Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Crossing borders is simultaneously one of the most important
and one of the most trivial things imaginable. It's trivial
because millions of people cross borders every day. In Western
Europe it's barely more complicated than driving across a state
line. Getting your passport stamped is regarded by many customs
officials as a nuisance. But crossing borders is very important
because once you cross a border, you become subject to all
that country's laws.
As a geologist, you may find yourself well off the beaten path,
going to countries not often visited by tourists or going to
areas not often seen, maybe even prohibited. You may find
yourself in contact with people who have never seen Americans and
who have odd ideas or serious misconceptions about Americans.
Popular American Misconceptions
- You have no immunity to some country's laws just because
you are a tourist or an American.
- The U.S. State Department has no power (and little desire)
to get you out of legal troubles in foreign countries.
Their job is to advance U.S. interests in that country
and Americans who run afoul of local laws just make their
jobs harder. They can assist you in getting legal help
and check on your condition. That's about it.
- The U.S. State Department will not provide you with
- There is no ACLU outside the U.S. (The "A" in
ACLU stands for "American") Police methods
range from pretty civil in Western Europe to pretty rough
in many countries.
- The Supreme Court has no authority outside the U.S. There
are no Miranda rights in most countries and very
little weight given to judicial technicalities. Anything
the police find by fair means or foul can be evidence.
Things to Avoid
- Never do anything illegal. This is too obvious to need
elaboration. Find out what's legal and what's
not. Ignorance of the law is no excuse anywhere in the
- Never joke with border personnel or foreign officials. In
many countries these are extremely high-prestige
positions and they are very sensitive to any insults to
- Never argue with them. If you must resolve a conflict, be
extremely courteous and tactful.
- Never show disrespect of any kind. These people have
almost unlimited power to make your life miserable. You
don't get to do anything until they say you can, so don't
do anything to jeopardize the process.
- Never use the expression "field work" in
describing what you do. "Work" connotes
employment, and sends up red flags about payment of taxes,
special immigration status, and taking jobs away from
- Never be patronizing.
- Avoid the extreme grubby or overly-casual look. "Hippies",
real and imagined, are considered pampered Western
parasites in some places. Knapsacks and backpacks arouse
suspicion in some places.
- Know what you can photograph. Even bridges are considered
military installations in some countries.
- Check out The Ugly American from the library and
read it. Then avoid acting like that.
- Avoid confrontations with local citizens if at all
possible. Get away from provocative situations as quickly
- Sex, alcohol and drugs are hot-button issues everywhere.
Things that are permissible for locals can mean big
trouble for foreigners.
- Speaking louder will not make English more comprehensible.
- Border zones can be sensitive. If your work takes you
close to a border, know the rules and get necessary
permissions and documents. And never cross a
border illegally just because it's a more convenient way to
get to a field area.
Watch for Surprises
- Don't be surprised if unexpected "fees" or
"surcharges" suddenly pop up, especially in
less-regulated parts of the world.
- How you're treated will depend on how you arrive. If you
have official sanction of some sort your entry may be
smooth, whereas it might be difficult, even impossible,
to enter privately. A good example is Saudi Arabia -
nobody goes to Saudi Arabia as a tourist - everyone
entering the country must have some official purpose.
Even Canada can be surprising. Driving into Canada means
little more than a quick border inquiry, whereas if you
arrive by plane, you are given a visa with a fixed time
- If you are part of a multi-national party, be aware of
the different requirements for each member. Field trips
have run into grief by driving to Canada or Mexico, then
having problems returning to the U.S. because some
foreign member didn't carry his identification. Elsewhere,
people of some nationalities may be refused entry to (or
worse, exit from) certain countries.
- Treat guidebooks with caution. Advice about local customs
may be out of date or not applicable in all areas;
phrases that work in some areas might not be acceptable
in others, especially if there are ethnic rivalries. When
the guidebook says to avoid something, believe it, but
don't be surprised if following the guidebook results in
strange looks. Find out what went wrong and make a mental
note of it.
- These days, film can get fried at security checkpoints,
even if it's in lead lined bags. Hand-carry film and ask
for hand inspection if possible. Or use a digital camera and
make backup copies of your pictures.
Don't Get Paranoid
- Most people who go abroad have a great time and come back
in fine shape. Stay alert to potential problems but don't
let fear rule your life.
- People around the world are aware that there are other
ways of life. Inadvertent violations of some local custom
(like showing the sole of your foot to an Arab) will
probably not cause offense if it's clearly inadvertent,
especially if you act quickly to correct your mistake.
These are learned customs; kids in the Third World don't
automatically know not to offer things with the left hand.
