Should you try to blend in when you travel?
We’ve all heard horror stories about the American tourist. You know, the one complaining that portion sizes are too small or about getting their phone and wallet stolen within days of arriving in a new country. I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, that Europeans can always spot the Americans in restaurants because they are the loudest couples at dinner.
I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to do a lot of travel this past summer. I spent two months abroad, some of it spent studying through WashU and some of it spent backpacking. As I traveled, I found myself changing not only my appearance, but also my behavior, based on where I was and my perception of that place. It was my natural instinct to try to blend in with locals as best I could, but that was definitely not everyone’s goal, and perhaps, to some extent, it shouldn’t be.
There are many benefits to blending in when you travel, and perhaps one of the greatest is safety. If you look like a local, your chances of being pickpocketed, scammed, or the victim of a tourist trap are lessened.
Additionally, dressing and acting appropriately for religious venues is a necessity. This is one of many reasons why it is so important to do some baseline research before you travel. Even if you don’t intend to disguise yourself as a local, you should still do your best to learn about local customs, appropriate dress, and even a few phrases in the local language as a matter of respect.
That being said, blending in may diminish your ability to make friends. Meeting people that speak your language and relate to your experiences can be one of the greatest parts of travel, especially when you’re away from home for a long time. On my trip, I built amazing relationships with other American travelers that I met at tourist sites and in hostels, and I would hate to have missed out on that opportunity because I was too focused on trying to seem like a local.
I’ve seen Tiktoks of students studying abroad in Paris “ignoring the Eiffel Tower” and an American working in Barcelona complaining about the number of tourists in her area. What these people don’t realize is that it is vital to appreciate these moments. Intentionally ignoring the Eiffel Tower won’t make you a local; it will make you ignorant.
Chances are, some degree of blending-in will happen naturally. If you study abroad, you will likely look more like a local on your last week than on your first. I’ve come to the conclusion that when abroad, we should think of ourselves as travelers rather than tourists. We should see the touristy sights and immerse ourselves in the local culture — wait behind hordes of people to see the Mona Lisa and walk local neighborhoods to discover small art galleries. While traveling, you may still have the tendencies of an American tourist, but with respect and an appreciation of other cultures as well as your own, you are sure to make the most of your trip.