I always felt that it was extremely unfortunate that many people stereotype the American people and its culture by the actions of a few. There is no greater example of this than the concept of the "Ugly American", the perception by many foreigners that Americans are all arrogant boors who have no respect for other cultures.
I thought it was a totally unfair characterization until I witnessed this type of boorish behavior myself. We were seated in a lovely restaurant in Cordoba when a group of Americans came in escorted by the very gracious and accomodating Maitre d"hotel. We overheard them saying, "I can’t believe you don’t have a non-smoking section. We refuse to sit where there might be smokers!" Then this group had the nerve to go around asking diners if they smoked, until they found an area that they approved of. The Maitre d’ was extremely embarassed, but he let them take charge. These people were the classic "Ugly Americans" and they give all American travelers a bad reputation.
To all foreigners — We are not all like this! Most of us try very hard to respect your culture, speak your language and otherwise try to adjust to situations without confrontation and humiliation. Unfortunately, the conception of "Ugly Americans" is so ingrained that we must work especially hard for a long time to ever have a chance of eliminating the perception.
So how should we act? My strong feeling is that it all begins with language. All travelers should make a concerted effort to learn the language of the countries they plan to visit. This does not mean taking a course (although it may be a good idea in the case of Spanish, since there are so many Spanish-speaking people around the world, and Chinese, since it is rapidly becoming an important international language now that China is emerging from the shadows and participating more openly in the world scene). I simply mean buying a phrasebook or an audio-CD and spending some time with the language in advance of the trip.
Lee and I love to prepare by listening to CD’s in the car or attempting to converse at home. I am certainly not talking about fluency. No one expects that, although it is always amazing to me how many Europeans speak several languages. This fact, by the way, is related to the Ugly American idea, because the American culture seems to condone that fact that the majority of its citizens know only English. For instance, we do not require foreign language instruction in our schools until high school, at which point it is much more difficult to learn foreign languages.
My point is that foreigners will respect the tourist who attempts, however badly, to speak their language, and will label the tourist "arrogant" if they don’t even try. It doesn’t take much practice to learn a few basic phrases, but it always surprises me how many travelers speak to foreigners as if they were their next-door neighbors.
Another thing that you can do is to try the regional foods, instead of frequenting Macdonald’s or other American chains. To me, going to different country and eating American foods is another form of disrespect — it is a refusal to immerse yourself in the local culture. It would be like Chinese visitors coming to America and eating nothing but Chinese food — are they getting a taste of America?
As frustrating as sometimes is, another common Ugly American tactic is to ignore rules or restrictions at various attractions. Many places forbid photographs or at least flash photography at tourist sights, yet I see people doing it anyway. I can remember being extremely disappointed about these restrictions, but I understand that most of these restrictions are aimed at preservation and are important to prevent the deterioration of these attractions over time.
Thus, at Chichen Itza, when we were told that tourists can no longer climb the stairs of El Castillo, I was disappointed, because I had been looking forward to the climb, but I realize that this step was necessary for the "greater good".
Of course, it doesn’t help that, politically, our country defies the world, by becoming an "aggressor nation" and invading Iraq, and ignoring the Kyoto protocols. Our cowboy President is perhaps the "ugliest American" of them all!
In conclusion, to paraphrase a familiar quotation, when traveling to exotic places, take away only photographs and leave behind only footprints!