who did the Trans-Siberian rail journey (I know you did it as well) and cautioned me that they may not take kindly to me being American. Glad to know that maybe I don’t need to worry.

    I remember in Australia, a friend said to my boyfriend at the time “Is she going to tell everyone she’s Canadian?” I was a little offended, and asked why I’d need to hide that I’m American. He said “well, we’d tease you, but not to your face.”

    I think, just as with all stereotypes, we have to remember that in a country of millions of people, we’re all very different and may not agree at all with our country’s policies. Just because we’re from a certain place doesn’t mean it’s already apparent what kind of person we are.

    1. Nope, no issues at all traveling the Trans-Siberian! I shared a compartment with one guy who was thrilled to have someone to practice English with, it was great. Most people just found it odd that I was taking the train all the way across the country – they laughed when I was taking pictures out of the windows at the scenery because for them, it was just an ordinary train ride.

  6. It’s been quite a few years since I had any sort of “issues” with Americans (or anyone) while travelling. I think though that many travelling Americans still stand out to me for no real reason other than because I’m Canadian.
    You managed to travel to some amazing places, and I would guess that Moldova doesn’t get nearly as many American tourists as Europeans from Poland, Russia, etc…so that made sense. I once ran into an American guy who called me Anti-American for wearing a Canadian hat in South America, haha.

    1. I definitely think that factored into it – the places I visited weren’t as used to seeing tourists in general. In so many places, people were surprised that an American would be traveling there, but always seemed happy and excited about it.

  7. It is true that many people I met were knowledgeable and could discern between American people and the American government. But after 4 years traveling – I can say so many different things about stereotypes I heard…and of course i wrote a post about it about 4 yrs ago. There’s always some truth to these. And I did stand out in many countries in Asia or Latin America. And I personally now have become very good at naming where a person is from and can see differences in the ‘typical’ American vs Brit vs Aussie, etc.
    It’s a pretty complex topic and I think many people around the world ask/and know a lot about America in general not only from Hollywood movies, but from the simple fact that our gov’t and military has its hand in many parts of the world …affecting many people in good ways and bad.

  8. When I was studying abroad in Spain, a German and Spanish girl came up to my American friends and I in a bar and asked where we were from. We sad America but they had guessed we were from Sweden, Germany, or Australia. When they knew we were American they didn’t car at all and in fact had a lot of questions about the US. Being from America was never a negative thing throughout my travels!

  9. As a US passport holder, I’ve recently received only good vibes from people in South America, India and the Middle East. Currently in Saudi Arabia (with rudimentary Arabic), people tend to mostly guess I’m from France (I don’t know why). When I tell them “Ana Ameriki” or ‘I’m American’ I get nothing but good responses. People have even insisted on paying for my food. Saudi taxi drivers have even not charged me for rides, because I’m American.

  10. I live in Seville Spain, which is a haven for study abroad students. Despite living legally, working legally and being legally married, at 27 I’m often lumped into the group of loud “guiris” who just sit in Starbucks all day and then partying at shot bars on the riverfront. It’s sometimes hard to swallow, but with a few words in impeccable andalusian Spanish, it’s easily overcome!

  11. Katie, thanks for writing this!

    As a non-American (I live in Asia) I just want to affirm the point that “not everyone hates americans”.

    I’ve had the pleasure of traveling with quite a few Americans on tour groups and whilst I can’t speak for every Asian, personally, when I meet someone, I just judge them as a person, not because of their nationality. I’ve clicked well with some Americans, less so with others but it was a personality issue, not becos of their nationality. There’s good and bad in every country.

    So it was perplexing to me that almost all the Americans I met asked me the same question over and over – After a few warmup questions, it would inevitably lead to: “So really, what do you all (me / Singapore / Asians) think of Americans?” It was like they were waiting for me to say something negative and affirm their suspicions. And when I tried to explain that I personally didn’t have anything negative to say I felt like they perhaps didn’t quite believe me!

    Not everyone hates americans! Please don’t assume that! I’m sure there are stereotypes in every part of the world but then it’s not specific to Americans only.

    Also, what people feel about a country politically may be separate from how they feel about its citizens.

  12. Your article rings so true that I can hardly wait for my next trip to Eastern Europe. I’ve been to almost all of both East and West Europe. In my travels I’ve had the pleasure to meet and become friends with people from those countries. Last summer I spent a week with a family in a small town about 90-minutes by plane East of Moscow in the Republic of Chuvashia. The entire region was excited with our visit (my wife and me). They took us into their homes to eat and talk, we spoke at a high school graduation, people begged to meet us. It was amazing!!!

    On another trip I remember a group of kids in Kazakstan that recognized us as Americans and wanted our picture with them. Even in Belarus with the last remaining Communist dictator, the people were always excited and very inquisitive when they discover that I was An American visiting their country.

    Thanks for the great article!

  13. I think people stereotype everywhere, every nationality. When living in Quebec, I took French with people from around the world. Sure, people “poked fun” at the US but there was a lot of love. I was amazed at how much people knew because I definitely didn’t know as much about current events in their countries. I just go about being myself: respectful, honest, fun (sure – probably loud, but other people are loud too).

    Ps. Any Uzbekistan tips you can give me? I am thinking of going there. Thanks!

  14. Great post Katie! I am often mistaken for a local in parts of Central America and South America. One woman in Costa Rica asked me if I was Columbian because of my Spanish accent. Eric, who is tall, blond, and blue eyed, does not get the same reaction in those parts of the world. But, when we are in Europe, or even Morocco, he got a similar line of questioning – “Dutch? German? Polish? Moscow?” And, here in Bali, its always an assumption we are Australian, until we start to speak.

