Testing Out Passport Psychology In The US

Filed Under: Travel

Last week I wrote a post entitled “Passport Psychology,” about using my US passport in Germany/Austria. I’m fortunate to have citizenship in both the US and Germany (both of my parents are German and were born there), so ordinarily I’d always use my German passport while in Europe. However, my German passport was in the process of getting renewed during the trip, so I was traveling exclusively on my US passport.

What I noticed — interestingly — is that even when I started a conversation in German, people would almost always respond to me in English. That never happened when I used my German passport, and I found it a bit frustrating. Even if I weren’t German and didn’t speak German well, you’d think people in the hospitality industry would be supportive of you making an effort to speak a foreign language, no?

Many people accuse Americans of being ignorant and not learning foreign languages, but how is someone supposed to learn a foreign language if they’re never given an opportunity to practice it? Clearly I wasn’t alone in that perspective, based on the comments section of the previous post.

So while I sort of ragged on Germans for that, I decided to try the reverse of it over the past few days. I’m back in the US and have my German passport again, so have decided to check in at hotels, airports, etc., with my German passport. I spoke English just as I usually would, and found the response to be sort of hilarious.


“Hi, checking in please.” The second I handed over my German passport, people consistently spoke reaaaaaally slowly and reaaaaaally loudly. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise — I’ve observed the same thing all the time at TSA checkpoints, but I wasn’t fully expecting that when speaking to someone in “American English.” In theory I can understand someone speaking more slowly to someone they assume doesn’t speak English well, though I’ll never get why people feel the need to speak more loudly, and almost yell.

I had a five minute hotel check-in late last week whereby the entire time the associate spoke really slowly and loudly. And that’s despite the fact that I always responded quickly and clearly. At the end of the conversation he told me “you speak English really good.” He was downright baffled when I said “thanks, I’ve lived in the US all my life.”

Anyway, I know this might seem random to some, but I’ve found it especially interesting to see how different people respond to different passports, and might just continue playing this “game.”

Has anyone had similar experiences using foreign passports in the US?

  1. A Holiday Inn employee once told me the story of his German ancestors when I checked in using my German passport. He even showed me his drivers license so I could take a look at his German surname. The hotel was in the middle of nowhere in Utah so he got really excited at the sight of a foreign passport I assume.

  2. I was traveling with my U.S friend who has dutch ancestry and has a Dutch name but is 100% American. We went to Amsterdam together and the customs agent looked at his U.S passport and his last name, and said welcome back to the motherland haha.

  3. Well, it’s not that bad. I get to speak German in the streets and restaurants in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I had hotel and hostel employees, the Deutsche Bahn Lounge, 1st class ICE on board service, the staff were talking to me in German even when I was struggling to find the long nouns and verbs when caught off guard.

    I’m not a native German speaker but I got to practice it in other places. Many thanks to years of German language courses.

    By the way, I’m of Asian descent with fairly tan complexion. Would have thought that would give it away as a sign that I’m a foreigner, but nope. They spoke to me in German…

    So, happy days!

  4. “You speak English really good.” Oh, the irony. Do Germans screw up their grammar as often as Americans? Using “good” instead of “well” is a classic example. The other one that drives me crazy is “and I” when it should be “and me” – or vice versa. I hear that one all the time from people who otherwise seem well educated.

  5. If English is not your first language, they will speak slowly, that way you can do your own translation in your mind.

    I notice you got an aisle exit seat on a 737, what happen with your upgrade? 😉

  6. As an American currently living in France, I do find it annoying when I try to speak French and then they respond in English. Luckily, I live in a pretty rural area, so not many people speak English (at least those over 50 most likely do not), so learning French has been much easier than if I were trying to learn it in Paris. People simply just want to practice their English, which can be frustrating when you want to learn and practice their language!

  7. US Passport, German mother and I speak German daily well.

    When I was stationed in Germany as a Soldier it freaked them out that someone in an Army uniform could speak German. I was once interviewed by one of the network news programs while in uniform and the interview was conducted in German. The next day I was walking to the local bakery to get some brotchen and a little lady stopped in from of me, pointed and said “You’re the American who speaks German! I saw you on the evening news! ”

    I got a big laugh out of that!

    Another time I called a restaurant for some takeout. When I picked it up the owner looked me up and down and said “You’re American! I thought you were Austrian! ” I guessed an American with a Southern accent speaking the Schwabian dialect sounds Austrian on the phone.

  8. @Endlos:
    You are wrong and trabel4b is right. In some cases, it is “and I”, in other cases it is “and me”. The vast majority of Americans think they’re smart by simply using “and I” all the time when in fact that makes them incorrect about as often as using “and me” all the time.
    To give some examples:
    – please send this letter to her and me
    – she and I were sent this letter
    You would not say “please send this to I”, therefore you should not say “please send this to her and I”. It is that simple.

  9. I studied German for a few years in high school and managed to remember some almost 20 years later when I recently visited Munich. I was at the Sixt counter at the airport and started speaking to the rep in German. To her credit, she didn’t even switch to English when I showed her my US passport, but when I stumbled over my words, she gave me the choice to continue our conversation in German or English. What was even better was that she knocked 20€ off the daily rate without me even asking!

  10. “Many people accuse Americans of being ignorant and not learning foreign languages, but how is someone supposed to learn a foreign language if they’re never given an opportunity to practice it?”
    Me being a German I can assure you, you got that part wrong.
    We do not switch to English cause of any dislike, we do it out of courtesy cause we know German is a really tough language to learn and most people struggle learning it.

  11. @Michael

    I agree! I also think a lot of Germans just want to practice their English, especially when you venture off of the tourist path most Americans tend to follow when visiting Germany.

  12. Good catch, James. 15D – Ouch! In fairness though, on US metal I would just as soon have an exit row as an F seat anyway for the leg room.

  13. What happens when you check in to a Swiss hotel? Do they speak Swiss German with you or assume you can only speak German German?

  14. Wow, I wish I could have problems as nice as this. Usually as a dark-skinned person of ethnic descent I find that I either get spoken to harshly, sometimes even shouted at, grunted at, grimaced at, and profiled regardless of the passport I present at check in counters. lol.

  15. When we were all over EU last summer everyone spoke to me in the native country’s language until I asked them in their language if they spoke English. They always looked surprised, but they always switched to English. I look like I could be from almost anywhere in Western Europe. I’m Italian, Irish, Scottish, German, and a little Dutch. I wish I spoke more than just English and broken Spanish though.

  16. As a white guy who’s lived in Japan and who speaks decent Japanese, the whole “You sounded different on the phone.” shtick never gets old. I call on the phone, speaking Japanese. When a 6’2″ white guy shows up, people are baffled. They’re like “Wait. You speak Japanese?” as though that were somehow the most impossible thing imaginable.

  17. I understand a little German from a few years of high school classes but can’t really speak more than a few phrases. Flying Swiss business recently I was asked in German whether I preferred the meat or fish appetizer. When I answered in English, the flight attendant asked me to pick German or English for how to be addressed for the rest of the flight saying he couldn’t continue in both languages!

  18. I hold a Chinese passport, and it is the only citizenship that I have. I noticed no special treatment after using such.

  19. Which passport do you report on the airline website when you book a ticket? Always the US one? It depends? I guess, is advance passenger information with exact name matching and all that stuff used by anyone other than the US?


  20. I too am a Dual citizen. German and American I was born in Germany and raised in Oklahoma.I am 50 and just got my German passport this year for the first time. I am excited to use it for the first time I can’t wait.

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