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cnngo hitlerThere are seemingly endless tips on how not to offend the locals while traveling. We know that tank tops and shorts won’t fly past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. We know not to leave a tip on the table while dining out in Tokyo if we don’t want to be pursued out of the restaurant to have our money returned by an insulted server.

We try to familiarize ourselves with local customs. Pack scarves and slip-on shoes. Make an effort to blend in. (See our brand-new 12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place for advice on this front.) We make this concerted effort not to offend out of respect for cultures different from our own. However, there are times when we, as the outsider, may feel awkward, insulted or even threatened by local customs or behavior.

Imagine walking through a mall in central Bangkok where a popular store sports a nearly life-sized doll that resembles the hate-child of Ronald McDonald and Hitler. Young people imitate the faux Fuhrer’s salute, posing for photographs with it. (Check out CNNGO.com for more photos.) They wear T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator as a pink Teletubby, in a panda outfit or with the fast-food chain mascot’s red bouffant hairdo and yellow jumpsuit. To Western eyes, it’s offensive. It’s disrespectful. It’s also ignorant.

Similarly boorish is hefting a beer with a Buddha-tattooed arm right outside that very same shopping mall in Bangkok. In fact, Thailand is considering a ban on tourists getting religious tattoos because we fail to understand how offensive it is to drink alcohol, party and misbehave with such sacred ink showing.

Fair enough. We can respect that. But some things make us bristle — like being rebuffed if, as a woman, we try to sit down alone at a cafe in Morocco, or dancing the night away in a Jamaica club before we realize the lyrics to the music encourage homophobic violence.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

How do you respond when you find yourself at odds with local ways or laws?

— written by Jodi Thompson

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5 Responses to “Beyond Ugly Americans: Boorish Behavior Abroad”

  1. ….You don’t go to that country!

    Seems a tad obvious surely? Or, failing that, you try to explain in as respectful a way as possible why they are offending you. That said, if people are being intentionally offensive anywhere, my motto is: go to town on the b**tards.

  2. Am-Expat says:

    Part of travel is learning the vast array of behaviors and customs that seem strange or even uncomfortable, and learning where the customs came from. Our own customs, without a knowledge the history and context of the times when the tradition started, surely baffle foreigners and sometimes offend. Americans do not travel much..sure, lots of resorts and tourist industry representatives paving the way, but seldom do Americans interact with locals who are not being paid to interact with them.
    The Thai Ronald McDonald does not get anyone there offended, they know what is meant to themselves and they might not understand how we can’t take the joke. Taking offense by local customs or humor is really strange, the creator had a whole different audience in mind and probably did not even know someone could be offended by something not intended for them or which has cultural context that makes it funny for the locals.
    Not being open minded, and expecting the rest of the world to conform to American expectations, which often are groundless anyway, is why Americans have gotten a reputation of not being culturally aware or accepting of other peoples.
    I live in another country that is little known to Americans, except by terribly unflattering news accounts that astonish local ex-pats by how off the wall and inaccurate the reports are. I also see thousands of American tourists every summer and very very few ever interact with someone not in the tourist industry. I get the impression that visitors what to see pretty things but do not want to learn about the culture or people so leave thinking they “have done the country” in their few days here. They they write all knowing reports on forums about how things really are, when they really only found out what they already believed in the first place.
    One thing that really bugs locals is the American assumption that everyone else is poor and should be thrilled to cater to them as rich Americans. There is an arrogance that people have less patience for sometimes but more patience than I would have. For those who do not get out much, the world has changed a lot and the US is not the focal point it was for the period from late 40s to early 70s. Now many places in the world have better standards of living and quality of life. Maybe if we Americans could observe and not be so quick to be offended or be dismissive, we could learn from these cultures were are much much older and don’t have the difficulties in solving major problems as we do in the US now.
    Get off the tourist support industry walls that isolates visitors from real culture is a prescription for understanding more of the customs and beliefs of people who populate the countries we do visit. There is a lot to learn from meeting and interacting with locals if the effort is made. One way to break down barriers is not be offended by the small stuff that really makes no difference to anyone but you.

  3. Peter says:

    I understand Jamie’s response, but I don’t agree. I travel a lot for business so as a result have no choice about going. But, I also keep in mind it is their country and although I may vehemently disagree with certain customs and attitudes I keep in mind, like middle seating, this too shall pass. It simply reinforces the fact that I am glad to be from a more enlightened country that has it’s own unacceptable customs and attitudes as well.

  4. I believe that one of the most exciting parts of traveling is exploring a new country and learning about the different customs and etiquette in a foreign place. The only way to expand your horizon is to step out of your comfort zone and open your mind to different traditions. I warn travelers, however, to do some research before traveling to an unknown destination and familiarize themselves with what they may encounter through reading…reading…reading. Jodi Johnson’s tips for the independent traveler visiting exploring outside the comfort zone are really great. I especially like the idea of contacting a professional who specializes in that destination to arrange at least a minimum of hotel and maybe even an orientation city tour. Even for those who are steadfast in finding their own way will benefit from getting their bearings in a strange place.

    Peggy Goldman
    President, Friendly Planet Travel

  5. RB says:

    This goes both ways (unfortunately). As a sixth generation New Yorker I have seen quite a few foreigners (visitors and new and illegal immigrants) who are nothing short of DISGUSTING.

    Using the street for their trash can, cutting lines, shoving, sexually harassing women and let us not forget a TOTAL disregard for our traffic laws.

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