How to blend in when traveling is the wish of many, but how to achieve that traveler’s nirvana can be baffling. There you are, standing in line at a store in a different country thinking you look just like the locals, then the cashier takes one look at you, and addresses you in English. What?!? What about me is screaming, “Foreigner!?”
You’d be surprised. HI Travel Tales tries to blend in with the locals when traveling. It’s not always easy (OK, so blending in when traveling in Japan for us will never happen, for example), but there are most certainly subtle ways to not walk down a street feeling as if there is a loudspeaker on your head broadcasting, “Hello! American foreigner here!”
Learning how to blend in when traveling isn’t that hard really. Some of this will take a bit of prior research (ah, we love the Internet) about local customs and dress. That kind of research is just as important as what tourist sites to visit, so don’t neglect it.
Several of our “how to blend in when traveling” basics:
Dress neutrally – That doesn’t mean boring. It means neutral, plain. No super tight pants (maybe the locals do, but maybe you shouldn’t). No super short shorts or skirts (in some countries, no shorts or short skirts at all). Respect local customs even if that means covering up legs and arms. No American baseball caps screaming some slogan, or logo or epitaph. No T-shirts emblazoned with “WTF” or “Let’s get smashed.”… You get it. And that fanny pack? Leave it at home. Please.
Don’t let your footwear tell all – The adage of footwear-telling-all is not quite as true as it used to be. Americans were known for their athletic shoes (usually white) in all situations, which was considered pretty tacky. These days, you will find many other cultures wearing athletic shoes during the day, but nevertheless ONLY in casual situations and never ever shining white. Dinners out? OMG, no. Find some super walkable and comfy travel shoes you can wear everywhere. These days, this type of footwear can be a shoe built on an athletic-oriented platform that remains comfortable on easy hikes and very long walks too. Shoes from Lowa or Ahnu for example.
Speak (and laugh) quietly – This is such an important how to blend in when traveling tip! Your cell phone is not a loudspeaker, nor should you be. Americans have a reputation for just being loud. Period. You can pick them out in restaurants, on buses, on the street, a mile away. We just normally talk LOUDLY: “HEY MARTHA, DO WE GET OFF AT THIS STOP?” Instead of leaning over to your partner and saying (in your inside voice), “Martha, is this the one?” Inside voices please.
Silence your mobile (and yourself) – In most countries, I am always surprised that I don’t hear a lot of mobile phone rings. They tend to set the ring on very quiet or on vibrate so as not to disturb others. And please do not use one of those obnoxious oddball rings or have notifications pinging and binging for every text or email. And in other countries, the locals also tend to speak (mostly) more quietly when on the phone, or immediately get up and leave a room or a train car to have a conversation so as not to disturb others. Follow these leads.
Look at how you are standing – Look around, and you will see that Americans tend to stand very boldly and take lots of space – perhaps legs akimbo, kind of taking charge of a location or using a posture to announce themselves and stand out. We also stuff our hands in our front pant pockets and often slouch along. Now, look around where you are. People in most other countries do not seemingly try to take over a room with a posture, and they tend to not claim extra space with legs wide or hands on hips and elbows out. Perhaps that is because many are used to living in closer quarters and it’s just plain polite to share stay within your personal space.
Learn local traditions and customs – In some countries and cities, there are literally quiet times, often from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., with longer morning hours on weekends and holidays, and sometimes, quiet times at noontime too. During those times you are expected to not be, for example, sitting on your hotel balcony swapping loud jokes or cranking the TV volume. Check for these kinds of customs where you go. Also, don’t get angry when you find banks or stores are not open whenever you decide you need something, even if that’s midnight. That is tradition. Many countries have shorter retail and service hours, may not be open Sundays at all, or even evenings, and may close for longer mid-day breaks of two hours or more. This is not Kansas anymore so figure out what’s normal and go with the flow.
Share a table – We actually love the custom in many parts of the world of sharing tables in restaurants and cafes. No separate table for you available? No problem! Scope out some empty seats at another table where others are seated, ask if they are available and, if they are, say thank you (quietly!) and take them. All perfectly normal. And can lead to fun conversations too. Some countries may also have specific communal tables.
Learn a little of the local language – This may not let you blend in (unless your accent in five lessons is nothing short of remarkable), but it will help you get by and be treated more kindly. Try for key words and phrases: Numbers for shopping, polite phrases like “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me,” phrases for seeking information or help like “where is the bathroom” and “where is –fill-in-the-blank-.” And of course the word for “available” (see above).
Embrace your INability to blend in – Really, sometimes it just won’t be possible. When I traveled in Japan, my curly dark hair just hollered tourist. And in Sweden? Nah, not a chance for me. So simply be polite and try not to be the epitome of the stereotypical loud American.