Are you the “ugly American” on vacation or just blithely ignorant?

©Karen Cummings

© Karen Cummings If you live in a tourist region as I do or if you travel a lot, you’ve certainly witnessed tourists being stupid if not outright acting badly. Some comments or actions are merely funny while others rise to the rank of “ugly.”

It goes from the Canadians who asked if they could return the books they just purchased at my daughter’s bookstore if they found them someplace else cheaper, to the out-of-stater who decided he wasn’t going to wait behind a car stopped at a crosswalk and almost ran over my grandson as the driver tried to pass on the inside. So, imagine our chagrin when my daughter, grandson (then 10) and I joined the ranks of the stupid tourists on a recent trip to Wales.

On our drive over to Wales after arriving that morning in London, we were finding the Welsh road signs to be quite humorous (and sometimes even a little scary). One with a dramatic zig-zag line stated, “Oncoming vehicles in middle of road.” “Why!?!” we would ask. “Why aren’t they on their side of the road!”

Another sign was, “WEAK BRIDGE.” Did that mean it wasn’t safe to drive over it? That at any moment some unlucky driver would plunge to their death? The somber sign alerting us to elderly people (placed near “Care” homes) was a good reminder to drink your milk or take your calcium supplements as it showed two bent-over figures, one with a cane.

© Karen CummingsAnd the signs when we entered a castle were sometimes a little hard to decipher, but they certainly illustrated all kinds of calamities that could befall you at every turn. But, we were baffled by the meaning of one sign, so that night at the Queen’s Head Inn in Monmouth, we asked the bartender, “So, what do the ‘Badgers’ signs mean?”

The exchange still makes us cringe.

He looked at us as though we were quite odd and said, “Why, it means there are badgers.”

In our defense, the “Badgers” signs were triangular signs with a big exclamation point in the middle and only had the word Badgers (and the Welsh translation) on a smaller sign below it. We assumed this was some sort of cryptic message — they must have meant something that we foreigners just couldn’t comprehend.

They didn’t show a badger! Our deer crossing sign© Karen Cummingss show a leaping deer. Or, there’s the giant moose head on the “Brake for Moose, It Can Save Your Life” signs in northern New England.

While I’m sure they are in place to protect the animals, too, our warning signs appear more to protect the drivers. After all, we don’t have porcupine or turtle crossing signs.

A little searching on Google that night in our room and we soon discovered that the Welsh (and all of the U.K.) were really concerned about their badgers.

We were mortified that we had asked such a stupid question – there are even online badger-tracking clubs. Who knew!

Well, that little incident shows that I have not always been the sophisticated tourist. But, between the relatively harmless thing of finding the signs on highways and tourist attractions funny, if sometimes confusing, to actually being caught joking about local manners and encountering language problems, some might even classify me as an “ugly American,” heaven forbid.

In the novel, a Burmese journalist says “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.” (The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer)

© Karen Cummings Yes, I’ve been loud and ostentatious at times. My youngest daughter remembers slinking out of a clothing store so as not to be associated with me in Paris as I tried to make myself understood to the non-English-speaking clerk. If you enunciate in English slowly enough and speak loudly enough, French store clerks will understand you, right? Wrong.

Then there’s the time after a delicious meal with lots of Canadian beer in Quebec City, my friends and I thought we were hilarious speaking to each other in English with exaggerated French accents. Luckily, one reasonable person in our group suggested we might be offending the Québécois near us.

Another cringe-worthy episode occurred in Venice as a friend’s husband thought he was a riot “speaking” Italian just by adding an “o” onto the end of every English word. His daughter was ready to push him out of the gondola!

My best friend told me of traveling with another couple in Spain where the husband complained loudly about the food (yes, in Spain!) because he couldn’t find a decent American-style hamburger.

© Karen CummingsWhile none of these transgressions are going to bring about an international incident, they didn’t exactly make us appear like the smartest or the most sophisticated travelers out there (or even all that polite). And, if we were the only Americans they met, what opinion of us were we leaving them?

