The first time I went to Europe, I was visiting a friend who had been studying in the Czech Republic for six months. I'll never forget our epic reunion in a local cafe. In all my excitement, I grabbed her in a huge hug and squealed loudly in delight.
My lovely friend, by then acquainted with a more international standard of behavior, pulled me into our booth and whispered with a smile, “I'm so happy to see you! Remember, we're in Europe now. Let's keep our voices down so we don't disturb the people around us.”
I'm still grateful for that comment and the dozens of other pointers I've picked up over the past decade and 50 countries I've visited since. They've helped me become a savvier traveler and more sophisticated American.
There's no doubt we can be a painfully obvious bunch when we travel overseas.
I've been in the other shoes now on hundreds of occasions, enjoying my peace on a beach in Goa, for instance, when I overhear a couple guys laughing uproariously and talking in loud, lip-smacking accents. I don't even need to turn my head to see the culprits: two Americans in baseball hats and college t-shirts throwing back beers, positively oblivious to the irritated glances being cast their way.
OK, these are the annoying Americans I'm describing. They aren't bad people; they're just unaware and inexperienced.
When I'm abroad, I always defend my country by emphasizing our good qualities -- friendly to a fault, usually very tolerant of diversity, appropriately self-deprecating and always up for a good time -- and remind people that it's unfair to stereotype a country of 315 million people.
But stereotypes do exist for a reason, and some American travelers don't do much to change the not-so-flattering aspects of ours.
As someone who used to be oblivious, too, I've come a long way by making the effort to adapt to more international standards of behavior, and I'm still learning from people in every country I visit.
Follow these eight steps and you, too, can be a good ambassador every time you step out of your hotel room.
Step 1: Dress like you mean it.
The rest of the world dresses up when they leave the house. I've been in the poorest slums of India and Nigeria and the people still dressed with more pride than the average American.
Boys, lose the shorts, baseball hats, beat-up sneakers and any article of clothing with an American university or sports team on it. Try a pair of loafers, collared shirts, blazers and chinos or more fitted jeans. Girls, opt for dresses, blouses and smart flats or heels. A jacket and scarf go a long way towards pulling an outfit together for both genders.
This may sound like over-dressing to you, but it's how most people pull themselves together when appearing in public. Even if you're backpacking, it's easy to slip a few nicer items into your pack and experience the benefits of not looking like the average tourist.
In Paris, I was mistaken for being Italian or French most of the time and, as a result, was able to frequent the hippest local bars and restaurants where sloppy tourists were normally turned away.
Step 2: Lower the volume.
Remember when your kindergarten teacher asked you to use an “indoor voice?” Pay attention to how the locals speak and calibrate your own conversations. If you're with uninitiated travel buddies, lowering your own voice in an obvious way should give them the right idea.
Step 3: Be aware of exaggerating.
If something like this just came out of your mouth, it's a dead giveaway you're American: “Oh my God, that's AMAZING! No way! I LOVE that so-and-so, too! It's just the BEST!”
We're not a literal culture and we frequently use words we don't mean. People from other places in the world find it insincere and mock this habit of ours. Reel back on the enthusiasm for ordinary things and try not to exaggerate as much.
Step 4: Work on your small talk.
Please don't lead a conversation with anything related to work. In fact, try to keep “What do you do?” out of the first 20 minutes of any conversation with anyone, anywhere. It seems Americans focus on our jobs more than many other societies on Earth and it can be off-putting to others.
Also, when speaking to other travelers, try to steer away from the “how long are you traveling for?” kinds of questions, which can come across as competitive. Try, “What brings you to China?” or “What's your story?” Open-ended questions like these allow the person to share freely and not feel like they're being measured up.
Lastly, be mindful of any tendency toward “one-upping,” even if it's just natural enthusiasm to share a similar experience.
Step 5: Mind your table manners.
Americans tend to have very casual table manners. Try putting your napkin in your lap, keeping your elbows off the table, refraining from talking while chewing, and using two hands to handle the cutlery. Yes, two.
In the US, we eat with our fork in our right hand, the other hand usually resting in our lap. Most of the rest of the world eats with the knife in the right hand, fork in the left, using the knife to gently push food onto the tines for delicate lifting to the mouth. Practice at home first since it takes quite a little bit to get used to it. These small changes will make a big difference in how you come across to an international crowd.
Step 6: Don't feel the need to explain everything.
I find the more I travel and the longer I live in general, the less I know. I came home from a year working all over Africa with little explanation for anything I saw, yet I watched several enthusiastic Americans who spent three weeks in Tanzania tell everyone about Swahili culture in a very expert-like fashion.
And I wondered, how can they comfortably extrapolate the limited experience they had to assume things and explain something so complicated? My hypothesis is that because our education system values the student with all the answers, we become unable to live with the complex, paradoxical, and unanswerable questions reality often presents.
Remember, while your experiences may be true for you, they don't comprise an absolute truth. Observations are not facts, and we'd be well-served to share our travel experiences in a more mindful, subjective manner.
Step 7: Avoid “friendly debates” and share your ideas diplomatically.
Our culture also values having a strong opinion, but please don't steer an innocent question or offhand remark, even about politics or religion, into a debate. Keep in mind that most “friendly debates” will simply result in each side feeling more strongly about his or her own point of view, so the best thing to do is express your perspective as least dogmatically as possible, saying things like, “It's my understanding that...” or, “It seems to me that...” and be willing to genuinely listen to the other person's ideas.
Treat conversations that tread into this kind of territory delicately and diplomatically, especially with new acquaintances from other parts of the world.
Step 8: Don't assume everyone has an opinion about you being American.
Last, and most importantly, is actually a response to the question I get asked most often when I come home from traveling in far-flung places: “How do they react to you being American? Is it safe for Americans over there? Don't they hate us?”
My response: These questions assume that everyone “over there” cares that I'm American and has an opinion about it in the first place.
The reality is, the locals in many places frequented by travelers are used to meeting people from America, Germany, France, Canada, China, South Africa, Russia, Spain and countries all over the world. In other words, you're just another foreigner.
To us, being American is a huge part of our identity, especially because we're a bit more patriotic than other countries, but to them, the US is just another country.
Besides that, most people readily distinguish between the politics of the country and its citizens, so they would never treat us badly because they disagree with US foreign policy or dislike some aspect of our culture -- and they expect the same of us as visitors or new acquaintances.