  15. I totally agree. You think there are stereotypical travellers, but you meet such a varied bunch from each country. I met some fantastic Americans in South America and on the whole they weren’t that loud at all (with one or two very obvious exceptions!)

  16. I can’t remember every being treated badly just because I’m American. I’ve gotten neutral reactions and excited reactions from all kinds of people. When I was in Kuala Lumpur a few years ago, a big group of tourists from Bangladesh were so excited that I was American that they each had their picture taken with me, one by one. I’ve had tons of people try to talk politics with me, especially living here in Germany. So many people were baffled by the idea of anyone voting for Romney in the last election. Just today in the immigration office waiting room, I met a girl from Albania who was so excited to talk about America with me. She wants to visit and said she loves fast food and can eat 6 Big Macs in an hour. I thought that was hilarious, and a little sad that fast food was one of the first things she mentioned about the US. As far as sticking out, I’m sure I stick out as a tourist in general, but it’s hard to really look at someone and know where they’re from.

    Like you said, most people separate governments from actual people. I’ve never had anyone personally blame me for something my country has done, and I’ve never experienced any hatred for Americans while traveling in other countries. We’re all pretty similar at our core, one of the great things you learn while traveling.

  17. This post is a must read for everyone. I am not American and sometimes, I really roll my eyes on US matters affecting other countries; but at the end of each day, you are right on saying American people are different from the American government. Some people are just too overwhelmed by their emotions that they don’t really see the difference.

  18. You are totally right on all of these. It amazes me how many people still belive those things.

    However, I’ll confess that I’m still suprised everytime someone assumes I’m English or French or Australian or anything BUT American. The fact that this happens most often in places that don’t get large numbers of American tourists makes me wonder if this is because many Americans don’t seem to diverge far from a certain set of destinations and routes. Once off that path even a bit (as you were) people seem to be both surprised and pleased. At least, that’s been my experience, from upscale place like the Seychelles to the back roads of Morocco. The attitude seems to be “An American? Here? Wow!”

    Of course, I couldn’t pick out the Americans from the Europeans in Morocco either without hearing them speak. It’s no longer true that the Americans will be the ones with a sloppy tee shirts, jeans and white tennies!

  19. The last one is interesting. In my travels, I have felt that Americans have been both the most obnoxious, and the nicest people in the world. However, like you, I dont stand out as American (I am Mexican-American). I think your stereotypes depend on what kind of person you are. If you are negative, you might focus on the bad Americans, while positive people will focus on good Americans.

  20. I agree! Often people ask me if I’m German, South African, Swedish, Irish, English…sometimes American or Canadian. I’m always confused when they say South African, but with Swedish/German ancestry, I guess it makes sense.

    I’ve had a few people tell me that they hate me because I’m American, but if they do it loud enough others will give them dirty looks and come talk to me after–proving its a small minority who do!

    A teacher once stopped class (in Ireland) to say: Why do people say they hate Americans? Do we all eat McDonalds? Watch Simpsons? Want our lives to be like in Friends? Wear levis jeans? Then leave them alone

    There are of course people who do the last point…and whenever I see them I roll my eyes and try to get away as fast as possible so people don’t think I’m with them.

  21. I studied abroad in Segovia, Spain last semester, and I found that people could tell we were american before we even opened our mouths. A friend and I went to Toledo one weekend and bought tickets for an audio tour of the cathedral. We spoke only spanish to to woman while buying our tickets (and we’re both decent at that), neither one of us was wearing anything overtly american, and we were automatically given english guides.

    I found too that after a while I could pick americans out of the crowd. I think it has something to do with the way we walk, maybe? That sounds ridiculous, but that’s my experience.

  22. Great points Katie, I think that unfortunately many of the American traveling stereotypes are true. I have had similar experiences to you as far as being well-received by others, but many of the people that I have met have been the ‘tourists’. This summer I was in Spain and witnessed some Americans being extremely loud and obnoxious. It was embarrassing. However, I am always refreshed to find ones who aren’t that way.

  23. I agree with you on all these points.

    I am always treated well as an American when I travel overseas and people are still very fascinated with our country. I met people in rural India who knew a great deal about the presidential election last year.

    Most Americans I meet on the road are pretty respectful. I think we send the bad ones to Mexican beach resorts.

  24. As a Brit, I have to say a lot of this goes for Brits abroad too! Never encountered any trouble, except for once in a bar in Petrozavodsk, Russia but that was quickly diffused. The average person is completely able to separate politics from individual people – and I wish that westerners were able to do the same to eastern Europeans in return!

  25. Interesting article! I always think there is a basis for stereotypes but one must remember it’s not always true. As a Canadian, I can totally spot an American (lol) but I think people just love to meet new people now. When I was in Russia this year, they loved getting their photo taken with me and the couple Americans I was hanging with. We were there for the Olympics and we both had our flags out; we were stopped endlessly for photos. But ever where I’ve travelled, people usually treat you well (as long you behave) and really want to get to know you and where you’re from. I’ve run into many Americans travelling in Europe and while they may be a bit louder (they aren’t the only ones), they are usually friendly and wonderful to talk to.

  26. The most surprising thing on my travels was how few Americans I met. Except for touristy hotspots like Paris or Machu Picchu, most visitors were from Europe or from down under.

    Having said that, it was often easy to spot Americans. To hear them, I should say. Generally speaking, they (we) aren’t loud, it’s the pitch of the voice that betrays them (us). There are, of course, quiet Americans, but I’ve found that if there were Americans around, their voices carried over other people’s. Could be cultural (the loudest person in the marketplace of ideas is the one who gets heard), I don’t know.

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