Everyone sticks out somewhere. If you're exploring a place where you don't look like most of the other people, assume you're doing this whole travel thing right. But there are benefits to blending in, too, even when your height, hair or skin color, gender, or other physical traits set you apart. Because really, how you look is only the most obvious way you're standing out. There are plenty of other things—clothing, body language, social codes—that can help you blend in more, even if no one is ever going to mistake you for a local.
Learn a Few Words
Learning a few niceties in another language takes a bit of time and courage, but it makes a huge difference. A greeting in the local parlance paves the way, and often simple words like "excuse me," "please," and "thank you" forge connections with those around you. Anecdotally, I've found the more different you look than those around you, the more impressive these niceties seem. I recently surprised an old woman in Myanmar with a friendly greeting of "mingalaba." She responded, then looked up, saw my face, and clapped with delight. It was a wonderful, memorable moment for both of us, brought about by the smallest of social exchanges.
You don't need to cart a suitcase full of the local garb to embrace cultural norms in your destination. You need only pay attention to three key elements: the degree of coverage, common fabric colors, and how form-fitting the local dress tends to be. Match your travel wardrobe in those three ways and you'll be golden. And if you do want to buy a shalwar kameez in India, a longyi in Myanmar, or the local dress in your destination, you'll likely find enthusiastic sellers and tailors to help you take that next step.
Respect Social Norms
How far should you stand from the person you're talking to? How do people greet each other? What topics are taboo? And how much eye contact is too much eye contact? Familiarizing yourself with basic social norms is key to blending in where you stick out, and there are plenty of great resources to help you on your way. I'm a fan of the Culture Smart book series, and many guidebooks include information about cultural norms as well. Beyond that, you'll find an impressive number of message boards (think Lonely Planet, Frommer's, TripAdvisor, and the like) on which people are asking and answering questions about appropriate cultural behavior for nearly every country on earth.
Brush Up on Local Customs
Once you're familiar with social norms, you can delve deeper and brush up on local customs. Customs can vary between cities and regions, so you'll want to know how the locals do things in your destinations. Should you haggle at the market? Or say hello when you walk into a store? When entering a restaurant, should you sit down or wait to be seated? Learn the basics and find yourself in the know when these situations arise.
Mind Your Manners
Mealtime is a language unto itself. In Japan, your chopstick placement speaks volumes, and even how you hold your rice bowl carries significance. In most of India, eating with the left hand is considered unacceptable. At bars in parts of Spain, you throw your napkins on the ground when you're done with them. Since food customs tend to be deeply rooted in the culture, they don't necessarily make a ton of sense to first-time visitors. So reading up or asking around should be your first line of defense in the battle against making a fool of yourself at the table.
Sometimes the subtleties of blending in are easiest to observe in person. When in doubt, stop and look around and see what locals are doing. A quick study of the world in motion can tip you off to all sorts of things—how to cross the street, how to wait in line (or if there's even such thing as waiting in line), or how to select fruit at a market. You're the traveler, and locals are the map.
Turn it Down
According to at least one study, Americans aren't, in fact, the world's loudest talkers. But, we're also not a quiet people, and that fact of volume tends to make us stand out in other countries. So if you're a loud-talker by nature (no shame in it; another recent study named loud talkers as professionally powerful folks), take note: Turn down the volume on your conversations; it's an easy way to blend in.
Adjust Your Social Volume
Culturally, North Americans have an ebullience that people in other parts of the world find … overwhelming. Showing great numbers of teeth to express pleasure, wrapping ones arms around another person and squeezing to say hello—to most of us this just seems friendly. But in much of the world, it's simply too much. So before you travel, brush up on your international body language and consider lowering your social volume, at least with strangers in foreign lands.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Authentic Ways to Travel Like a Local
- How to Snack Like a Local in Europe
- How the Sharing Economy Opens New Doors for Travelers