The Ugly American and other stereotypes

By Bernd Debusmann
July 16, 2009

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

What happened to the Ugly American, the one with the loud shirt and the loud voice, expecting the natives to speak English? Has he been shouldered aside by the Arrogant French?

That’s the conclusion one could draw from a survey this month of 4,500 hotel owners around the world who rated the French the world’s worst tourists, bad at foreign languages, arrogant and tight-fisted. Spaniards, deemed noisy and messy, came second in a field of 27. Americans ranked 9th on the list of the top 10 best.

The survey, commissioned by the online travel agency Expedia, ranked travellers in nine categories, from cleanliness to generosity in tipping, and provided food for thought on a long-running debate on an unresolved question: to what extent do national stereotypes correspond to reality?

One of the most extensive studies of that question ever conducted, led by scientists of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, involved 4,000 people in 48 countries and came to the conclusion, in 2005, that most national stereotypes are inaccurate.

Researchers compared perceived national characteristics with actual character traits and reported some surprising findings. Americans, for example, think the typical American is very assertive. Canadians think the typical Canadian is submissive. But Canadians and Americans had almost identical scores in objective measures of assertiveness.

The enduring nature of stereotypes, scientific studies challenging their veracity notwithstanding, is reflected in an evergreen joke about the nature of heaven and hell: Heaven is the place where the lovers are Italian, the police are English, the mechanics are German, the cooks are French and the place is run by the Swiss.

Hell is where the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the police are German and the place is run by the Italians.

In a similar vein: How many American tourists does it take to change a light bulb? Nine. Three to figure out how much the bulb costs in the local currency, three to comment on how funny-looking local light bulbs are and three to hire a local person to change the bulb.

So is there a kernel of truth to the notion of the noisy American, the efficient German, the stiff-upper-lip Briton, the stingy Scot, the rude French, the passionate Latin lover, the drunken Russian, the polite and boring Canadian, the extrovert Australian, the macho Mexican, the egocentric Argentine, the melancholic Swede? It depends on whom you ask.


Almost everyone has stereotypical ideas of other nations and other cultures. Shining the light on these notions can be entertaining as well as good business. Take the case of the Xenophobe’s Guides, a series of light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek books on the characteristics of different nations.

Since the guides started in 1995, the publisher sold 2.6 million copies and there are translations into 22 languages, according to Anne Tauté, the creator and editor of the series who lives in London. She says she was prompted to start the books to provide more insight into other cultures.

The guide to Americans observes that they “are friendly because they just can’t help it; they like to be neighbourly and want to be liked. However, a wise traveller realises that a few happy moments with an American do not translate into a permanent commitment of any kind.”

On the French: “French politicians look smart because power itself is chic, attractive, and one should dress to look the part. The French electorate would never allow any government to intervene in their lives if it were shabbily dressed.”

There is a serious side to stereotypes. As history has shown, they can contribute to discrimination and prejudice, often reflected by offensive jokes. As in: What do you get when you cross an Italian with a Mexican? A gangster on welfare. At the extreme end of stereotyping, there have been persecution and mass murder, viz. Nazi Germany or Rwanda.

To get back to the survey of tourists: it confirmed some widely-held stereotypes and raised questions over others. Why do people from France and Spain, the world’s top two tourist destinations (The U.S. is third) behave in ways they would criticise in visitors to their own countries?

As to the Americans: they were rated the loudest, least tidy and worst complainers. They owe their ranking as the 9th best to generous spending and tipping and to their willingness to try and communicate in the local language. Who ranked first? The Japanese.


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The ugly American definitely still exists. I ran into one the other day, yelling at a poor McD’s fry cook for taking more than 30 seconds to make her coffee while there were other people who have been waiting longer for their orders. I don’t blame people at all for disliking American tourists. What’s sad, though, is that the majority of Americans (who are polite and respectful) are cast in a bad light by the few who act so terribly. I make a regular habit of having a Canadian symbol visible whenever I travel so the locals will treat me better (the difference in the way a Canadian is treated vs and American can be outrageous) because many people believe that all Americans are as rude as the kind of person I met in the McDonalds.

Posted by Caggles | Report as abusive

What do you call someone who speaks 3, 2 or 1 languages, according to Europeans? Trilingual, bilingual and American. Old joke and it lumps all the Americas into a single basket; not good, nor really true.

We’re all influenced by everyone and everything we encounter. That is the driving force behind our ‘collective’ national consciesnesses (nc), in my humble opinion. That said, the so-called nc is just another word for a stereotype. We may tend to drift toward and be influenced by those around us, but we still have our own inner guide post, be it staight or not. As an example, 27 years ago (I’m 52), I heard the joke I posted and it affected me. I speak French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese; yes, Japanese! I learned them because I felt like it and nothing more. I learned a lot about the people as well. I am gifted (genetically lucky, I don’t think there is such a thing as “blessed, gifted, etc.”) in that languages are simply time consuming to learn and maintain, but easy (to me) to learn and attain fluency in. My point is this, I have perfect pitch and together with my lingusistics skills, I have never failed to fool native speakers with my perfect, native accent. What have I learned after visiting France (3 times), Italy (6 times), Spain (3 times), Argentina, Chile, Peru (1 time each) and Japan (1 time)? You see, I feel like I have always been the stealth visitor. I could find out the real people as one of them myself, so to speak.

