You want small government? Then be a better diplomat.
In this politically and economically unstable, interconnected world, foreign policy is more important than ever. Yet, we average New Balance-wearing, over-eating American citizens place all the responsibility for shaping our foreign image and relationships on our diplomats and Executive Branch. We can help too.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans want smaller government and I would hope that 100% of Americans want a better image abroad, at least in theory. Yet in my short but well-traveled life, I have seen too many Americans propagating the stereotype that we are loud, over-eating, New Balance-wearing annoyances that are only worth as much as we carry in our wallets. Here are seven lessons that will help you be a less obnoxious traveler, better representative and unofficial diplomat of the great United States of America:
Shut the hell up – I agree that we Americans seem to be relatively louder than the locals in almost every country to which I've been. Here's an easy way to address this stereotype: don't talk louder than the locals. This requires functioning ears, five seconds of listening and an iota of self-control.
In non-English speaking countries, most people don't speak English – Too often, I see exasperated tourists loudly complaining that “no one seems to speak English in this damn country.” We can't be expected to learn the language of every country we visit but we can at least arrive expecting the locals to speak, you know, the local language.
Please, please don't wear New Balance sneakers – I know they are comfortable and affordable and yadayadayada, but they are also DORKY. Americans are supposed to be COOL. Wear a different shoe.
Learn 15 things about the country that don't appear in your guidebook – I admit that I arbitrarily chose 15, but the point is, locals respect any effort to learn more about their culture, language, geography and history. Good diplomacy and positive international relationships require a deeper knowledge than that garnered from Lonely Planet.
Be more than your wallet – In many countries, particularly poor countries, Americans are seen as nothing more than walking piles of money. This is a difficult image to avoid, but it can at least be positively supplemented with a memorable interaction. Have conversations, play with the kids, do some volunteer work and most importantly, ask a lot of questions. The more you treat the locals like humans, rather than products, they more they'll see you as a person and not a wallet.
On every trip, go somewhere totally random – Diverge, at least once, from destinations presented in the guidebook or on the internet and just go somewhere local. The more people that stare at you, the more likely you've succeeded in breaking the boundary between tourism and diplomacy. Unless they're only staring at you because they're also demanding your wallet at gunpoint.
Try, and I mean really try, and understand why things are a certain way, instead of just criticizing them – Inefficient public transport, aggressive haggling, "rude" behavior, bad smells, people staring at you – these and many other phenomena are either rooted in culture or socio-economic conditions. Understanding, instead of knee-jerk judgment will give you a deeper respect or at least a more complete knowledge of the country.
I have lived most of my life abroad and traveled extensively and I am guilty of violating every recommendation I just mentioned. I even wore New Balances for a while. In addition to changing my shoes, learning to haggle, and dodging tourist traps, I've learned that with every positive interaction abroad, we improve our international image. Put simply: the more people like us, the less they hate us and the less we will ultimately have to spend defending ourselves.
Help our soldiers, help our diplomats and help our economy by being a good representative abroad.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons