I’ve been traveling for nearly four months now and have really gotten used to being a tourist. In many ways, I think it’s brought out some of the better qualities I have been trying to incorporate into my daily life back home but have found so difficult to do. And why is that? Because with almost every interaction I remind myself that I am not just representing myself, but rather, my gender, my ethnicity, and my country. These are all things that cross my mind on a daily basis when I’m back at home, but I have become hyper aware of each of these facets of my existence while traveling abroad. At home in San Francisco, it had become so easy for me to be lazy about what my interactions meant. Yes, I have always tried to say “please” and “thank you,” but simple acts of politeness such as these often fell by the wayside whenever I was in a bad mood, in a rush, or just having an off day.
I always want to be the best traveler I can be, i.e., someone locals actually want to have in their city, town, or country. Living in one of the most-visited cities in America, I come face-to-face with tourists on a regular basis but I never stopped to think about what would make me want to have me in my own city. After traveling for this long I have had time to think and reflect on this very question.
Read on for my tourist etiquette tips for being the kind of tourist locals actually want in their country.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Unless your assumption is that you don’t know what you’re doing. Hubris is one of the worst qualities a human can possess, but when you see a foreign traveler behave with hubris, it makes you cringe. We all make the mistake of assuming we know facts and information when we don’t, but the consequences can be even more serious when you’re in a foreign country with a language and customs different from your own. For example, you may assume you only need to get to the airport an hour in advance because that’s what you do back home. Or maybe you don’t think you need a passport to mail a package of goodies home when, actually, you do. Or perhaps you think it’s okay to wear your shoes inside a home when that, it turns out, is seriously frowned upon. Incorrect assumptions often lead to embarrassing snafus that can be avoided by simply doing your research and asking questions in advance.
The best way to navigate a foreign place and endear yourselves to the local population is to talk to them. Ask questions about their lives. After all, everybody likes to talk about themselves. Asking questions can give you interesting information about someone else’s culture, as well as practical information about how much things should cost, what potential dangers to look out for, when a site tends to be super crowded, alternative places to visit that most tourists don’t know about, etc.
Trust That Strangers Might Just Be Trying to Help
Realizing you’ve been taken advantage of is incredibly frustrating. It bruises the ego, often costs you more money than you should have spent, and sows seeds of distrust between you and the local population. As much as I hate to say it, if you’re traveling for long enough, someone will pull a fast one on you, and it will hurt. But that doesn’t mean every person who offers to lend a helping hand is trying to take advantage. Being constantly guarded and suspicious while traveling is the quickest way to ruin your trip. When I was in Vietnam, I hopped on the scooter of a total stranger and rode through town in search of a specific type of street food that I never would have found if I hadn’t taken a chance. So have a little faith!
I hate when people tell me to do this but: smile! You’re traveling and that is awesome! It can be so easy to keep your guard up when you’re in a foreign place, and of course, that is the prudent thing to do. But just because you project an open, welcoming attitude doesn’t necessarily mean you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. Depending on where you travel, it’s important for women to understand what a smile may mean, but if you haven’t read any warnings about it, why not go for it? You may even make some friends.
Be Forgiving and Move On
When things get lost in translation, mistakes get made. Sometimes it’s impossible to know whose fault it is. And most of the time it doesn’t even matter. In all likelihood, the mistake isn’t huge and can be remedied with a little additional work. Remember: it takes two to tango. So if there was some kind of miscommunication, don’t blame it on the local whose language you don’t speak. Who knows? You may have subconsciously used lingo or slang that anybody back home would understand but that just doesn’t translate in a foreign country. It’s better to accept it and move on. Besides, you have more important things to focus on, like making the most of your trip.
This may be a uniquely American thing, and I may be particularly sensitive to this because I come from a large, gregarious family in which people often had to speak at an elevated volume in order to be heard. But after interacting with so many people from different countries across three continents I can say with some level of certainty that Americans tend to be louder than other people. And it can be a bit off-putting. Personally, I have been trying to lower my voice for years and I just haven’t been able to—until now. There is something about being in a foreign country that has made me more mindful of the volume of my voice. This is true despite the fact that I haven’t been to a single English-speaking country yet, meaning most people can’t understand what I’m saying. This is something I only realized I’d started doing about a month into my journey, and I noticed that people have tended to find me more approachable and I have had more meaningful conversations as a result.
People say travel changes you. For the longest time, I didn’t really believe them. But what I have come to realize after weeks and weeks of inhabiting other people’s spaces and communicating with wild gesticulations instead of actual human speech is that traveling in foreign countries where I don’t speak the language or understand local customs has changed me. Dare I say, it’s brought out the best in me. Each of the qualities above is one that I have been working to cultivate in myself for ages back home and have struggled with. I think it’s because it’s too easy to be lazy when you’re comfortable, and traveling makes you keenly aware of how others perceive you. [tweet_dis excerpt=”Isn’t the best version of yourself the kind of person you would want in your own hometown? #travelthoughts”]And isn’t the best version of yourself the kind of person you would want in your own hometown?[/tweet_dis]
What are your tips for being the kind of tourist locals actually want to visit? Tell us in the comments below!