5 Tips to Skip being Profiled as an American abroad

29 June 2024
5 Tips to Skip being Profiled as an American abroad

Have you ever been abroad, walked into a restaurant, carefully greeted staff in the local language, and been handed the menu in English?
Or, have you been on a cruise where everyone is hanging in multicultural groups, and when you walk onshore, suddenly you are mobbed by hard-selling touts but other travelers aren’t bothered?

Sometimes, it’s hard to hide being an American, and why would you?

Well, sometimes profiling goes beyond the annoying and into scarier territory. Here’s what you need to know and do to avoid being profiled as an American tourist (if you can).

What is tourist profiling?

Quite simply, profiling is the act of targeting a person based on perceived characteristics. 

For some people outside the US, in some part due to Hollywood movies, the perception is that all Americans are wealthy. This perception can lead to expectations and, in some cases, significant pressure to buy things or to tip largely, for example.

Another example of standing out as an American include overenthusiasm, as in saying “Oh my gosh, thank you SO MUCH!” for a simple act like setting a glass of water on the table at a restaurant.

Profiling isn’t always negative

Being recognized as an American isn’t always a negative experience. 

On a trip to Normandy, France, my father was visiting the World War II cemetery where his father was buried. He was killed on the beach on D-Day,1944. When my father arrived back at the tour bus, the driver told him how grateful he was for the Americans who rescued his people so many years ago.

That’s a dramatic example, however, some people want to get to know Americans, so it’s important not to be quick to judge.

5 Tips to avoid being profiled

Here are some useful tips to avoid being profiled as the ‘ugly American’ on your next trip abroad.

1 Shut up

You’ve probably heard it said that Americans are loud, but what does that mean exactly?

It means that we talk at a volume that’s perceived as shouting. It’s a stereotype, for sure, and that means it’s not universal. Personally, I’ve heard all languages spoken too loudly when I’m perusing an art museum or checking out books in a bookstore.

The rule of thumb is to listen to the voice levels around you and try to match that volume to your best ability.

2 Dress up

Fashion is global. It’s not uncommon to see an American sports team jersey on a person in another country, and the old rule of not wearing white sneakers seems to have gone by the wayside, at least according to my past few trips to Europe.

Still, Americans tend to dress more casually than people do in other countries.

Here are a few rules to help you dress up gently without overpacking:

  • Wear gym clothes to the gym, not the museum
  • Wear bathing suits when swimming or sunbathing and nowhere else
  • Trekking clothes are for hiking only
  • Biking shorts are for cycling only
  • Toss a silk scarf or blazer in your suitcase to immediately spruce up a simple outfit

3 Learn some local etiquette

It’s absolutely necessary to learn some local etiquette before you travel abroad, so you aren’t surprised in the moment and give your American identity away too quickly.

In Italy and Spain, don’t be surprised by the plate of snacks you get when you order an aperitivo.
Don’t eat while walking outdoors in Asia, and never eat on the train!
Never spit in public (seriously, not even in the US, were you raised in a barn?).

Pro tip: Cultural Atlas is a great site for brushing up on local etiquette rules.

4 Smile gently

In the US, a big smile is a normal expression of welcome, but in other countries it can be misconstrued to various levels. Many cultures perceive a smile shared by a stranger as a sign of insincerity or even something to be suspicious of.

Some countries reserve smiles for the already acquainted, not strangers; in others, it can be taken as a bold sign of romantic interest, which can get you in trouble. 

The rule of thumb is to smile gently and lightly. Because, after all, a smile is a gift of joy and warmth that can open doors and hearts.

5 Learn some local language

It’s rude to expect people in other countries to adapt to your language. Yes, many people around the globe speak English, but not meeting them partway is a sign of American entitlement and could tempt to locals want to scam you.

Learn enough of the local language to be polite. More is better. 

There’s no reason you can’t be your full authentic self when traveling abroad. These tips are meant only in the spirit of understanding. And remember, being profiled as an American when you’re abroad can sometimes turn the trip into a truly memorable adventure—as long as you’re being profiled for the right reasons.

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Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.