Fear Not the Ugly American

The Ugly American

In the 1950s a stereotypical image emerged of the “ugly American” who dressed garishly, bellowed rudely in English to uncomprehending locals, demanded ketchup in fine restaurants, and in general trampled on the sensibilities of everyone in sight.

I’m not sure that image ever really accurately reflected a large percentage of Americans as foreign visitors. And if it did, that’s certainly not the case now. Yet fear of living up to that image seems to persist. As someone who has traveled constantly throughout the world for a few decades, I find that many of my fellow American travelers abroad seem unduly concerned with committing cultural gaffes or appearing clueless in other countries.

That’s especially true when it comes to business meetings and business-related social events. I get asked all kinds of anxious questions by less-well-traveled colleagues who accompany me overseas. What if I unthinkingly cross my legs in the Saudi Arabia and someone sees the sole of my shoe? What if I can’t get myself to eat the calf’s head I’m served in China? What if I forget to take a business card with two hands and a bow in Japan? What if I mangle my high-school Spanish in Colombia?

Here’s the answer to all those questions, and just about every other question I get along those lines: Nothing bad.

If you’re not a rude, oblivious jerk here in the U.S., you’re not going to be seen as one in other countries just because you don’t instantly pick up all the local habits and traditions. Actually, the vast majority of people you’re likely to meet in business situations expect you to behave like a typical American, and they’re perfectly comfortable with that. Even people who haven’t met many Americans have seen so many American movies and television shows that they’re fully up on the cultural differences.

In that spirit, here are some of the anti-rules–things that people think are rules but aren’t–that I share with fellow travelers:

Meetings: Bow, don’t bow, grab cards with two hands or one hand, cross your legs or slump, stare people square in the eye or be circumspect, nobody cares. In some parts of Asia it’s common for people to fall asleep in meetings, and in some parts of Latin America interrupting and loud arguing are part of the norm, so in general you’d have to work pretty hard to seem truly rude.

Food: In America, leaving food on your plate suggests you didn’t like the dish. But just about everywhere else in the world you’re expected to leave some food sitting there, lest you inadvertently signal that you weren’t served enough. So if you’ve got it in you to clean your plate when you’re served calf’s head or sea worms, be prepared for another helping. If it’s too weird for you, just don’t eat it. You won’t offend–your hosts almost certainly expected you to find it weird, and they’ll be tickled you did. Feel free to take a picture of it.

Language: Up for learning a few phrases in the local tongue and trying them out? Go for it. But that’s more than good enough–your hosts all probably all speak English fairly well, and if they don’t they’ll likely be eager to take this opportunity to improve their English. You might be annoying if you keep trying to exercise what you remember of your language courses.

Mistakes: Sure, you can mildly offend. Dressing skimpily in parts of the Middle East, refusing to drain your glass during toasts in much of Asia, handing people food with your left hand in India, launching quickly into business talk without pleasantries almost anywhere outside the U.S., these are all faux-pas. But even in these cases, transgression is rarely any sort of showstopper. It will be chalked up to your being a normal American in an unfamiliar situation, not to your being an insensitive, ignorant idiot.

I myself try to go above and beyond and show some knowledge of and respect for local culture. Does it win me better business deals? Probably not. I think it’s a nice thing to do, and encourage everyone to try the same.

But if you slip up, don’t sweat it. Being comfortable with yourself goes over well anywhere in the world.

Steven Thompson
About the author: 

Steven J. Thompson is a Senior Vice President at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, where he leads the organization’s external business strategy. He previously served as the Chief Executive Officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine International and Senior Vice President of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mr. Thompson is one of the world’s leading experts on creating, developing and strengthening high-quality, better-value health care systems across the planet.  Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.