The Ugly American is alive and well

Americans, we are told, have a bad image overseas.

Foreigners see us as loud, arrogant, badly dressed, ill-mannered and insensitive. That’s certainly not good.

To improve our traveling act, a business group, Business for Diplomatic Action, is distributing a “World Citizen’s Guide” with pointers on how we can improve our behavior while abroad.

It offers such commonsense advice as: lower your voice, speak more slowly, don’t boast, dress nicely, show interest and mind your manners. Especially, in one executive’s words, don’t assume that everybody wants to be like us, although the recent immigrant demonstrations rather indicated that a lot of people do.

The organization is hoping the State Department might distribute the guide along with passports. Heck, in advance of the summer travel season, why not get it into the hands of Americans planning vacations here? We behave abroad pretty much the same as we behave here. Hypocrites we’re not.

Foreigners who visit here universally comment on how friendly Americans are, even if we do it at the top of our lungs while wearing plaid shorts and a tank top.

Our shortcomings as citizens of the world were crystallized in the title of a 1958 book by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick called “The Ugly American” about U.S. government misadventures in Southeast Asia. The book was a sensation at the time, but in fact it was a variation on an old theme _ the bluff, gullible American being exploited by crafty foreigners. Mark Twain titled his overseas travels “Innocents Abroad.”

Critical judgments of Americans abroad are not new. There are so many of us traveling abroad _ 60 million this year _ and this is the first country for whose citizens overseas travel is widely possible and affordable. During World War II, when our presence there was genuinely welcomed, the Brits grumbled: “The Yanks are overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

A founder of Business for Diplomatic Action says, “Our collective personality is one of the root causes of anti-Americanism.” This, too, is not new and maybe not even susceptible of change.

In the 1840s, visitors Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens, both generally favorably disposed toward America, took exception to our collective personality. De Tocqueville found us too determinedly individualistic and Dickens felt we were too obsessed with trade and sharp dealing. He also loathed tobacco spitting, but we’ve gotten over that so maybe there’s some hope.

Maybe our manners overseas aren’t all that they should be, but at least we’re well-mannered enough to worry about it.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)