Whether you want to believe it or not, the world is a dangerous place and it's more dangerous if you're an American. Globally recognized as loud, arrogant, rich and from a country that goes to great lengths (and price) to protect it's people, Americans are prime targets for theft, kidnapping, and other crimes. Americans are very easy to spot because we generally fail to give care to our appearance and will often look out-of-place in another country. However, through a little preparation and active decision making, even the most patriotic, big-mouth, red blooded American can maintain a lower profile while traveling.
Unless you accidentally get on a random plane to somewhere (highly unlikely), there's a very good chance you know where you're going and have known for a while. Most people will plan an international trip at least a few months in advance. Once you have a destination set, you can begin preparing for the trip, starting with researching the country you will be visiting.
Being American, we expect other countries to conform to us and adopt our customs. That is entirely false. While more and more countries begin to adopt aspects of western culture, most, if not all, still have their own prevalent customs and traditions. Failing to adhere to these customs and/or traditions is the quickest way to paint a big, bright target on your back. We will delve into a few different customary traits below.
Everybody has their physical traits; skin color, eye color, hair color, height, weight are all things that cannot be so easily changed. You may be of the mindset that because you are white, you will stick out like a sore thumb on your trip to Dubai. While you aren't wrong and while you may stick out, you can make choices to keep others from knowing you are American. When visiting a predominantly dark-skinned country, any light skinned individual is automatically a foreigner. That individual, even though they may be American, could just as well be German, Australian, Polish, Norwegian or Dutch. So don't assume that just because you are of a different skin color, that you are automatically at a disadvantage. That's not always the case.
How you dress is possibly the most important traits that you have control of. As Americans, we love T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, shorts and flip flops. However, most of the world sees all those items as clothing only worn for manual labor or for exercise and house use. In some countries, a t-shirt is attributed to hard work and is normally dirty from that work. The t-shirt was actually created as a working shirt back in the early 20th century and it is still globally recognized as just that. Jeans are viewed the same way. Flip flops are for wearing around the house and at the beach, not to the mall or dinner. Sneakers are what you play sports in, not what you shop in. Americans are very casual and most people of other countries know that, even the bad people know that. The safest travel attire continues to be a collared shirt with some khakis or slacks paired with some nice leather shoes, all while avoiding bright colors or any piece of clothing that could draw attention. Our definition of business casual is the global definition of casual. Do your research and understand what the local populous wears and be sure to pack those articles of clothing. Also, hopefully this goes without saying but I will say it anyways, DO NOT wear anything that bears the American flag or any other US or US city insignia, to include sports team apparel.
Customs of eating is different to each country. While some may use utensils, others may use chopsticks or even their hands. If I were to list all the different ways to eat for each country, you would be reading this all night so I will leave it up to you to research how people eat in the country you intend to visit. Also look up how they hold their utensils and how you should be positioned while eating the food. Researching and following these customs will ensure that you do not stand out as a foreigner, at least when it comes to eating.
Speaking will give away even the best disguise. Most Americans are known to be loud and obnoxious because we are arrogant. It is easy to point out a group of Americans because they will be the ones hooping and hollering at each other while having a good time. Quietness and courteousness is imperative to maintaining a low profile. Just as you would be drawn to look in the direction of a loud noise, loud people draw unwanted attention as well. Also, make an attempt to learn some of the language and practice with the local people. Most countries appreciate foreigners that attempt to learn their culture and language. Speaking in the local tongue could also benefit you when trying to keep a low profile abroad.
While traveling, never trust anyone. If someone confronts you and claims to be from the host nation's government or police force, ask for identification or proof that they are who they say they are. Too often, people will avoid conflict as much as possible and give into any demand without question. You must be cautious when interacting with locals. If you run into any legal matters or issues, many of the most popular destinations have some form of American representation, whether it's an embassy or consulate. Ask to be directed to whatever American personnel are located in that country or city. To go along with that, if you are detained by a legitimate police force, do not fight back. Be polite but retain your dignity. Do not admit to anything and do not sign anything you cannot read. Just remain calm and continue to ask to speak with the embassy.
Traveling and seeing new places is always fun, but only when done safely. As Americans, we are the big catch for kidnappers and thieves. Do your research on your destination and pack according to the local dress code, no largely branded clothing or sports team apparel. Learn some of the language and only speak when necessary and when speaking, keep your voice down to a close-range level. Travel light when exploring and only bring what you can afford to lose. Beware pickpockets who will often work with an accomplice to distract you while they steal your wallet. Keep all important items in touch and in sight at all times, never drape your purse or bag off the back of a chair. Research how the locals eat and adopt the same customs. Keep your eyes up and out of your phone to spot possible threats sooner. Travel with others, the pack is safer than the individual. Do not sign anything you cannot read and do not resist the local authorities. Know where your embassy is and ask to be put in contact with it if you find yourself in a sticky situation.
If you follow these simple tips and look up more, you will be able to have the safest, most memorable adventures possible.
My biggest source of information when writing this article was the book Escape The Wolf: A Security Handbook for Traveling Professionals by former Navy SEAL Clint Emerson. It is an easy read and anyone who intends to travel, internationally or not, should definitely check this book out.
If this information applies to you or maybe someone you know, share this with them. The more aware adventurers are, the safer they will be. Nobody wants to be a victim, but some people are unaware of what they are doing to put themselves in exactly that position.