With globalization on the rise and an increased need for cultural sensitivity, traveling abroad can be a make or break adventure, assuming you plan carefully and take some simple precautions. The benefits of simply blending into the culture that you are visiting cannot be underestimated. Doing so gives you an intimate look at the local culture that might not be granted to outsiders. Here are my 11 tips on how to blend in while traveling and getting the most out of your trip abroad:
Pack appropriately: Every item packed into your suitcase needs to serve a specific purpose and “being stylish” should only be secondary to the item’s primary function. Leave the clutch, flimsy shoulder bags, expensive clothing/bags and gold jewelry at home as these items serve no purpose and greatly increase the probability of being robbed. I highly stress that travelers should re-think any jewelry that they pack. A Chilean once warned me that dangly earrings can at times be ripped off (ouch!!!) if the thief thinks that they are remotely expensive. The point is to pack items and clothes that do not make you stand out of a crowd, scream tourist. Modesty is also a factor to consider when traveling to more religious and conservative countries. You want to blend in and be respectful of the local culture.
- Step out of white sneakers and into stylish, yet comfy shoes (unless your podiatrist requires special shoes for your knees or back). For foreign city trips (Paris, Rome, etc.) walking around in a nice pair of leather sandals or closed toed shoes makes all the difference. Nothing targets a tourist like bright, white sneakers (nowadays many Europeans do wear fashionable sneakers). Wear simple, muted clothes. When it comes to blending in, the clothes you wear are your first line of defense.
- Be culturally sensitive. You’re on foreign turf. Respecting local customs, culture, and services offered by this particular country is a must. Find out if wearing shorts in a church is acceptable or forbidden. When in doubt, cover your skin. I found this out the hard way in Spain in my early 20’s, when I showed up in shorts and a T-shirt to visit a Christian Church in Sevilla. I had to return to the hotel to get changed.
- Respect the local language. If a foreign word sounds funny or like a “bad” English word, don’t laugh. When someone is communicating in their native tongue in their native country, remember who the foreigner is. Even in countries where English is prevalent, some people may not speak it. Best not to assume they do and politely ask if they speak English. Most of the times, they speak better English than we do their language! If you’re going to a country where little English is spoken, accents or local phrases can still throw you off. Be prepared to speak clearly and think of simpler or different ways to say the same thing, so they can respond to you in a different way. It’s amazing how many things are lost in translation.
- Keep the volume down. Yes that could be funny like in restaurants in Italy, where the noise level is quite high, but in many establishments, the tables are closer together, because the places are smaller than what we are accustomed to, so it is polite to keep your conversation tones low, as to respect those around you. Unless, of course, you’re at a sporting event and the local team wins.
- Absorb the culture using all five senses. Breathe in the air, taste culinary delights. Step outside of your safe hotel and eat where the locals do. Do not ask the hotel staff where to go, they likely have a deal with a restaurant. Ask someone in a shop or just stroll the streets until you find an eatery filled with local patrons. Discover a tradition new to you but common to locals. Flamenco and siesta in Spain? Wine tasting in Italy? Venture off the main tourist trails, when not checking out the local must do sights. Try if you can to see some of the more unusual or out of the way sights.
- Read up on local customs. Gestures and greetings can be easily misinterpreted overseas especially if you assume that all signs are universal; they are definitely not! As a result, it may be wise to acquaint yourself with the local ways to avoid trouble. For example, in the 1950’s Richard Nixon visited Brazil and as he stepped off his airplane he flashed the A-OK sign to show the people his good intentions. Unbeknownst to him, that seemingly harmless gesture in the United States is also the equivalent of the middle finger in Brazil. I recommend reading books, looking online to get insights on the best local experiences as well as the things to avoid. The effort can help you avoid pitfalls, save you money or time, and make the trip more enjoyable. Other pertinent research topics could include body language etiquette, tipping customs for taxis and/or restaurants and proper manners when entering a house, visiting an ancient site and/or a place of worship. To top it all, always do your homework on important local laws so as to avoid some serious trouble. For example, eating in public during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia could actually land you in jail.
- Be sensitive with your camera in hand. If you take photos of people not in your group, be as inconspicuous and nonchalant as possible and also ask for permission. If you sense someone is uncomfortable with your attention on them, take heed and respect their privacy. There are countries were the locals do not like to be photographed because they believe you take their spirit away, and in some countries it is prohibited to photograph certain things.
- Locals in tourist towns, have a love/hate relationship with their visitors. Locals do often need the revenue that tourists bring, but it is like having an awful boss in certain situations–almost not worth the money. Finances aside, locals want neither to be treated like they live to please you, nor to be treated like you are doing them a favor by saying hello. Take your cues from them, and you will start to blend in. Always be courteous and remember you are in their town, city, country. In Italy or France for example, you should always enter an establishment by saying hello and when you leave to say goodbye. Also in many smaller stores, it is polite to ask if you can touch the merchandise.
- Plan your day out route before leaving the hotel or restaurant. If you have a sense of what you are going to do and how to get there, you will be able to navigate through your day with confidence. If you need to check your map, please do not stop in the middle of the street or intersection, so as to create a traffic jam. This can be quite annoying especially in places like Venice, where it can be crowded.
- Do not carry your valuables when sightseeing. Leave your passport, laptop and any other valuables safely locked in a locker at the hotel and only bring the basics when you are out and about in the city. Bring only enough cash for the day, an ID card (I use my Canadian driver’s license) and a small camera. Adopt a minimalist mentality; the less you carry in your pocket, purse or backpack, the less amount of valuables you have to worry about, allowing you to relax and have fun.
- Stay open minded. Tolerance is the key to blending in. When visiting other countries, you will experience other types of lifestyles unlike those you are accustomed to in Canada or the United States. Do not get frustrated if places shut down on Sundays or the service is slower than you would like it to be. If something frustrates you, which something will, take a deep breath instead of reacting negatively. Your complaints will not only irritate the people around you, but will easily label you as the obnoxious outsider.