How to Interact with Locals Abroad
Generally, when traveling you’ll either be in a tourist area (such as Khao San Road in Bangkok) or a non-tourist area (such as the mountainous foothills of Bolivia).
In both types of area you’ll have opportunities to interact with locals, but it’s important to remember that in tourist areas you’ll be viewed slightly different (by the locals) than you would be in non-tourist areas.
Although this is a rather simplified way of looking at things, it should give you some idea of what to expect depending on where you are.
Meeting Locals in Tourist Areas
Most travelers/tourists (whatever you want to call yourself) will spend the majority of their time abroad in tourist areas (i.e. places where large numbers of tourists congregate).
In these places, the locals will be used to meeting and interacting with foreigners. Because of this, don’t be surprised if they’re less than friendly to you – especially if you ask them lots of questions about their area (which they’ve probably been asked a hundred times).
Remember that few cultures have the same views on customer service (and customer service ‘rights’) as the US does, so let go of your assumptions as to how people ‘should’ treat you.
Even when your interactions with the locals of a foreign country is based on a transaction (i.e. you buying something from them or paying them for a service), remember to be respectful and courteous at all times, no-matter how impersonal the experience might feel.
A lot of the disagreements and friction that arise between travelers and locals is to do with money. While it’s a good idea to not spend more than you have to while traveling, your spending is not something that you should obsess about.
I once witnessed a person lose his temper at a taxi driver over the amount of $0.20, yet he was on his way to a bar where he’d pay over $5 for a beer.
While it’s good to be consciously aware of the going rate of various products and services, remember that in a lot of countries the money you spend will go towards feeding a person’s family.
Meeting Locals in Non-Tourist Areas
In tourist areas, the native’s main interest will no-doubt be in your money. In non-tourist areas, however, the main interest of the locals will be in you.
In areas that don’t see many visitors/foreigners, your very presence may be the talk of the town. Children may stop in their tracks and point at you, teenagers may giggle and shout “Hello!” and elders may simply stare at you in disbelief.
Don’t be surprised if locals ask to have their picture taken with you. During my time in Singapore my friends and I were asked by a woman if she could take a picture with us. As she didn’t speak English, she ‘asked’ us by holding up her camera and pointing at it.
Unfamiliar to our own ‘celebrity status’ at the time (on the basis of us being foreigners) we thought she wanted us to take a picture of her and her husband. This was not the case, and before we knew it we were surrounded by her and twelve of her friends/family. Several pictures were taken (we managed to get one on our camera, as can be seen below) and hilarity ensued.
As you travel through such areas you’ll feel like a famous film star, as crowds will gather to watch you perform the most menial of tasks (such as eating breakfast).
Of course, some locals (particularly the more middle-class ones) will simply want to know your views on politics, sports and popular culture.
The best places to meet local people are typically in local coffee shops or bars (if they’re any about), as caffeine and alcohol often inspire people to become more extroverted and talkative.
Cross-cultural social interactions (and how you approach them) will differ a great deal depending on your gender.
Female travelers will naturally attract a lot more curiosity, attention and even harassment than men.
Rolf Potts (a lifelong vagabonder and author) has this to say:
“Simple friendliness and eye contact can be taken the wrong way by men in traditional cultures, and female independence is strangely confused with sexual lasciviousness in many parts of the world. It’s not fair, but it’s a reality.”
As a female traveler, be sure to read up on the dress codes for the countries you’re visiting (especially when traveling in Asia and the Middle East). This information is readily available in most guidebooks (such as the Lonely Planet series).
How to Bridge the Language Gap
As an English speaker (which you probably are if you’re reading this), you’ll find that English is spoken in most places around the world (in some capacity, at least).
You’ll often encounter locals who have some semblance of the English language, so communicating with them on a basic level shouldn’t be too hard (providing you speak slowly and clearly).
Remember that most locals will have learnt English from dictionaries and phrase books, so their pronunciation and choice of words might not be exactly right.
If you fancy learning the local language (or at least a few phrases), pocket language guides can be found at most book stores, and most guide books (such as the Lonely Planet series) will contain a few pages detailing the key phrases of the major language spoken in the country (or countries) they’re covering.
If you’re still struggling, remember that improvised sign language and facial expressions are something that everyone understands.
How to Respond to Offers of Hospitality
During your time traveling, you might encounter various offers of hospitality from the local people. You might be invited to dinner with the family or offered a place to spend the night, for example.
In tourist areas, offers of hospitality from locals should be treated with caution, as they may be a scam (or at the very least they might involve you taking a long-winded and slightly forced trip around a souvenir shop).
For women traveling solo, offers of hospitality (especially those in conservative cultures) should be treated with a large amount of caution.
Bizarrely, in my experience I’ve found that most offers of hospitality will come from those with what you might call a ‘low standard of living’ (i.e. poorer families/individuals with little money to spare).
In some cultures, hosting a wealthy guest (that’s you) is seen as a badge of honor, so by turning them down (possibly because you feel guilty as they have very little) or offering to pay for everything you’ll be insulting them.
If you suspect that the invitation is genuine and good-natured and you’d like to take them up on their offer, bring along a small gift as a token of your appreciation. Simple souvenirs from your home are great, but if you don’t have anything like that then stop by the local market beforehand and pick up something there.
Meeting local people while you’re traveling can be a great and rewarding thing to do, but this doesn’t mean you should obsess about it and compulsively seek out local friendships.
As Rolf Potts says:
“Let things happen. Keep your human interactions on a direct, person-to-person level, and don’t “acquire” these experiences like souvenirs.”
- Respecting Other Cultures – How to Avoid Offending the Locals
- Travel Safety Tips – Staying Safe While You’re Abroad
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