Since the badger incident, I now make a special effort to be a little more tolerant of those who are visiting my home area and I try to read up, or at least ask intelligent questions, on places I’m visiting. My grandson, now 11, would say I haven’t quite mastered that yet.

All photos © Karen Cummings

Have you ever been an “ugly” American overseas?

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  • JoeInAtlanta

    I think you’re being too hard both on yourself and on others: I actually live INSIDE a national park (the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site) — and I’ve found that one of the greatest joys of living here is the constant encounters with people from around the nation and around the world as my partner and I walk our dogs in the neighborhood every evening. I can’t think of a single time — not one single time — that I’ve been annoyed by questions or assumptions from these visitors. And seeing my neighborhood through their eyes always helps me appreciate it anew.

    Now on to a few specifics from your article …

    While I don’t recall seeing the “Badgers” signs when I drove in Wales, I think my reaction would have been identical to yours. We all know that there are significant terminology differences between British and American English, and that British terms are often more evocative than their American counterparts (e.g., “boot” for trunk; “sleeping policeman” for speed bump). In this context, it is not at all unreasonable to wonder if the “Badgers” sign referred, not to the animal, but to a traffic-control device that someone thought looked a bit like a badger. Even though this ultimately was not the case, your question was perfectly reasonable.

    Regarding your comment, “If you enunciate in English slowly enough and speak loudly enough, French store clerks will understand you, right? Wrong.” Um, no … you might have been right in the first place. Certainly, no amount of deliberation in speech will make us comprehensible to people with no knowledge of English whatsoever. But for people with a LIMITED knowledge of English, it helps a great deal. We native speakers can easily parse it when someone says, “Whatchawannado?” But people who don’t have occasion to use their English on a daily basis will find it much easier to understand a slow and deliberate “What Do You Want To Do?”. Increasing volume is not essential, certainly, but it helps create a mind-set in which we native speakers are more aware of the need to allow brief spaces between words that we might drop in casual conversation among each other.

    And indeed, I can attest to this point from the other side of the equation as well: I’m conversational (but not fluent) in Spanish and French — and there are several other languages in which I’m comfortable enough to ask directions or handle simple transactions and social niceties. But sometimes I don’t understand what is being said to me in these languages on the first pass. In these cases, the native speakers will invariably repeat what they said slower and louder (just like Americans are said to do) — and it helps a LOT! It gives the recipient a split-second more to recognize the word, and it helps ensure that the pronunciation is closer to what the individual may have heard in the classroom or on language tapes.

    You’ve added a drop-quote about a Burmese journalist in a novel who says, “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.” I don’t see any context in your article for this quote (nor, for that matter, the name of the novel) — but the sentiment is the opposite of what I’ve heard in my travels. I try to interact as much as possible both with locals and with non-American tourists, and the conversation often turns to a perception of Americans. When I’ve shared with them that Americans have a concern about being perceived as rude or boorish, I’ve almost universally been met with surprise that we have this perception and assurances that this is not how we are regarded. While people have been very (very) candid with me about their dissatisfaction with American foreign policy, the overwhelming majority has told me that American travelers are held in high esteem, that we have a reputation for being careful about our behavior and choice of words, and that this prudence is appreciated.

    But I do have one quibble …

    While I’m delighted that you were careful enough to use diacritical marks (as doing so is, itself, a mark of respect for other cultures), the demonym for Quebec is “Québécois” (2 accents, no cedilla), not “Quebeçois”.

  • trwmn

    I know the cedilla in your “Quebeçois” makes the word look frightfully French, but it means the word would be pronounced with a soft “c” (“Quebessois”), as in “français”. Leave the “c” hard by omitting the cedilla. (To be even more lingua-sensitive, you’d want to add the accents on the “e”s.)

    My favourite American/English signage divergence is the British alert “Road Liable to Subsidence”, which in America becomes simply “Dips”.

