How American stereotypes hindered my experience abroad

In Opinion
(Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.)

When people travel, they may think about new customs, sights and foods they might experience on their trip instead of how others perceive them. It’s easy for Americans to be pigeonholed as forceful loudmouths but with a little self-awareness, that stereotype can be transformed.

As a frequent traveler who goes to a new destination each summer with my brother, how people perceived me as an American frequently crossed my mind.

This year, like most reasonable people, my brother and I made the practical decision to leave a warm Southern California summer and enjoy a windy Australian winter.

Despite the mildly chilly weather, we went on several tours and a pattern quickly emerged. The tour guide would ask where we were from and after mumbling “United States,” we would receive a genuinely ecstatic response.

Our tour guides graciously assumed we would be the most talkative and inquisitive people in the group. It was an assumption that I, an awkward shy traveler, felt overwhelmed by and couldn’t simply brush off or forget. Throughout our tours, guides constantly called on my brother and I to answer questions or ask about certain sights, their blank stares making the situation far too nerve-wracking leaving us petrified with little to no response.

I probably should have expected this. Stereotypes of travelers persist in every society, and American travelers are among some of the most distinct personalities. So who cares if someone initially thought all Americans would be chatty and slightly overbearing travelers?

Well, I do. For one, I don’t like when people developed preconceived notions about me without knowing anything about me.

Furthermore, Americans don’t have the best reputation. We’re assumed to be loud in quiet settings. We’re seen as demanding and having high expectations of what we want when we go to a certain destination.

The fact that these stereotypes didn’t reflect me at all bothered me the most. I’m not an extroverted person. I’m a more mild-mannered person.

According to data released by the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, over 72.5 million people traveled to another country in 2016. Of those 72.5 million people, it’s unlikely that every traveler was embarrassingly overconfident and inquisitive. Some of those people, — like me — were probably more soft spoken and less confrontational.

However, rather than take personal offense to the American stereotypes, I reflected on my own perceptions of Australia. Thoughts of a dry desert landscape with bouncing kangaroos fueled my perception of the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. I imagined small beach towns outlining the coast with friendly locals offering to throw a shrimp on the Barbie. No relatives or friends of mine had been to Australia, so my assumptions were mounted on stereotypes.

In fact, my preconceived notions were embarrassingly worse than those about Americans. If I happened to develop similarly terrible stereotypes because of my naive lack of knowledge toward a certain city, how could I possibly assume that they would think differently?

Locals’ perceptions are shaped by their experiences and what they have heard or seen, fueling stereotypes of travelers. The only way to defy such stereotypes is to be aware of our actions.

“Americans get a bad rep while traveling,” said communications professor Christina Ceisel, Ph.D. “Perhaps that’s improved now that we’re traveling quite a bit more. So Americans have been spending more time abroad than previous generations.”

Personal experiences with other cultures can be eye-opening. Rather than be a bumbling, babbling mess of an American stereotype, a traveler can become a distinct individual. Though stereotypes and preconceived beliefs about groups of people will always be present, self-awareness makes a difference.

It should be noted that I’m not saying people should change. But travelers should try to prove that these preconceived notions only cover a limited scope of what it means to be an American. Travelers should be aware of the impressions they make when abroad to avoid supporting negative stereotypes. Future American travelers will thank you.

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