- Apologies work wonders in fixing problems
- Embarrassment is not fatal. Get over it and drive on.
- A sense of humor at yourself and at mishaps makes life
more enjoyable and earns you respect. But be very careful
about attempting humor when it concerns local customs or
- Know what to do in a terrorist action. Extreme hostility
and extreme submissiveness both act to make people
targets, either by appearing to be threats or weaklings.
The people who cope best in such situations tend to be
people who are alert, competent, confident, with a strong
sense of self-identity.
- Street criminals tend to target people who look confused,
helpless or inattentive. Alertness and an image of self-confidence
is the best defense.
- My wife and I narrowly avoided getting our pockets picked once. We were
with a local who saw someone acting oddly. I saw him too but didn't think
anything of it, but our friend looked back to see him talking to several
other people. When they saw they'd been spotted, they turned away. Moral: if
you see something odd in front of you, look behind you.
- In fact, make a practice of checking your back occasionally.
- There is nothing you can do to make yourself absolutely safe, but there
are many things you can do to make yourself much safer.
- Bottom line: be alert and aware but not paranoid. Your
best defense is to be the kind of person who naturally
Some Things That Can Help
- The more foreign languages you know, the better. The
reception becomes warmer the more obscure and difficult
the language is. If you're going to be anyplace more than
a day or two, at least learn to say "hello," "please"
and "thank you" in the local language. Also learn how to call
- If you must speak English, treat it as a courtesy on
their part to do so. Don't assume everyone can or wants
to speak English. The French have a reputation for being
unsympathetic to non-French-speakers, but I spent a
delightful day in Paris with a friend who practically had
people eating out of his hand. The magic phrase? "Excuse
me, do you speak English?" spoken in a respectful
tone, as if to acknowledge that it was a courtesy and not
a right. The results were incredible.
- The more foreign languages you know, the better.
- Know how the local phone system works. Don't be baffled by odd number
groupings. That's just how they group the numbers to remember them more
easily. There is absolutely no difference between 465-2246 and 4-65-22-46.
- Know what is sacred to people and treat it with respect.
For example, Turkey is almost fanatically proud of its
progress in the 20th century and the country's founding
hero, Ataturk, is highly revered. So, in Turkey, never
insult Ataturk or any national symbol. The same is true
in various degrees in many other countries. How would you
react to a foreigner trampling on the American flag?
- The more foreign languages you know, the better.
- Respect shows, and genuine interest is always appreciated.
These attitudes show through even if you don't share a
- Watch people's responses for subtle clues about how they
- The more foreign languages you know, the better.
- When I first saw this, I was amazed at how well it worked
as an ice-breaker. Get a small, pocket-size photo album
and fill it with pictures of your home, your family, your
pets, your home town, all the commonplace things you
normally never think to take pictures of. Add pictures of
other interesting places you've visited. Don't show it to
everyone, but in a setting where there's real interest,
it can be a marvelous communication device.
- Did I mention the more foreign languages you know, the
Keep a Low Profile
Americans are notorious for being loud and rude around the
world (Germans are next on the list). In my experience 90 per
cent of the problems Americans encounter in other countries can
be traced to body language. So don't act like a stereotypical
- Dress comfortably but conservatively. Leave the T-shirts
home (or bring them for gifts). Avoid loud shirts,
extreme shorts, and so on, or at least know where you can
and cannot wear them.
- Clean-shaven can't hurt, or at least neat facial hair.
This is not a place for punk hairdos or extreme styles.
- Keep your voice down! This is one of the
single biggest sources of problems for Americans. You may
be perfectly friendly, but a loud voice is intimidating,
offensive, or suggestive of anger. Speak in a moderate,
respectful tone of voice.
- Be careful about laughing or gesturing in public. A
perfectly innocent joke might be taken amiss if the punch
line is delivered in front of a statue of a revered
national hero or religious shrine.
A True Story
After I got back from my military tour in Bosnia, I read a
book of interviews with people involved in the peacekeeping
effort. The interviews were conducted after I left, so none of my
fellow soldiers were in the book. One Bosnian told how he had the
impression, from the movies, that Americans were loud, lewd, and
crude, and he was surprised to find them polite, hard working,
religious, and decent. This man had been our interpreter
and we were the people who had changed his image of
Americans. He was quite fluent in English and I had no idea he
had come to us with such misconceptions. You never know when
your behavior will make a strong impression on someone. How
we behaved will affect not only his impression of Americans, but
his childrens' and his neighbors', and that in turn will affect
Americans I never met, maybe who have not even been born yet. How
you behave in another country will have effects far beyond the
conduct of your own field work.
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Created January 11, 2000, Last Update May 30, 2003
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