  • Marilyn

    I agree that being confused by a sign and asking about it does not make you “ugly.” If you had implied that being concerned about badgers was ridiculous or stupid, that would have been ugly. Insulting the residents of the area is ugly, but being uninformed about local customs gives an opportunity to interact with those residents by asking questions. I have witnessed some examples of ugliness in various tour groups such as the people who complained loudly about being unable to have a cheeseburger in Israel (we had huge buffets with delicious food) or those who made fun of the religious beliefs of the people taking part in ceremonies by the Ganges. I have perhaps been guilty of some ugliness myself as I recall being amused by and taking photos of signs in China which included English translations. Though the translations were worded in a funny way, the sign maker obviously was more adept with English than I was with Chinese. I can only hope in retrospect that I didn’t make it so obvious and offensive. How we come across to others is something we all need to think about whether we are traveling or just at home. Some people can be rude wherever they are.

  • Rodolfo

    Absolutely right. Inquisitiveness and respectfully asking for explanations is not “ugly” by any means. Sometimes it may be a safety imperative too. But as to the China part, I’ve always felt that any entity – be it a merchant, a government office, etc. – that is offering a translation in another language should take the effort to get it done acceptably. That may mean paying someone a few dollars. Wouldn’t you rather get it right than communicate a message of sloppiness?

  • Marilyn

    You make a good point about the Chinese translations. I feel the same way when I see merchants’ signs with misspellings and gross grammatical errors here in the US.

  • Mike

    Throughout the UK (and many European countries) a red-bordered triangular sign with an exclamation mark in the center means “Warning” or “Take Care” – to what, read the description below, in your case “Badgers”. Ugly American – definitely, for not taking the trouble to learn the road signs and what they mean prior to driving your rental car. In addition to which you were a potential road menace.

  • Betsy

    After living on Kauai for a couple of years, I can attest this is more about forgetting to bring your brain along when you’re away from home, sometimes to the detriment of safety. People think bad things don’t happen on vacation so they endanger themselves in the ocean, on trails, and in traffic. They arrive with a sense of entitlement, leading to meltdowns in retail stores, post offices, and other establishments if their needs aren’t “properly prioritized.” If they come from countries where tips aren’t the norm, they stiff the wait staff here. They improperly park their oversized rentals, ignore courtesy on one-lane bridges and drive at freeway speeds on local roads. It’s a challenge to maintain the aloha, and I’ve become hypersensitive to my own behavior abroad and on the mainland as a result. Don’t be that person.

  • James Penrose

    A travel writer not doing some research before travel? Sigh.
    American signs tend to have pictures because a staggering number of people here are functionally illiterate, often in several languages.

    The incidents with you insulting French speaking people are just sad, drunk or sophomoric.

  • dcta

    So…I try really hard not to be the “ugly American” when I travel. I am a Travel Agent, but I have also worked every other Saturday for more than 20 years at a Museum here in Washington, DC. I have to tell you – I think people (Americans) actually switch their brains off when they go on vacation. I really, really do. Living in a tourist destination and working in that Museum – I’ve seen everything. Here’s one of the least egregious things and it happens almost every other time I’m working in the Museum – visitor comes in through the front doors, goes through the magnetometer and makes his way down to the Information Desk, “Can you tell me how to get into the XXXXX Museum?” “Um.. you are in the Museum.” “Oh! I wasn’t sure that line outside was for the XXXXX Museum.” There are signs everywhere – and I must ask, you are not certain what you are getting in line for, but you do it anyway? No, I don’t actually ask the visitor that, I don’t care to embarrass anyone or make them feel badly, but really? That’s just the least of the silly things…….I also regularly get this question, “do I need a ticket for the ride?” The RIDE???? My brain screams, “this is a Museum, not Disneyland!!!”

  • MeanMeosh

    I think there’s a difference between misinterpreting something and/or asking a question that, in hindsight, is dumb, and being “ugly”. I probably would have been equally confused by the “Badgers” sign, and would have asked someone about it (and sorry, I have to disagree with the few commenters on here that seem to think a visitor must research and memorize every possible variation and interpretation of a sign – that’s just not realistic). On the other hand, making fun of people’s French accents in Quebec? Not cool.

  • Mike Brown

    Here in Canada, or at least in Eastern Ontario, we do have turtle crossing signs, with a picture of a turtle on them. Hit one of them at 80 kph, and you’re going to have a really bad day.