No man is an island, but sometimes when you're traveling, it can feel like it. Mannerisms, timing and dress can set you apart from the local population, making it difficult to successfully immerse yourself in a new place. Yet with a bit of research and some strategic adjustments, you can easily find ways to blend in, rub shoulders with locals, and become a true piece of the continent you're exploring.
Dress the part
To blend in, you'll need to look the part. Before you pack, have a bit of fun scouting online for current dress norms and styles in your destination. Find local street-style blogs, search photo sites like Flickr using location tags, and browse country etiquette guides, which usually mention dress codes. Even when you can't quite pull off local dress, say because you don't have a salwar kameez on hand, you can make sure to dress in the spirit of the destination. Is modesty prized above all? Then leave the shorts at home. Do people take a lot of pride in their appearance? Up the formality quotient.
Adjust your volume
Americans tend to be loud talkers. Maybe it's all our wide-open spaces or our general exuberance; whatever the reason, our volume tends to distinguish us from the locals in many destinations. Turning it down a notch when you speak not only allows you to blend better but also limits the distance at which locals can identify that you're speaking a foreign language. Loud and proud but still yearning to blend in? Take heart—there are plenty of countries where loud talking is the norm. Find the right country and you can turn it up to 11 without drawing sidelong glances from locals.
Read up on the customs
Whatever you do, don't point with your index finger in the Philippines. Or give a thumbs-up in Greece. Or touch anyone on the head in Thailand. There's no faster way to call attention to yourself as a clueless foreigner than by stumbling into a cultural faux pas you could have easily avoided by reading up on local customs. Not only can a quick primer on body language, hand gestures and greetings keep you from unwittingly offending those around you, it's also a perfect window into your host culture.
Go at the pace of your destination
As a long-time fast walker who has spent time in some pretty relaxed destinations, I can attest that moving at a different speed than the population you're surrounded by can make you look not just out of place but downright crazy. As you get a feel for a new place, take time to notice the speed at which life is conducted. You may need to speed up or slow down, but the payoff is big. Because it's only when you're walking, talking and living at the speed of the culture that you can properly appreciate its unique rhythms.
Avoid tourist gear
Yes, you want to be prepared, but no, you probably don't actually need a water-bottle holster, a vest covered in external pockets, or a fanny pack brimming with guidebooks, energy bars and hand sanitizer. If blending in is a priority, take a hard look at your go-to travel items before you pack, and weed out any that scream "tourist!" Travel gear has come a long way in recent years, and there are plenty of ways to stow what you need to have on hand without looking like a backcountry hiker who accidentally wandered into the middle of the city.
Be open to the new
In most parts of the world, you're likely within meal distance of a McDonald's. And by sticking to chain hotels and tourist traps, travelers can easily keep the unfamiliar at bay in foreign countries. But you clearly aren't that person. You travel to embrace the new, right? So consider this a reminder that when you're open to the unfamiliar, you let the world in. And if it turns out that something—perhaps entrail stew, or someone standing so close to you while talking that you can see every pore—is out of your comfort zone, you can always find a way to excuse yourself that's both polite and unobtrusive.
Get off the tourist track
The tourist track has plenty of benefits—among them world-class museums, an abundance of novelty T-shirts and food that at least borders on familiar for homesick foreigners—but in heavily touristed areas, you're unlikely to get the chance to blend with locals because there won't be any. For the opportunity to walk among those who actually live in the place you're visiting, you'll need to meet them where they live, eat and play.
Find the locals
Once you've resolved to walk among locals, the next step is figuring out where to find them. To decipher what's hot among locals, check out review sites online and talk to the people working at your hotel and at cafes, restaurants and shops. Ask them what they like to do with their time off—you're likely to discover something great. And remember that to feel the pulse of native life, you may have to adjust your schedule, since some cities essentially shut down in the middle of the day and others only truly come alive late at night.
Eat like a native
Whet your vacation appetite by boning up on local customs around food. This way, when you arrive, you'll be able to feast confidently. Eating like a local means knowing everything from the timing of the meal itself (for instance, not going out to dinner before 9 p.m. in Spain) to the progression of courses to which utensils to use (or not use). Online and paper guidebooks usually cover the basics, and an Internet search can usually yield additional tips, often from locals.
Know when you've been beaten
There are some places where you're simply not going to blend in. Maybe it has to do with the color of your skin or hair, your height, your gender or your style of dress, but it's a simple fact of travel that there are some destinations where no one is ever going to mistake you for a local. But that doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel; in fact, you'll often receive the most gratitude and positive feedback for making an effort to blend in in the countries where you stick out the most.
Do you have any other tips for blending in? Share them in the comments section.