How to Not Look Like a Jerk While Traveling Abroad




About: I'm an animation director by day and Queen of the monsters by night. I picked up most of my costume and prop building skills through hands on experimentation with materials. Experimentation led to addictio...

My best friend is an avid world traveller and comes home from her journeys (Iceland, Chile, Mexico, Egypt, Russia, France, Peru, and more) with many interesting stories about coping with the unexpected. Sometimes these surprises come in the form of food or lodging conditions. Other times they come as communication issues or even your fellow American tourists, behaving in ways that make you want to claim "Uuuh...I'm from Canada. Totally not with that guy."

In this Ible I've compiled a list of key travel tips to help you not look like a jerk in a foreign land. Since some of these principles are difficult to capture in a photograph, I decided to draw up some quick cartoons --with me as your traveller icon-- to embody each topic instead. Enjoy!

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Step 1: Do Your Research: Intake and Output

When I say do your research, I don't mean obvious stuff like local attractions or what temperatures to expect so you can make clothing choices. I mean really research the native culture in and around your destination so you can decide (presumably before you book) if this is really a place you want to be. How will you decide this? Simple.

Foods and Bathrooms.


Google the area's native and local cuisine.Does it sound like something you'd be excited, or at least willing, to try? If it doesn't sound like your thing, investigate how modernized or westernized the area is currently. In a worst case scenario, will they have something like McDonald's or Starbucks that you can get by with until you acclimate, feel more experimental, or move on to a different destination?

I feel that food is a big part of any trip and one should always make an effort to try unusual things. If you discover that boiled goat heads are a daily component of any balanced breakfast where you're going, and that isn't something you're willing to scarf down, weigh whether this is really the vacation spot for you. Even if you discover that you don't like these new adventuresome foods, now you know. The galapagos taught my BFF that she hates papaya --now she knows.


When investigating your lodging options, make a point of looking at photos of bathrooms when possible. You may also want to try finding out about he visitor bathrooms at any attractions you decide to visit. How similar are they to what you're used to? Can you deal with the differences? Do you need to bring your own toilet paper?

In the U.K. my parents found the "water closets" to be so compact you just barely had enough room to turn and grab the TP. This does not mean all toilets situations in the U.K. will be like that, but they are out there. In India, many places have "squat toilets", which are holes in the tiled floor instead of a raised seat like you'd see in the west. Are you willing and physically able to adapt to the bathroom culture at your destination?

Quick! Where's the Bathroom?!? Most Ible readers seem to agree that the term "toilet" will get you exactly where you want to go, but saying "bathroom" or "restroom" may be confusing.

In your potential destination, is it common to have to pay to use public restrooms? I was reminded by some helpful folks in the comments that in some countries it is very common to have to pay to use the restroom, or considered appropriate to tip a restroom attendant. For the many of us who primarily pay for things with a card these days, this would be a good reason to make sure there's cash/ change in your pocket!

Know the facts ahead of time. The last thing your inn keeper, host, waiter, or tour guide wants to hear is a big rude American "You want me to do WHAAAAT???"

*When booking a stay at a hostel, it is wise to inquire whether bathrooms are communal or uni-sex. My friend has had some surprises with that too. If you don't get a private bathroom, make sure you pack pajamas, loungewear, or a cover-up that you are comfortable walking down halls in. This may include a pair of flip flops or foldable slippers, if you don't want to go barefoot in a communal space.

Step 2: Gesticulation Considerations

If you only learn two native words I would suggest they be "Hello" (or some other greeting) and "Thank you." You'll use them often and being mindful enough to say them will prevent you from looking like a jerk.

Even if you've got your little translator pulled up on your phone, it's still possible to put your foot in your mouth without even opening it.

Many cultures have hand gestures that mean derogatory or aggressive things, and you want to make sure you aren't unintentionally flinging insults left and right just by using casual western gestures. This website has a good starter FYI list, though there are many more out there. Try googling "(your destination) insult gestures" to see if there is anything obvious you should avoid. Hand signals that are harmless in America -- like "I'm O.K."-- are not cool to do in some other places.

Pointing with your index finger is a good one to avoid. This one may be hard to suppress, especially if you're in a place with amazing sites and want to yell "OMG look at that pyramid!!" Many cultures find pointing to be rude, or too aggressive if you are gesturing toward another person. Try directing someone's gaze with an open palmed hand instead, as that is viewed as more relaxed.