The Japanese and the Italians are tied for first in my book, but for totally different reasons. The Japanese are honest, to the point and always respectful. You’d never suspect them of talking bad about you and frankly, they rarely, if ever, do. The Italians are a wonderful, beautiful and cherished opened book. They say it like it is and they like most everything. If they don’t, they’ll let you know. Spanish speakers in most countries, save for the mother country of Spain, are quite nice. Spain is a bit harder, but overall, the people are wonderful, though they do tend to take their language a bit more seriously, as they should. The French do in fact take the cake. There are tons of exceptions, though I’ll likely never come across more than a handful, to this. The French can not only be insulting, but they are downright vulgar. I actually didn’t know any of the bad French curse words until I was in France!

So, as a native, stealth tourist/visitor, I have had the opportunity to see it from behind the curtain. I have no doubt that my earlier discussion on nc/sterotyping was flawed when it included the French (also the French speaking Canadians, but NOT the Hatians…a great people!) in the same lump of countries and languages.

So why did I visit France? To hear what made up my mind and to go back and confirm I wasn’t crazy or being a racist, Francophobe. Also, the museums and Paris are beautiful. You want good food? It is south in Italy! The Italians most definitely taught the French (remember the court of Louis?) to cook. Why does French cheese stinck so badly? It has to, in order to compete with the people!

Posted by Matt NJUSA | Report as abusive

Being a French living abroad, and travelling a little, I realized by being silent in the airports with french tourists acting around you as if you could understand them how true the foreign people are about us.

BUT I also realized which French people they have to deal with: the posh, the snob, the arrogant, the “arrived”. 90% of the french go to… France for their holidays, fortunately France has enough diversity to allow them to find a place they like without having to speak another language. BUT the parvenu (the “arrived” mainly from Paris and its suburb) travel a lot, it’s part of the show off, they have to say they went abrod here and there… And they are awful, the rest of France hate them too and is quite happy to see them going abroad. Sorry about them, our revolution was a “bourgeoise” revolution with the places in the society previously occupied by the aristocrates now being occupied by the “bourgeois”. And since then we wait for the next revolution to get rid of them…

French arrogant? Well, go to a camp site in France, near any beaches, for summer around 11h30-12h or 18h30-19h when it’s “apero time” (aperitive alcool you drink before lunch) when the people who come in this camp site every year get together, bringing chairs, bottle of alcool and few foods. You will enjoy the true french: lauging and re-making the world over and over. Sadly you won’t see these people in your countries as they go every year to the same camp site and do not travel abroad. They don’t have a lot of money, they are not over educated but they are damn generous and they are damn good people.

And finally: less than 50% of the french go on holidays every year, do not be foolish the few you see abroad, they are a minority. Everybody knows that the majority of the french is perfect ;-)


Posted by Fred | Report as abusive

These stereotypes are just plain wrong and Expedia’s study’s not really fair. One of the questions was “tipping”, wich is a natural fact for americans, it is not for europeans used with the “tips included” in their bills, for instance.

Besides most of travellers from all countries are people able to pay for plane tickets and accomodations, who certainly do not look no behave like the majority of their population. Wondering if the higher social spheres are really where the most educated and nicest guys are…

I worked as a guide for tourists, my worst experience ever was with an italian group, but still Italy is my favorite european country to travel to. I remember being able to have japanese tourists paying for everything, giving me 2-3 times tips because they were happy of each visit. No wonder why they are the favorite of some hotel register guys, but is that really meaning their the most interesting humans travellers ?

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

Well, looking through the comments it looks like the consensus is that Americans are ugly, and that France and the French are beautiful. Not surprising really, France is the most beautiful and civilised nation on earth, they are probably a bit disappointed that all their assistance rendered to the fledgling America resulted in the America the world has today. What went wrong?

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

i agree that the french are the rudest and most arrogant. and Peter H they are not beautiful at all – inside or out! The French women are like french poodles, they smoke, they smell, eat like birds, wrinkle easily and have foul attitudes. look at what brigitte bardot looks like!! sophia loren on the other hand looks gorgeous. No, French women are not beautiful. Italian women are incredible looking and they have class and style, much more so than the French. They also smile, like to care for others and are very hospitable women. Italian women win!

well i travelled the world in 1968-1969 and my friend avoided americans. i,m canadian and never travelled with then at all. travelled with danes and germans at times and enjoyed them . always remember two americans asking for ketchup in afganistan. give me a break. also remember the day three americans were laughing at iranians processing them at a small border post on an old 20 year typewriter. we were patient and were on our way in 30 minutes. 2 hours later they were still there and it was a blistering hot day. donmt know if they ever caught on that they were being had for being rude.

