I hear this phrase a lot: “They don’t like Americans over there”. Usually the person saying it is an American and has never been “there” or anywhere else for that matter. The world is easier to understand if you make assumptions and base opinions on what you thought you saw or read somewhere. Just apply the principles from what you learned in cartoons: The bad guys are evil and don’t look like us. The good guys look like how we’d like to look and are constantly defending us and themselves from those evil dark men with wicked sounding voices.
I was sitting on a beach in Kish, Iran and chatting with the locals who spoke English. As the waiter freshened up my hookah, one of them asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Texas. He looked at me incredulously and said “Texas! I’d never go to Texas! It’s way too dangerous”! I burst out laughing. How could I explain that almost everyone in Texas would never visit his country because they think Iran is too dangerous? Did anyone in Iran want to kill me? No. They couldn’t have been nicer.
The truth is, most people in most countries want to like you. If someone says they don’t like Americans, they’re probably doing the same thing that many of us do; making generalizations about an entire country based on a bad experience with someone they met or something they saw or heard somewhere. Maybe they don’t like American politics or they were offended by a loud tourist that was creating a scene in a public place. What can you do about that? You can help change that stereotype so they can start liking us again. Here’s my list of how to do it:
1. Know a little about the place you’re visiting. Who’s the president? What are they famous for? What are they proud of? A genuine interest in someone’s culture will get you much further than almost anything else. I’ve found that 10 minutes reading Wikipedia gives me enough fodder to hang out with like-minded local historians for hours. If you’re interested and not clear on details , they’ll correct you. If you know nothing, they’re not likely to waste they’re time.Whenever I meet someone that is from a place I know nothing about, I go to my trusty Wikipedia and skim over a few basic facts. I was parking my car the other day and the valet parking attendant was from Burkina Faso. I knew nothing about his country except maybe I could point it out on a map. When I came back to get my car, I thanked him in French (the official language of BF) and asked him if he was Mossi (an ethnic group there) and if he’d ever been to Timbuktu (in neighboring Mali). He smiled the biggest smile. Why? Because all day long he talks to people who nothing about his country and couldn’t care less about where he comes from. When someone takes a moment of their time to learn something about you, how can you not like them?
2. Know a few words- you can’t speak every language and no one expects you to, but learning a few phrases can make a huge difference in how you’re perceived. The first thing I do is ask a local how to say these phrases: where is…?, I want…., hello, goodbye, thank you, excuse me, how much? I’ll write down the phrase the way it sounds rather than how they actually spell it. You’re unlikely to be asked to do a spelling test so there’s no sense in making it harder than it needs to be. I usually keep my new found vocabulary in my notes on my phone so it’s easily accessible and I can practice my phrases repeatedly until I’ve learned them. If you can learn to count to ten and add a few more basic words like hotel, beer, water, food, coffee, restroom, and beach, you’re really going to do well. Do a google search on the language of the country and see what words are the same in English. You already know a bunch of words in their language probably. Did you know that English is based on 29% French, 29% Latin and 26% Germanic languages? You already know more than you think.
3. Don’t talk politics- It’s doubtful you’ll go anywhere and not have anyone ask you what you think about Donald Trump. Let’s face it. Is there really a good answer? Do Middle Easterners really want to hear what you have to say about their government? Sure, it’s okay for them to talk bad about their leaders, but resist the urge to join in. Like religion, politics is best discussed lightly and as objectively as possible. If you are talking about religion, ask questions to understand their beliefs and customs. Resist the urge to try and save them (unless you’re on a religious mission).
4. Respect the customs- Tourists often don’t pay attention to signs and customs when they visit a country. In many Southeast Asia countries, it’s rude not to remove your shoes when you enter a home or temple. Pointing your feet towards a Buddha or touching a Laotian’s head is very disrespectful in that country. That might seem a little odd to us, but we have our own concept of what is acceptable and isn’t. Making an “everything’s okay” sign with your hand in Germany or Turkey is verboten. Crossing your fingers in Vietnam is “xấu”. Chewing gum in Singapore could cost you a big fine. Knowing a few cultural rules can help your travel immensely and being aware of traditions and customs in a country can make or break a first impression. It’s impossible to know what is going to offend everyone in the world and most cultures realize that tourists are going to not know the rules, but spending a few moments to learn the “no no’s” of a culture can make you much more likable.
5. Understand the culture- Shortly after 911, I was riding in a parade that featured a float with Sikhs. Sikhs are from the Punjab region of India and wear turbans on their head to keep their long hair wrapped in. They were catching a lot of flack at the time because people thought they were affiliated with terrorists. They’re not Muslim nor Arab; they live in a completely different part of the world that is no way associated with the events of 911. Their turbans were perceived as “terrorist garb”. It’s like someone hating you because you’re wearing jeans after they saw a murderer on TV wearing similar jeans. It’s easier for us to make generalizations about other cultures and lump them into one category that fits our quick and easy stereotype. Don’t do that.
6. Don’t dress and talk like a tourist- Loud mouths and loud clothing is a turn-off in any culture. I have friends that act perfectly normal at home, but as soon as they go on a trip, they break out their silly tourist hats, socks and black shoes with shorts, and shirts that even Weird Al Yankovic wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. People are going to be more receptive to those that are like them, so mimicking the local fashion isn’t a bad idea. A few years ago I was in Fiji where men wear dresses, so guess what I did? Yep. I bought one and tried to wear it proudly. The natives loved it! I got smiles wherever I went. I’ll admit, I’ve never put it on once since I got back, but it served it’s purpose and now I’m much more sympathetic to women’s complaints about them. Talking loud is an American stereotype I see repeatedly as well. I’ve been in ancient temple with complete silence, when suddenly I hear some loud American accents cutting through the tranquility, talking about people at home or what they don’t like about the place. If you’re in Rio at Carnival it’s okay to talk loud; no so much at some ancient ruins or safaris. I’ve seen tourists scare off animals before they even get close because they’re so into performing their “look at me” routine, talking loud and thinking other people will be impressed by what they’re discussing, that they missed the moment.
You are a representative of our country. Taking a few minutes to learn about the people, the place and the highlights of the place you’re visiting is time well spent. I’ve been to nearly 200 countries and have rarely found someone who just didn’t like me because of where I’m from. Keep them smiling and you’ll find gates opening for you.