Dipping into verbal language for a moment, this is a good time to bring up a very good point gleaned from the comments section. If a person you encounter on your travels does not speak english, REPEATING THE PHRASE LOUDER WILL NOT HELP! SEE HOW ANNOYING THIS IS? AND I'M ONLY TYPING. You might try slowing your speech to make your words clearer, though take care not to attach a condescending tone like you're talking to a child. That could get irritating too. Maintain a normal speaking volume and courteous tone. Focus on key words the person may recognize or try to find a sign or object you can reference. Do your part. Look at your translation dictionary or the internet for help finding the native word.

Step 3: Photo Bug

Photos are a huge part of most peoples' vacations, but taking them at the wrong time or place can make you look like a huge jerk.

Observe your Surroundings. Are there any signs asking that you please NOT take photos in the area? Be respectful of those signs because sometimes there's a very good reason (flash photography might scare wildlife, for instance). Are the other tourists taking photos in an open and relaxed manner? You may witness someone sneaking a picture in a no photo zone and think maybe it's ok for you to sneak one too. In most cases I would say don't stoop to their level. Aside from looking like a jerk, you could risk getting hauled out by security.

Observe the Tone. Sometimes the sites of most interest are not the most joyful ones. The world has some beautiful cemeteries, war memorials, temples, and burial grounds that are worth seeing, but maybe not the most appropriate places to take selfies. Are the people around you praying, meditating, or visiting ancestors? These are not your moments to have. Do not take pictures of them. I'm not religious, but I understand that these practices mean something to other people and snapping conspicuous photos is obnoxious.

Consent. Consent. CONSENT! Ask a person's consent before you walk right up to them and snap a photo. Don't make someone feel like a novelty or talk about them like they are an object. You may be surprised who knows a bit of english!

Asking consent for a photo is easy, even if you don't know the language. Lift your camera slightly and smile at the person. Maybe nod toward the camera. If they smile back and start to pose, you're all clear to take a picture. If they go wide eyed and turn away or duck behind their hands or clothing, that's an obvious no-go. Some cultures do not understand photographs, and some people are just plain shy as individuals! Respect this and move on. Try asking a different subject later, or in a different setting.

On the note of selfies, do NOT make contact with artifacts, sculptures, or other objects that you are not supposed to touch. No ducking the velvet ropes, no sneaking in through the employee entrance, and no having your friend hold you up on their shoulders so you can take a photo where it looks like you're almost touching the peen on the statue of David. To you, this forbidden touch is nothing, but there's a very real possibility you could do irreparable damage to something that is thousands --or even millions-- of years old. Consider these cringeworthy examples wherein a worker fumbled and knocked King Tut's beard off or when Ke$ha put her entitled millennial mitts all over a real Triceratops skeleton at the LA Natural History Museum. Sidenote: I am very pleased to say I know the NHM employee who schooled her on Twitter about this.

Respect the art and the history behind what you're seeing. Take photos, but take them responsibly.

Step 4: Dining Decorum

Remember our talk about boiled goat heads? Well let's just say you decided to go to that location anyway, thinking weird food situations wouldn't come up. Let's just say it has. Your gracious host shoves a plate at you that is loaded with roasted grubs, blood pudding, chilled monkey brains, or whatever. What now?

Keep in mind that politeness is very important, and you DID say you'd try new things! Try to stifle any visible signs of revulsion you may be putting out before your host decides you're a jerk. The gross thing on your plate may be considered a real treat here, and you should try to honor the gesture if nothing else. You may find it isn't gross after all.

Unless the situation is so bad that you're literally vomitous, try a little bit. You could be surprised. Have a beverage very handy in case you need to wash it down quick.

If you tried but you just can't stomach the specialty, look for familiar fillers on the table; rice, salad greens, couscous, noodles, vegetables, fruit, breads. Here's a strategy you probably used as a kid: Load your plate, mix things around, and make it appear as though everything else was so delicious that you just couldn't possibly finish all those monkey brains. *Just make sure it isn't important in this culture to clean your plate! Your host's feelings are preserved and hopefully your insides are too. If you know the area well enough, maybe you can suggest you take your host out to dinner the next time and that way you have a little more control over the menu.

Speaking of stomachs, this is a good opportunity to remind you of the benefits of Ginger Root. I always carry some ginger capsules with me when I travel. Ginger soothes your stomach, which can help with motion sickness (boats, long car rides) and digestive upset. Ginger teas or candy will have the same, though likely less concentrated, effect. Not a bad thing to have in your toiletry bag in case some food doesn't agree with you!

