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How to Not Look Like an American Tourist in Europe

My sister on a Belgian parkbench

I don’t really like being a tourist. At least I try to avoid the term, even if I am travelling and taking pictures of commonly visited sights in foreign countries. I guess the main thing is that I want to experience the culture more, speak the language, and get deeper than the superficial experience enjoyed by most other tourists. So when I went to Europe, I naturally wanted to try to blend in as much as I could. I did some preparation before the trip, but much of what I now know I discovered in my travels. If you are planning to go to Europe and you too want to avoid looking like a tourist, this post is for you! Here are some things that I’ve learned:

Don’t Dress Like an American

As our group of university students prepared for our three-month stay in Europe, it came to my attention that Europeans dress differently than Americans. Shorts are rare (which was not a problem for me, as I do not wear shorts), and so are tennis shoes and white socks. Really the only wardrobe change I underwent before the trip was to invest in a number of black socks, as well as some brown leather walking shoes. Those shoes are my faithful companions to this day, and look nice and non-American with black socks. Besides that, Americans tend to dress more casually than Europeans, but since I am generally oblivious and apathetic toward fashion, I didn’t worry about that. And really, I discovered that what you wear is less important than the following point, which is:

Don’t Talk Like an American

I didn’t know this until I got there, but apparently in many European countries, Americans have a reputation for being loud and obnoxious, two words that do not describe me in the least. However, after travelling with some of my classmates, I realised why some may have that conception. When in Europe, talk softly, especially when inside a closed space, such as a train or a restaurant. They’ll never suspect you!

Also, another way to blend in is to speak a language other than English, if possible. I am multilingual, but my sister, with whom I traveled, is not. However, every now and then I would talk to her in Spanish, just for fun and to not look American. Once a French museum worker spoke to me in Spanish–I guess I was doing a good job!

If you’re learning the language of the country you’re in, speak it, even if you feel like you’re not very good yet. While in Belgium I wasn’t quite fluent in French, but I got very good at producing a convincing accent, so when my sister and I went out, various people tried to guess where we were from, and none guessed the U.S.A. (a bookshop owner thought perhaps we were German).

Don’t Travel in Large Groups

There’s nothing like a large group of loud Americans to attract attention. Often I was able to travel in smaller groups, but sometimes the large group was unavoidable, and I really felt like we stuck out and lived up to the stereotype. If you travel with one or two people and speak sofly, you will look much less American.

Show Respect and Be Friendly

I realize the previous points have been negative, so I want to throw out a positive one for you. Before going to Paris, I had heard a lot about how rude Parisians are, especially to Americans. I had also read a bit about how cultural differences may be to blame for this conception (it goes both ways, by the way). Once we were in Paris, we spoke French and tried to be polite, respectful, and friendly. And guess what? The Parisians were polite and friendly in return! When you go to another country, do not demand your way, because your way may be completely unreasonable and unusual in that culture. Respect other people, be friendly, and you will be well on your way to not living up to the American stereotype.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blogpost, and if you are an American planning on travelling in Europe, I hope it will be useful to you! Feel free to comment if you have any more ideas to add. Bon voyage !

3 thoughts to “How to Not Look Like an American Tourist in Europe”

  1. No offense, but this list seems to consist of don’t look, act, sound, or seem in any way like an American.
    It’s not that shameful to me to have people recognize me as what I am.

  2. You are correct! There is no shame in being an American. This post is just intended for those who, like me, do not want to stick out like a sore thumb in public, and fulfil negative stereotypes. When talking to Europeans individually, I had no problem informing them I was a Texan. :)

  3. Good point about speaking French in France. I notice many people here in the USA become annoyed with people who don’t speak or speak very little English. But Americans go to in Paris expecting Parisians to be understanding of their reluctance to learn French. If you are an English speaking abroad, you should try to learn the language. At the very least learn phrases. Americans and the French aren’t very different after all.

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