It's the universal symbol of Americana abroad: the camera-slinging, fanny-pack-sporting tourist, clad in shorts, sneakers, unrolled socks and complaining loudly in English. Ever since the Pilgrims crashed the Wampanoag tribe's Thanksgiving dinner, Americans have been earning a reputation as boorish international travelers.
Even stars and diplomats occasionally drive home the stereotype with egregious behavior. Actor Richard Gere was issued an arrest warrant by an Indian court after laying a wet one on actress Shilpa Shetty at a charity event last year. And President Bush caught flack for giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel an impromptu shoulder rub during a G8 Summit Meeting.
Why so clueless?
"Most Americans are less exposed to diverse cultures on a day-to-day basis than other countries," says David Solomans, chief executive of CultureSmart!Consulting, which publishes guides and conducts seminars on cross-cultural etiquette. He says the American melting pot actually leads citizens to assume that most cultures share their values since, in the U.S., assimilation is the norm. "This causes what's perceived to be arrogant behavior."
But America is not the only nation of obnoxious tourists—not even the worst, it turns out. In a recent survey by travel Web site Expedia.com, Americans came in at No. 11 out of 31 based on a range of traits, including curiosity and tidiness.
The 4,000 hoteliers polled deemed the famously polite Japanese best overall, with the Swiss and Canadians tied for second. Near the bottom were the tight-fisted French, who lost points for rudeness despite their high score for "fashion sense."
Americans excelled when it came to willingness to try to learn some of the language (embarrassing for kids, but appreciated by locals), sampling the native cuisine and spending generously. Not so impressive were their politeness, tidiness, noisiness and, yes, fashion—all categories in which Americans ranked dead last.
So how can Americans improve their image abroad (or at least beat the New Zealanders next year, who came in 10th on this year's list)? Take the time to brush up on local mores, suggests Cindy Post Senning, a director at the Emily Post Institute and great-granddaughter of its namesake founder. "If you don't take the time to learn—or at least understand—the local manners, then you will come across as disrespectful," she says. Even reading the "etiquette" section of your guide book, however brief, is a good start.
Don't get bogged down in dos and don'ts, but bear in mind the overarching purpose of good etiquette. "Fundamentally, it is how we get along with one another," says Post Senning. "It doesn't matter where we live; humans are social beings. The way we handle social relationships matter. Manners are how we do that."
Etiquette, she says, is really a combination of certain principles (respect, honesty, consideration), while manners are "the tools we use to articulate those principles."
Manners change from country to country, but the principles are universal and timeless. So while it may be acceptable at some point in time to smooch a movie star in India or rub down a head of state during a meeting, making someone uncomfortable has and always will be a faux pas.
© 2012 Forbes.com