Some people are really good at gracefully handling the stress of air travel. Americans are typically not among them.
I travel a lot. And as an anthropologist, I'm fascinated to observe how people from different cultures and backgrounds deal with the inevitable inconveniences and discomforts of air travel. Between tight schedules, security concerns, cramped seating, and overbooked flights, flying can be a real pain.
Indians, Brits, and Canadians are especially good at taking this in stride. With their exquisite politeness and self-effacing demeanor, gentle folks from these gracious lands ease the sting of being crammed like so many sardines. Likewise, the Dutch and Australians are good at joking (and jovially drinking) their way out of almost any awkwardness. Japanese and Korean travelers are courteous and quiet; Chileans and Brazilians will usually roll with whatever flows, and make it a party in the process.
Sadly, those of us from the U.S. don't rate quite so high on the usual lists of everyone's favorite traveling companions. Why? Certain attitudes and expectations that are part of our national character lend themselves to the stereotype of the American traveler as self-centered, obnoxious, and rude.
That's too bad, because most of us aren't ugly Americans. It's just that our home-grown habits and egos don't always read so well en route to other places. Here's how you can do better.
It's not all about you
One of the many things that make our country great is our abundant self-confidence; we Americans can do anything! We are individuals, and believe in our individual rights to liberty, happiness, and as much room as we want in the overhead bin.
Not so fast.
Travel requires a certain subjugation of the self in order to benefit the greater good. Take, for example, the inevitable waiting in lines. If you roll your eyes, stamp your feet, and demand special attention just because you have to queue up like everyone else — and that might make you late — you will be labeled an ugly American. Instead, try giving yourself plenty of time to arrive at the airport, check your baggage, and go through security, just like everyone else.
Speaking of the security line: Travel in these troubled times can be anxiety provoking. Unfortunately, when we Americans get anxious, we sometimes respond with bravado. This doesn't always play so well with Transportation and Security Agency officers who are very seriously trying to ensure everyone's safety. Don't make stupid jokes about shoe bombs, hijacking, or drugs within hearing of TSA agents, or anyone else, for that matter.
And don't deliberately challenge security personnel for just doing their job. If you feel you must do this, then you are indeed an ugly American and should not be allowed to travel anywhere where you can embarrass the rest of us.
Once you're through the checkpoint, please take advantage of the "Recombobulation Areas" offered by most airports these days. Don't stand at the very mouth of the screening tunnel, blithely putting your clothes back on while everyone else's stuff bumps against your plastic bin as you empty it. Grab your gear, get out of the way, and get dressed someplace else. That is what anyone else from a more densely populated country would do.
Finally, there is boarding. Our innate sense of entitlement sometimes causes us Americans to circle the gate area like sharks, waiting to pounce on early boarding or a possible upgrade. We are convinced we deserve first crack at whatever the airline has to offer.
Know what? We don't. Airlines have pretty ingenious ways of sorting out various passengers and boarding groups, and no amount of annoying hovering is going to get us any extra perks.
So if the gate agent announces your flight is delayed and all of you in boarding groups 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 might as well sit down again, please don't press up in a massive hoard against gate 39A, hoping for a different outcome. You won't get to Orlando any faster, and you might possibly slow things down.
We Americans think we know everything about everything. But there is always more to learn. Take, for example, airport public service announcements and signs intended to make life easier for us. A lot of us ignore these.
Perhaps we want to bring along more of our stuff than will fit in a carry-on that meets the newer, smaller standards of most airlines. Maybe we think it's too much hassle to organize our liquids, aerosols, gels, and pastes into 3.4 ounces or less and stash them away into a one-quart, sealed plastic bag; maybe we don't want to take off our shoes, belts, watches, and outerwear. Maybe we just weren't listening when instructed to remove our laptops and declare body-piercings or anything else that is going to make the men and women in charge of everyone else's safety go "Hmmmm."
We may think we know better, but this just doesn't fly in the airport. Traveling within a system designed for mutual safety and efficiency requires us all to pay attention and follow directions, so, for the sake of smooth travel, please heed and adhere to the clearly stated airport policies. Fail to do this — even worse, decide instead to argue with the people responsible for upholding them — and you will be known for the duration of your flight as That Jerk Who Held Everyone Up. You're smarter than that.
We citizens of the U.S.A. are an exuberant people. We have loud voices. Must be all those wide-open spaces we enjoy!
Please just remember that airports and airplanes are neither wide nor open. No one stuck near you wants to hear about your latest hookup, your divorce, or anything that happened in between. It doesn't matter if you are speaking to a traveling companion or on your phone. Keep your voice modulated and your conversations as private as possible. This holds especially true if you are on a redeye flight and feel compelled to bellow your opinion of the in-flight entertainment into the ears of people who might be trying to sleep.
Keep in mind that drinking loosens inhibitions, and drinking too much is likely to make you both loud and obnoxious. It will also make you have to have to use the bathroom more, which is another area where Americans often find themselves alienating others during travel.
Park the potty talk
Maybe it's because our parents "trained" us by applauding every time we successfully used a toilet — I don't really know. What I do know is that when we Americans feel the first urge to empty our bladders, we proudly announce to all within hearing that we are "Going to the Bathroom!"
The rest of the world does not do this, and they don't want to hear about us doing it, either. If you feel the need to evacuate, either in the airport or on the plane, simply get up and quietly take care of business. No need to share, especially when everyone else in your immediate area might soon be heading to the same small space.
Also, please don't use language that belongs in the gutter. You can blame the rise in Americans' use of obscenities on the music industry, bad parenting, or reality TV. But regardless, most of the rest of the world is offended by offensive language. Even if your fellow passengers don't speak English, I guarantee they understand several English curse words well enough to become quite upset by your trash talk.
Keep it clean, my fellow citizens.
The whole personal space thing
By and large, we Americans are not a small people. Big and tall, we take up a lot of room just by being; this occupation of space is exacerbated when we engage in what a Vietnamese friend of mine calls "American spread." Give us a seat in the terminal — or on a plane — and we will not only sprawl our physical selves beyond the boundaries of that single seat, we will also spread our bags, our electronic devices, our snacks, our rubbish, and all the other detritus of our journey in concentric circles around us, as if we are massive American suns being orbited by cosmic rings of stuff.
Please be aware of your surroundings when you travel. Observe how much space is — or is not — available at any point, and don't take more than your fair share of it. Try to be sensitive to those around you; if your legs or anything else seems to be getting in the way of others, rearrange yourself. Likewise, if you find someone in your way (say, as you silently make your way to the bathroom), please say "excuse me;" don't just push past.
Rule of thumb gives the armrest to the person stuck in the middle seat, but don't insist on it. Offer to share.
And because we're all in such close quarters, please don't travel if you are sick. No one wants your germs. Even if you don't have MERS, you are still a hazard to others. If you must get on board with a cough or sniffles, please wear a mask. Seriously. Asians have been doing this for years, and it is a custom well worth adopting, especially if you hope to be on good terms with others sharing your air for the next 16 hours.
The long and short of it
Air travel requires patience, courtesy, and often a sense of humor. I believe we Americans possess those qualities in abundance.
All we need to do in order to defy the stereotype of the ugly American is check a few of our more easily misconstrued national tendencies at the curb when we fly. Try it! You might just find yourself being more warmly welcomed in the airport and on board the plane … and wherever your final destination may be.