Step 5: Snack Stash

I highly recommend traveling with a stash of protein, fruit and nut, or granola bars. They're easy to fit in the negative space left in your carry on and should get through most customs with no problem, provided they are still sealed. Protein bars are especially helpful while you're in transit because they keep you feeling full for longer. Just make sure you drink plenty of water so you can digest the protein properly.

Having a few snack bars stashed on your person will ensure you never get weak or cranky for lack of food. Cranky can sometimes translate into "Jerk", which is what we want to avoid. If you find yourself out sight seeing and start to stress about where to get food/ what is this food?/ I don't understand how much this food costs/ is this meat being sold off the back on an un-refridgerated street cart safe?, etc., take a moment and just eat a snack bar. It'll tide you over and maybe even clear your head a bit so you can make decisions you feel good about.

These snack bars can also come in handy if you've had to do some emergency food avoidance maneuvers, as previously discussed, and need something familiar to fill your tummy.

If traveling with children, remember to get them to drink water and eat a little something now and then, even if they say they aren't hungry. My mom and I found out I'm hypoglycemic the hard way (I thought a Wendy's Frosty counted as a hydrating beverage and I was wrong). Even a few bites of snack bar can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels. If you find your kid fading, try a salty snack as they can also give a boost to someone who is dehydrated. McDonald's french fries brought me back from the brink of disaster every time!

Step 6: Pacing

Observe the pace of your surroundings. If the locals are operating at a more relaxed pace than you're used to, try to make the shift and enjoy it. That's what vacation is about, right?

I'm big on efficiency and moving slowly usually drives me crazy. However, when you remove yourself from the western "GO GO GO!" culture, you realize how crazy that attitude really makes you look.

Simply put, there's no reason to speed walk or shove your way through a tour group if the vibe is decidedly a calm one. Save your energy for a dash if you're late for your flight, or something that really matters.

Conversely, if you find yourself in a very fast paced, busy environment, be mindful of where you're going (and what you might be blocking if you just stand there staring at your phone checking FB). If you're not confident moving through a busy scene, look for a sidewalk or other "slow moving lane" option where you can go to get your bearings without looking like a total jerk. When moving through tight crowds, keep a hand on bags or camera straps to help avoid snagging.

Step 7: The Tipsy Traveller

Imbibing can also be a major part of a person's vacation. You might do so because there are unusual things to try, or because it's cheaper (in the U.K. it is cheaper to buy a beer than to buy a bottled water), or because a drink is just part of certain meals in that culture.

You should definitely aim to have fun on your trip, but getting ridiculous, sloppy drunk can make you look like a jerk anywhere. I'm not trying to poop on anyone's post-college-European backpacking plans here. There are some good reasons to keep your drinking in check.

Drink with a friend or trusted traveling companion(s).This is really more of a safety issue than anything. If you go out alone and get totally blitzed, bad things can happen. Mild bad case scenario, you get turned around outside the pub and can't figure out how to get back to your hotel. Worst case scenario, seedy locals see that you're a mess and use that to take advantage of you. I'm not going to darken this Ible with the many stories of robbery and violence that you can find elsewhere on the internet, but know that those things do happen and get informed.

Drinking with a trusted friend or group may increase the chances that at least one of you will stay sober enough to read a map, flag a cab, or drag the others back to the hotel safely. It isn't a guarantee, but I definitely advise it over solo boozing when abroad.

Try to be mindful of your intake as best as possible, and read the room. If you're getting the side eye from people, maybe it's time to drink some water. If you get too loose you might accidentally start throwing around some of those uncool gestures we talked about, or simply get labeled a buffoon tourist. It's difficult to come back from that label the next morning when you all load on a tour bus to Machu Picchu together.

Step 8: Adventure On, Jerk-Free!

Now you have the basics you need to not be a jerk abroad! If you enjoyed this, please vote for me in the Travel tips contest and contribute any additional anti-jerk tips you have in the comments below!

