On Being an Ugly American: Part 1

Are You an ‘Ugly‘ American?

Or Are You Just an Ignoramus? 

There’s not a one of us who’d want to be thought of as either. But sometimes, in spite of our ‘good selves’ we just can’t help it. Or can we?

Part 1: On Being Ugly

072 Ugly American









 Sketch by Ted Keller

1. Would You Shake this Hand?


OK, maybe not. But let me ask you this:

2. Would you claim this table in a restaurant as YOUR VERY OWN? 

042 Fruit de la Mer

In other words, a couple might simply plop themselves down right beside you at a table that is YOURS?

Would they dare to do so?

Would you tell them to leave?

Sketch by Ted Keller

Probably so. Understandable. Most of us think this way.

3. OK, well now, let me ask you this question:

move forward

Say you wanted to indicate to people to “STOP! dammit!” Would you simply gesture like this? Most of us definitely would.

4. And, finally, let’s say that you were setting up a business meeting with people overseas. Is that you sitting behind the big desk? Is this an image of equality that you would like to project. 


Well, if you were the big boss you might. But an ordinary meeting, I don’t know that many of us would really think that much about it.

So, after having asked these questions (and I could very well ask you a whole lot more) consider this: Do you think that you could conceivably be construed in any way as being an “Ugly American,” or, at best, maybe just an “Ignorant” or slightly insensitive American (or Canadian or Mexican . . . or what have (are) you)?


–And please do consider this–

First, from Wikipedia:

“Ugly American is a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home. Although the term is usually associated with or applied to travelers and tourists, it also applies to U.S. corporate businesses in the international arena.”


Let’s add to this some behaviors that WE might not necessarily think of as being offensive, unpleasant, ignorant, insensitive, or even dangerous. Yes, even dangerous! 

These could include actions or gestures that have far greater unintended consequences than you or I might ever even imagine!

They say “looks can kill” sometimes. Well, inadvertent, misunderstood actions and gestures CAN also kill! And you and I could very well be UGLY and not even have the slightest hint about it!

Now, let’s revisit those questions from above with this one caveat: Space, time, and human gestures are not all what they at first seem!

1. Back to the alien handshake:

Could a simple, friendly handshake between a human and an alien have a whole different meaning than that which we might surmise?

As The Travel Psychologist I have a healthy inquisitive interest in knowing, for instance, what a handshake means between humans from across our own planet Earth.

Does a handshake always signify the same thing to all of us from wherever we may hail? Put differently, if I, as a hefty southpaw lefty, would shake your hand with my LEFT hand, would you, say, coming from the Middle East, take kindly to my (assumed) ‘friendly’ gesture?

Or might you just assume kill me as look at me maybe? Did you know, for instance, that the left hand is often “the toilet” hand for many people in this part of the world? You know it now, if this is new to you!


I heard a travel story once of a westerner guy traveling on a crowded bus through the near east.

He had to take a wicked pee, and when the bus stopped, he, as well as the rest of the men proceeded to relieve themselves, but with this one difference.

This guy (well, not the guy in this photo, though) just happened to pee in the direction of Mecca.

He must have really pissed off someone on that bus, for he never lived to personally tell about it.

2. But this is MY table! You can’t sit here!


What is it about American culture that dictates that possession of a restaurant or cafe table is nine-tenths of the law? Where is it written that “Thalt shall own and proclaim thy possession of the restaurant table?”

It is largely written in the consciousness of American culture, though.

Oh, I’m not talking necessarily about the romantic intimate sort of ‘private’ dining table for two found at most fancy schmancy restaurants throughout the world.  No, most cultures seem to honor that tradition. People will not normally intrude on your tête-à-tête.

But in the case of relatively larger, more ‘public’ spaces and tables the characteristic European (at least) behavior is to consider that space as being ‘communal,’ and that it is okay to sit right down and share.

But, we Americans go “Oh, no, no, no . . . you can’t sit here; this is OURS.” Americans in such circumstances will get looks of surprise returned to them.


3. The Ubiquitous “STOP!” hand gesture:

When does “stop” really mean “go,” or ‘advance,’ or ‘come’? Hard to believe, but all throughout many countries in the near or mideast, our ubiquitous, ‘universal’ hand gesture to stop—often with a waving ‘away’ motion, signifies JUST THE OPPOSITE, namely, “Come here!” “Approach!”

Is it surprising, then, when towards the end of the Iraq war, a car full of Iraqis was mowed down by machine guns (and killed) when they proceeded through a checkpoint manned by well-meaning but very fearful American soldiers who were desperately waving their hands in the all American way . . . “STOP! STOP! or we’ll shoot.”

The Iraqis, instead, proceeded onwards, right towards the checkpoint, picking up speed as they went—acting “rightly so,” and duly encouraged (according to them) to do so by the Americans, who were desperately gesturing to them, “Come on. Hurry up! Move forward.”

InjuredIraqiHow many innocents had to die because of this awkward intercultural mistake?

4. It’s all in the shape of a table


Most people don’t give it another thought. And who among us, I may ask, after all, is or has been in charge of determining the seating arrangements around banquet tables—as well as even the layout, arrangement, spacing and SHAPES of the tables, themselves?

And probably less often, we are asked to consider similar things regarding business meetings we might be attending overseas.

I didn’t think much about it, either, that is, until I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the human psychological use of space. Boy oh boy was I about to get a rude awakening.


Consider this paragraph from the introduction to my dissertation (back in 1970):

 “The importance of spatiality to the existence of man cannot be overemphasized, for almost no conceivable human activity exists that does not in some way or another touch on the concepts of space, territoriality, and distance. The significance man attributes to these concepts is evidenced by the innumerable wars he has fought throughout the centuries over the acquisition and defense of territory, by the strides he has made in the spanning and exploration of extraterrestrial space, by his efforts towards solution of the impending problems of over population and overcrowding, and recently, by his vast expenditure of time, money, and lives during the time elapsed at the Paris Peace Talks [to end the Vietnam War] in the search for agreement over the shape and physical dimensions of a wooden conference table.”

 No Kidding! Countless lives were lost among combatants during the protracted time it took for all negotiating parties to determine the size and shape of the negotiating table! Imagine that!

Part 2: On Being Beautiful!

(See elsewhere in this blog)



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