I agree that Americans can be “Ugly”. I am an American but I had the good fortune of being born and raised in Germany. In my short life (24 years) I have traveled to roughly 13 countries, on vacation and with the United States Marine Corps. I always try to be polite, respectful, and kind to anyone I meet. Unfortunately I can’t say that about everyone I have traveled with. I think the problem with America is is that there is no one to teach manners and respect to our children. We have become a society of materialistic work-aholics where both the father and the mother work, leaving the children at home watching TV. Parents don’t spend time with their kids anymore so our children are being raised by society. Values are no longer instilled but are picked up from TV shows. I have respect for my elders and superiors because I was raised that way. My mom stayed home with us and actually raised us. We hardly watched TV and spent most of out time outside. Society has let us down. We are rotting from the inside.

Posted by John M | Report as abusive

I don’t know, life’s a short trip and I can’t find any positives in lumping whole nations into one line commentary’s. So I’ll just say that I’ve traveled to many Latin American and European countries and found nice folks most of the time. They treat me well and I treat them well. Even if I am an American from Philly.

Posted by Michael P. | Report as abusive

America is less that 200 years old. It is being compared to countries that are thousands of years old. So the fact is “American” traits are really just the collective traits of the many people of many cultures that felt they would rather live here than in thier own land. So that any person from any nation should exclude their own culture’s misgivings from those of Americans is pure hypocracy. How many French, Italian, Englisn, Canadian, and German-Americans are there? Uh, 60+%, or more. eople who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve found almost without exception, that most people are kind, welcoming and interested, and only a few live out the stereotypes we all know so well. And I’ve seen people in this country do good deeds without a second thought that made me re-evaluate my own personal standards of goodness. Complaining about other people’s differences is just complaining. The details of the discontent of malcontents is really of no interest to me…

Posted by Derek D | Report as abusive

OK, so little bit of a typo. America is just OVER 200 years old. Can’t let that one go unchecked. Anyway, please continue to the next post with this in mind…

Posted by Derek D | Report as abusive

Racial profiling is like Astrology, it has to be right at some point. Only the ignorant and lazy employ it.

I can be the loudest person in the room, or the mouse in the corner; neither occurrence is because I’m American.

Posted by Nahnook | Report as abusive

As an assistant hotel manager and booking supervisor I’d say Canadians would be a close second to the French in both rudeness and being stingy -
but I’m just speaking from personal experience. A guest is a guest no matter what.

Posted by Mr Holiday | Report as abusive

I’m pretty much resigned to people wanting to dislike Americans wherever I go. (Except in Kosovo; there, we can do no wrong. Last fall, I actually got out of a ticket I totally deserved “out of respect for your being an American”.)

So I try to make a habit out of tipping outrageously and thanking everyone as profusely as possible for everything in sight (hopefully in some reasonable facsimile of the local language).

I like to hope that my own little personal foreign policy campaign might change a few minds, just a little.

Posted by Lisa | Report as abusive

As a traveller and expat who is also an American, my philosphy is to channel the standard of behavior set by Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (though I do not always measure up) and look for the good in people and situations. While, strangely enough, certain stereostypes hold true for a sufficiently large percentage of time to continue being stereotypes (i.e. loud Americans, rude French, melencholy Danes, etc), I have met a good cross-section of nationalities and find that stereotypes are generalities that seem to “generally” apply to certain nationalities but are by no means a way to define individual people. I have met the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly from many nations and find that in the end, you are dealing with individuals and your own paricular bias which is also influenced by your culture and nationality.

Posted by Expat American | Report as abusive

I am an American and have never traveled to Europe.
My wife wants to go to France and personally I would rather skip visiting a country where Americans are not liked. While on vacation in the British Virgin Islands I brought this same subject of visiting France with one of the local Brits and he assured me that it is not true that the French dislike Americans.. he said they dislike everyone. I feel much better now that we werent being singled out.

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

Americans, despite what we would like to believe, are hardly ever singled out or disliked anywhere. You would have to go to a hard-core country (Iraq/Afghanistan) AND find a truly hard-core hater. If Americans are ever singled out, it is because the person is a weiner. Having been to umpteen countries, and lived in a number, I can attest that Americans are better liked, and better behaved than the majority of the British and German tourists. And don’t believe the press. The French like Americans. They are just cool-ish toward everybody. So they aren’t looking to make best friends in 5 minutes. They are an awesome people, and they typically really like Americans.

Posted by Horst Engels | Report as abusive

I assume the “Ugly American” is too obese to travel nowadays?
Nasty, huh?

Posted by Carole Fite | Report as abusive

I always laugh at the French when they complain about the number of English words creeping into their language. They forget that 25% of our vocabulary has a French derivation. (Anyone remember 1066?)

Trying to keep your language “pure” is a joke.

Posted by Jon Anderson | Report as abusive