To the Jews I became a Jew.
To the Greeks I became a Greek.
That’s how to blend in in a nutshell.
Why learn how to blend in?
When you arrive in a foreign country, one of the following lines might be the first thing you hear:
- “Taxi? Where are you going?”
- “Ma’am? Sir? Do you need accommodation?”
- “Tour? Lowest price in the country! Sir? Ma’am?”
It can really change your first impression of a place. Can’t blame people; they’ve got to hustle. But it’s not necessarily the first thing you want to encounter. How can you avoid it, though?
If you’ve spent time in other countries, you’ll notice that people not only sound different because of their language, they sound different in the tone they speak. Not only that, they look and walk differently.
For example, people in the Nordic countries are culturally very quiet. If you start watching a video out loud in a public place, people will ask you to turn it down and expect you to comply.
But on the other hand, many Asian countries are culturally noisier. In fact, many people will celebrate noise and bustle as indicators of quality (for example of a restaurant).
Beyond tone of voice, people in different places dress differently and even move differently. You know that carrying a camera makes you an instant tourist. Walking quickly and purposefully in parts of South East Asia will make you stand out against the relaxed, lackadaisical pace typical there.
So why assimilate? Why fake it? One reason: so you can avoid speaking English in a foreign environment, and speak the language you’re trying to learn.
Other reasons you should try to blend in: to get better prices, to get better service, and just to get hassled less as an obvious tourist.
Here are some tips on how to blend in.
Watch people and copy their movements
The first key to blending in is to watch your surroundings and copy them.
Start by sitting in a café at a busy intersection. Watch what people do. What are they wearing? What are they eating or drinking? To whom are they speaking, and how? Are they smoking?
For example, in Egypt, we quickly noticed that men had really well-coiffed hair, and tended to wear plain, darker clothing. Facial hair is the norm.
When people walk in Egypt, they go without a care about anything around them. People will scarcely look about as they cross the road, assuming cars will slow down (which they usually do).
You can do this anywhere — just sit down, have a cup of the local beverage and watch, take notes and learn. (But don’t take up smoking just to blend in.)
Listen to people and mimic the way they speak
Firstly, get the right volume. If you’re in China, you may have to yell to get a waiter’s attention if you’re in a loud, busy restaurant. It’s not rude. It’s just ineffective not to yell.
In some places, people are quiet (northern Europe, for example). In some places — the more bustling parts of Asia or the US for example — you have to really speak up to be heard.
Secondly, get the right tone, intonation and accent. This applies to whether you speak English or the language of the country. When you listen to people, learn the mannerisms of the way they speak — the way they pronounce words, the pace of the language, the way it lilts.
If you speak back to them with the same pace and tone, you’re much more likely to be understood. Even better, if you’re speaking the local language, adjusting to the local dialect will help you build trust and confidence.
Speaking Parisian French only works with some audiences; with some others you have to adopt slang, speak with colloquial grammar and shorter sentences.
Formal: Est-ce que vous pouvez m’aider s’il vous plait?
Informal: Tu peux m’aider la?
(See our guide to formal vs casual French for more on that topic)
Finally, assume you’re being watched or listened to, and act like it. Keep a low tone (but not too low), don’t feel the need to yell at travelling companions in foreign environments and you’ll draw less attention to yourself.
Study an area map beforehand and walk with purpose
This is a tip from Newsrep, purportedly advice given to CIA officers. If you have time, look over a map in detail to understand the different suburbs and where to walk and not to walk. Before trips, don’t just look up the route in Google Maps; PLAN the whole route if you can, memorising intersections, crosswalks and where to go. Then, walk with purpose. Eyes forward, just absorbing your periphery. This is if you truly want to blend in. It doesn’t matter if you don’t mind being a tourist. But blending in means
- You are less likely to be harangued by people selling things to tourists
- You are less likely to be robbed or kidnapped (hey, it happens in some places)
- You are MORE likely to be asked for directions by other tourists (this happens! It’s pretty cool, especially when they try hard to speak the language)
Added bonus: When your data on your phone goes south, you’ll still know where you’re going.
Dress neutrally (or better, buy clothes when you get there)
It’s super tempting to take our latest hipster fashion on a new trip. Unfortunately, it’s a really easy way to stand out. Here’s a tip from Gray Wolf Survival.
Dress in ‘normal’ clothes. Pants, plain t-shirt, sneakers or flip flops. Don’t get the brightly coloured whatever, no matter how cool it is, unless it’s a trendy city and you plan to go clubbing. (I like how they put it… “Dressing for OPSEC doesn’t mean a disguise”.)
If you want to see what the norm for dress is is, look at Google Images to see how people dress (and if it’s a seasonal place, for this time of year). You can’t just google e.g. “Taiwanese people” though. You have to say “Taiwan subway people” or “Taiwan crowd” if you want a large snapshot to get an idea. Or in Egypt, do something like ‘Egypt street’. (Do a bit more reading if you’re female and want to know how not to stick out.)
Pro tip from them (and they’re a bit hardcore):
It may seem cliche but gray is a really good color to wear to not be noticed. Something like a gray hooded sweatshirt or jacket works usually because it’s usually common and can be worn over clothes that may be more obvious.
Something I like: get a local haircut. I looked about three times as Israeli after I let a local barber have at me.
Learn local courtesies as well as greetings
After years of living in Asia, it becomes hard to not do a few things everyone does there: hand things over with two hands, give a slight bow when you hand a business card over, and, oh, have business cards. Things that are invaluable to learn to blend in
- How to meet someone – you wouldn’t kiss hello in Egypt; in the Netherlands you wouldn’t want to kiss fewer than three times
- How to start eat – what’s the custom for sitting down, starting a meal, holding cutlery? (I never got used to Americans eating everything with one fork.)
- How do you pay for guests? Do you tip?
Final word: the “We’re informal” and “Local customs” contrast
I find an interesting contrast everywhere we travel. On the one hand, everyone has different customs to get used to, and until we get used to them, we would never blend in and risk offending people. On the other hand, every culture insists that it’s quite informal. Are they both right?