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    105 Discussions


    18 days ago on Step 8

    Some extra tips:
    1-Never wear shorts because you will look like a tourist in most countries.
    2- The price of purification tablets its too big compared to bottled water. Search oniine if locals drink tap water or not. If they dont and you are staying at the same place for a few days, get a big jug of water and a big bottle of water when you arrive, then use that jug to refill your bottle each night. Also boiling water is easy at the hostel's kitchen or refilling at the hotel gym (theres always water int he hotel gyms)
    3-Put a safety cord on your phone and attach it to your belt/pants.
    4-NEVER say America to refer to USA (or Americans for only united-statecians). Especially int he rest of America. Remember that America is a whole continent from Canada to Chile and Argentina. You wouldn't say Africans to refer only to South-Africans or call every euriopean as French. Avoid trouble and involuntary insults.
    5-Do research a bit of history of the country. Historical resents last for a long time and you dont want to be dragged into a fight a cause of them.
    6-Go to a supermarket or grocery store for candies as souveniers.

    2 replies

    Reply 17 days ago

    That is an interesting point. I will say I had not thought to regard the entire continent as "America" because in school I was always taught that South America is considered its own continent (inclusive of the two countries you mention), and Canadians whom I know personally have always referred to themselves as "Canadians" and have never referred any connection with "America". "United-statecians" is not a term I'm familiar with, but if that is a term used elsewhere globally then that is certainly something worth being aware of for the reasons you stated. Sadly, right now it might be a little better to just say Canadian because internationally the USA looks pretty pitiful these days. My parents went to Ireland a few months ago and people apologized to them for "what we're going through".


    Reply 17 days ago

    What I find surprising is that united-statecians are not generally aware than the entire world knows America is the whole continent (hence why the Olympic rings are just 5 or how it is recognized in the organization of American States, the UN, etc). Maybe its like with imperial units. As for Canadians..well,t heya re as much Americans as Mexicans or United-statecians because they live in America, just like a German is still an European or a south-African an African. I think it has to do with the fact that in all languages besides english there is a word for united-statecian (Estadounidense, etatunicien..etc) . But it indeed is an important tip, after all, this can cause most initial reactions to go downhill for a traveler... which as you cay, it would be better for some to say they're Canadian :(


    4 years ago on Introduction

    "Lift your camera slightly and smile at the person. Maybe nod toward the camera. If they smile back and start to pose, you're all clear to take a picture."

    Just a note that in many parts of asia, street kids will happily smile and pose for a photo, then hassle you two blocks for payment afterwards.

    9 replies

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Hmmm....very good point there. I suppose that may happen even if you make no deliberate contact, too. My parents had a bunch of little kids following them around a beach in Mexico and when they realized my parents didn't have any cash to give one of them nabbed my dad's watch! I thought about mentioning more safety/ watch out for your belongings tips in this Ible but didn't want to go into territory where it seemed like I was presuming everyone overseas just wants to steal your purse.

    Since it sounds like you experienced this, do you have any tips on how to make bothersome hangers-on go away?

    This is a great instructable- lots of food for thought.

    The main problem is that Americans have a need to be 'nice' all the time. We say 'no' with a smile on our face. Not all cultures feel the need to sugar coat every public interaction. Sometimes smiles are reserved to convey actual emotion, not just 'politeness'. In places where this is the norm, a 'no' accompanied by a smile doesn't necessarily mean 'no'. To effectively communicate, sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zone and be 'rude'.

    As for safety and avoiding crime- be aware of your surroundings at all times, keep your head on a swivel and stand up straight. Petty criminals rely on you being distracted or appearing to be an easy mark. Seeing them before they see you takes away any element of surprise. Who would you mug- some guy with squared shoulders who makes eye contact as he passes or someone wandering along slumped over a map or a mobile phone, completely distracted?

    If you are a victim of petty crime don't waste time trying to file a police report. You are an extremely low priority to the local cops. A friend of mine was mugged in Amsterdam. He tried to report it to the cops. When they found out he wasn't hurt and he'd only lost a few guilders and a camera, the cop rolled his eyes and said 'Let me guess- it was skinny pale guy in a leather jacket and jeans?', which basically describes every junkie in the red light district. Don't waste precious vacation time on fruitless police reports- call it a tourist tax and get on with your trip.

    On the other side of that coin, if you ever find yourself in custody, don't expect special treatment because you're an American. I saw a kid getting dragged out of a local bar in Freeport as he screamed 'I'm an American! You can't do this!' I kinda giggled when one of the cops smiled politely and punched him. Never be that guy.

    TLDR- If a nail doesn't stick out it usually won't get hammered.

    marvelmxChuck Stephens

    Reply 18 days ago

    You just provided 2 very good examples on something to think.
    The first one is that you said 'American' and probably referred to only a united - statecian. NEVER say America to refer to USA (or Americans for only united-statecians). Especially in the rest of America. Remember that America is a whole continent from Canada to Chile and Argentina. Saying such will make you look incredibly arrogant and a d***, even make your direct target of vaiolence.

