To the Jews I became a Jew.
To the Greeks I became a Greek.Source/reference: Donovan Nagel.
That’s blending in in a nutshell.
Why learn to blend in?
You might also be familiar with these being among the first things you hear when you arrive in a foreign environment:
- “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 (and it’ll work eventually, I see it all the time). 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 an example of one of the quietest places in the world, right now we’re on a cruise liner crossing the Baltic Sea (with better high-speed internet than I had in the Mission in SF… go figure), and nobody is making a sound. Someone turned a TV show on on their laptop, and an attendant made them turn the volume down.
Beyond tone of voice, people dress differently and even move differently. You know that carrying a camera makes you an instant tourist. Walking quickly and purposefully (especially if wearing fancy clothes) in Malaysia will make you stand out against the relaxed, lackadaisical pace typical there.
So why assimilate? Why fake being an Arab, as I suggest we’ll have to do? One reason: so people speak to us in Arabic. Many reasons.
- So people speak to us in Arabic (or any language). Don’t you hate it when you try to speak a language in a foreign country, but everyone replies to you in English? It makes me feel terrible. Assimilation is a simple fix for that.
- So we get better prices. Ask the price in Arabic, and I almost guarantee you’ll get a better price than in English. Total investment: maybe 30 words for basic price negotiation. Total reward: not much in monetary terms, but a LOT in satisfaction.
- So we just get hassled less. In some places you just get hassled a lot as a visitor. Blend in, and get it less.
Here are a few things I’ve seen people write about blending in.
Watch people and copy their movements
Benny Lewis wrote in his article “Walk Like an Egyptian” talked about the importance of assimilation and how it affects everything from the way people treat you and the level of conversation you can make. My favourite bit is how he plans his assimilation.
I sat on a stool in a café at a busy pedestrian intersection, endured the fact that most people there were smoking, and tried to see what makes an Egyptian “Egyptian”, especially in comparison to how I looked and for men around my age.
Most of them have really short hair, some have a moustache (not a goatee like me), and many look like they haven’t shaved in days. Jeans with a sweater is the norm, or a light jacket over that, and shoes are more likely to be black or brown generic looking shoes, rather than sneakers (runners as we call them in Ireland), and certainly nothing as colourful as what I had. Sandals would also work.
He also goes on to talk about the way people walk.
A ridiculous number of them walk across busy intersections while sending a text message or talking to someone, keeping their eyes straight ahead rather than looking left and right. And of course they nearly always have a cigarette in one hand.
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 have to yell to get a waiter’s attention if you’re in a loud, busy restaurant. It’s not rude. It’s just stupid not to. You’ll actually stick out as the foreigner if you DON’T yell. (I know!)
In some places, people are quiet (Scandinavia, in particular). 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, you learn the mannerisms of the way they speak – the way they pronounce words, the pace of the language, the way it lilts – and if you speak English 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 adapt slang, speak with colloquial grammar and shorter sentences.
Est-ce que vous pouvez m’aider s’il vous plait?
Tu peux m’aider la?
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. Sounds obvious, but we see so many loud tourists from all over the world, I just wonder how obvious it is.
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?