An American Abroad: Attitudes & Arguments

The average American has very high expectations for most things in life. We handle problems and disputes very differently from other cultures. We simply expect the best in everything and don't really know how to handle disappointment. We seriously use our egos to get whatever it is we want. There are those with aggressive personalities wherein our reputation proceeds us. There are those that flirt and prey upon others. There are generally nice people who simply have big wishes and desires. The risk in all of the above is that sometimes none of that works. Most if not all of the above behaviors don't fly in Europe. Disappointment in travel is inevitable and it should be the one thing to expect and prepare for. The true test is how you handle the snafus when they come. You actually do have options and choices.

So here are some popular bad scenarios. If your food isn't right you send it back. If someone states a problem you argue it out. If you don't like someone you can cop an attitude. If you really want something or someone you may flirt. If you want to show appreciation you tip. Theres also people who never tip. There are some people who bribe. We argue, tip/bribe, have an attitude to re-route our expectations so we ultimately get whatever it is we want. How does one get a point across when nothing like this is tolerated? Well we must train ourselves not to do the above and know our choices. There is negotiation. There is assertiveness/confidence. There are manners. There are apologies. Even in a situation where there is a language barrier - negotiation, assertiveness, confidence, manners and apologies are all universal i.e. feeling before you think especially out loud. 

Americans also use a lot of unidentifiable slang and idioms to express themselves and most Europeans don't clue into such nonsense. I recently told someone from overseas that I worked "for the man". That person asked me who "the man" was over and over again. I realized they truly didn't understand the saying. So common American phrases and sayings i.e. what have you - they just don't work. If you know a language well enough to get your point across by all means use it. However, if you don't know the language well enough to argue effectively don't attempt to butcher it. It would be far more effective to speak in English literally and clearly. You want to enunciate and do so without speaking loudly. The last thing you want to convey in a bad situation is a lack of compassion. Regardless of the offense, you should always be attentive to your subject and making sure they are understanding of your position. 

So what exactly can be a bad situation while traveling? Well you could have an error in travel arrangements - bad seating on a train or plane or be given poor directions. You can wind up in a dispute with your accommodations - a room without a view or a lengthy wait for assistance. You can simply be unaware of certain customs like not receiving your check in a timely fashion in a restaurant or like I experienced getting a bad drink. Always remember as an American you are expected to want certain things, be demanding or simply rude. If you are aware of that you will want to curb that behavior. Seriously, if you think about it we are a very wound up tight sort of people. In other cultures, what we think may be serious is quite lax elsewhere. We also tend to be overly friendly and social so in some places when we really have to respect peoples personal space. So things like leaning in to make a point or yelling across a room are really taboo. 

Honestly the internet cured most problems for me. The bank app took care of my financial disputes. The app SeatGuru helped me changed my plane seat while in route. I had Google Translate and a Unit Converter. I rarely had to discuss something I didn't like. I played a lot of charades in France and that was to get something I couldn't describe in French i.e. toilet tissue, a bottle opener. That was perfectly acceptable and usually followed by the proper wording for whatever it was I needed. There was the one time I was unhappy with my pillows. Well two times. However, I never had to raise my voice to fix them. I never yelled or argued in any establishment. I also never attempted to start a conversation I could not finish. In other words, I could order a meal completely in French or Spanish. However, I never attempted that in Italy because I knew nothing of the language. I immediately learned how to say good morning, good evening, please, thank you and excuse me for each country. Why? Because manners supersede everything, anywhere. Most times a proper introduction allowed a person to offer speaking English or simply state that they didn't speak English. This sounds way better than starting off by saying … "I'm American and does anyone speak English!?" In frustrating situations like getting a SIM card people that were willing to help did exactly that. Sometimes it was more about getting another agent that could help versus starting an unduly argument with someone who couldn't or refused to. I'll admit traveling as a minority, especially as a Black woman is even harder to do. 

People expect us to always start an argument over every little thing. Our own society expects Black women to be loud, boisterous and angry. So what makes you think the stigma doesn't travel? We must learn to deflect the stigmas in every situation, everywhere. There is the standard behavior listed above and there is the cartoonish satire of us rolling our eyes and yelling with our hands on our hips. This sort of image is really ugly and most of us don't partake in it. Everyone knows what is right and wrong and we also know the proper place for certain behavior. I myself can admit to being loud and using more expletives than a sailor. I can also admit to being an avid finger pointer and neck roller. Sometimes I have to tell myself to simply use my words. I realized very early on in France that it was far easier to express oneself audibly than physically. It is also way easier to get ones point across by speaking in a "discerning" tone. Besides there are certain movements and gestures that are considered highly offense by certain cultures. So if you know that you'll become animated when ticked off try to sit on your hands or put something in them - preferably not a knife! 

Looking back, most disagreements I had abroad were with her. Most of them were held in the confines of our hotel room or in a private space versus a public place. I don't think we ever became the type to follow every sentence with a B word, finger point or clap hands. This never happened in private or in public. We are both not those types of women. In fact, we would only do that to make fun of someone we knew that did it. I can easily say despite the problems we remained quite respectable and anything ugly was written not audibly said. Maybe the cool of being around people that just didn't do that wore off. I can't speak for her but when I returned here I was a lot more chill. Years ago I read "Eat, Pray, Love" and it really mellowed me out in general. However, world travel has made me quite passive. I feel like I survived two months without a customer service spat or what us Americans might call "a bad day". I've actually refrained from being bitchy about most everything. There is so much more to life and I wish she could have seen that in the moment. I really hope she shares the same sentiments now. 

Please note I'm not asking for you to always prepare yourself for the worst. That is such a negative statement. I'm simply saying there is always the potential for bad things to happen but you never have to let them ruin you. You should set out each day in that mindset. Do that now before, during and after you travel. You can actually get to and from faster if you don't speed. You can actually get your to-list done when it isn't considered a chore - I highly recommend the app Clear. It is way easier to be nice and way harder to be mean. Always consider what may be important to you but not vital to others or vice-versa. So diffusing this potential is as easy as feeling before you think. You should feel the emotions of the other person and the position they may be in. You also want to be aware of perceptions and what you bring. So for now think about your overwhelmed waitress at dinner rush or the lone teller at 4:55pm or the person behind you with one item at the grocery store. In all of these scenarios you can be nice. When abroad consider the baker with lots of lookers, the barista at 4pm and the front desk agent speaking one language in person, another on the phone and you showing up. In these scenarios you can feel everyones pain and continue to be nice, in any language. If I had chose to think and blurt out whatever I wouldn't have lasted 53 days in Europe. I wouldn't have remained in the company of her. I wouldn't have had some great experiences. I would have been that pissy American or better yet that angry, Black woman. Everything is a choice. I chose to stick around and be nice which sometimes means you don't win at an argument, go inside to pay the check or see three different agents to buy a train ticket. Now I choose to have no battles at all. I let the waitress take care of everyone, I don't even go inside the bank and I always let the person with just milk go in front of me. Try it sometimes. 

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