    And the second, related tot he first, its the attitude of thinking you are special. The example of someone screaming their nationality and saying 'you cant do this' will make things worse, always, because it will call to local international historical problems, some even recent.

    Chuck Stephensjlms

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    I said petty crime. If you lost a cheap camera and a few bucks, it's not worth the time.

    Just yesterday I read an interesting article about a Lakota man's observations about the invading European/ American culture (we're talking about back in the cowboy days). One observation was that excessive manners, niceties, and needless chit chat was viewed as not genuine. That's definitely how I feel about it!

    Great safety tips about looking alert --that's good advice for anyone anywhere!. When I walk alone even in my own neighborhood I make a point of looking very in command and like I know exactly where I'm going. Having been jumped once, I could probably write a whole separate Ible about personal safety for women based on the self defense research I did after.


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    There's always SOMEBODY in EVERY country who wants to steal your purse, wallet, phone, etc. - including in your home country! A bum-bag (fanny pack in American) is very useful, and only costs a few Pounds, Dollars, Shekels.


    Reply 18 days ago

    I would also add that to put it a combination lock too, jsut to be safe.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Learn a few words of the local language, including NO THANK YOU. Repeat firmly but calmly, escalating tone, loudness and irritation levels as needed. It works on unofficial bag-porters, 'taxi' drivers, street peddlers, begging kids, etc. Having a big heart is good and all, but once you give an inch they'll want a mile. Some friends I know used to pack candy and snacks to give away to street kids in lieu of cash (which usually gets taken away by a syndicate anyway), but they'll soon come swarming around you and you never know what else could go missing in the scrum.


    2 years ago

    I like to buy local clothing on arrival. I discovered in Thailand that being dressed like the locals (flip-flops, Capri pants and "Singha Beer" T-shirt) helped a lot.

    About clothing, in some countries, shorts, short skirts, tank tops are considered inappropriate. Sometimes there are places that you can't visit if you don't wear appropriante clothing : in Thailand again, you have to wear "closed shoes" to visit the King's palace ; you can rent horrible plastic shoes there, but believe me, you'd rather bring your own.

    Be careful with hair and beard, too. In some countries, a long beard could refer to a neofascist group (Chetniks in former Yugoslavia), Muslim fudamentalists, or just look cool. Tatoos may refer to criminal groups, too, like in Georgia (Europe) or Japan. Full-length clothing can help.

    In countries that were recently at war, you might scare people if you wear military-looking clothes. A Croatian friend of mine told me once that he didn't understand why we would wear cargo pants, as he had to fight in the war and just hated anything military from that time on.

    How you look like is a form of non-verbal language. Just like spoken language, an effort towards the local norm is much appreciated and open doors to you.

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    Fantastic thoughts! I wouldn't have considered these and probably just would have dressed for the weather, but i can absolutely see how certain sacred places may have requirements. Good point about beards and tattoos as well. They have become so common and fashionable in the west and we don't always know the implications elsewhere. Thanks for a great contribution!


    2 years ago

    My mother tongue is French. I work 15 year oversea speaking only English in Bermuda and I interacted with a lot of foreigner (Indian, British, Australian, Bosnian ...).

    My best advise to help them being understood is. (Even if it is only to ask for the toilet.)

    Speak slightly more slowly but naturally and ask the person that speak to you to do the same.

    In our native tongue the voice dip between each word, we do that without thinking.

    In a new language, our subconscious cannot find that dip when we ear it, or reproduce it when we speak it. The brain has to do the job instead. Speaking slightly more slowly allow the brain to do the job while keeping the flow of your ideas. If you are too slow you lose the track of what you want to say or what the other side want to say, same for your interlocutor.

    Perk: Your interlocutors are always pleased/charmed (if the opposite sex) that you force yourself to understand and communicate with them. They feel they are important to you.


    3 years ago

    LOL brings pink to my cheeks when I think of my faux pas! great ible


    4 years ago on Step 8

    Very well said! As a missionary, I see my share of cringe worthy tourists. One addition--ask your guide if to tell you if there's something you're doing wrong. Simply being aproachable can save him lots of embarrasment too.

    You're not alone --I was too! There were a number of a really great projects and I can only guess that it resonated with a lot of voters.