How to Not Piss Off Locals
If you've ever traveled, you've probably encountered the dreaded Extremely Rude Tourist.
Once, while checking in to a hotel in Paris, I was horrified to witness a family of four arguing loudly with the doorman over directions, then with each other over where to eat. I almost lost it when one of them started vehemently swinging around a bag of Eiffel Tower souvenirs, nearly knocking over an elderly woman as she exited the elevator.
I think about that family every time someone mentions obnoxious tourists. While they were American, folks like them can be found in many cultures, and they invariably ruin the experience for everyone around them.
I’m not Emily Post, but I’m tired of rolling my eyes at the way my fellow travelers behave when out in the world. So here are a few tips on how to stop pissing off the locals when we travel.
Watch Your Volume
Look, Americans are loud. No, of course not you. And not the people you're traveling with, fine. But a lot of Americans are very, very loud, which stands out especially in places where not much of anyone else is, such as a beautiful sidewalk cafe across the street from the Sorbonne.
Take a moment to listen to the general decibel level when you arrive in a new place, and try your best to match it.
Don’t Speak the Language? Then Don’t Speak the Language
It’d be nice if we all learned how to speak a few words of the native language before we traveled abroad, but if you didn’t, can’t or won’t, at least give the locals the courtesy of not mangling their language in a jokey way. No one needs to hear “HOLE-A, aMEEEgaaaas!”
Exceptions are made for travelers who try to say something very simple with great earnestness while clinging to a phrase book – this is almost always endearing.
Don't Mock the Local Accent
You can drop your bad imitation of locals’ accents, too. It’s not funny. In fact, it’s a little mean, no matter how much of a stand-out you were in your high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Enjoy the distinctive speech of wherever you’re visiting, but stick to your own accent (and yes, by the way, you have one).
Avoid Indulging Stereotypes
I’m not even talking about the kind of racist and xenophobic stereotypes you shouldn’t say anywhere. I mean the stereotypes that are just tired, like asking a French man where his beret is, or a Swiss woman if she’s milked a cow recently.
We live in an increasingly global world in which people live varied and interesting lives. But you won’t get to hear about them if the natives think you have little interest in who they are beyond condescending cliches.
Don’t Freak Out When Things Are Different
It’s funny, isn’t it? We travel to see new things, but then we get super-aggravated when things aren’t exactly as we want them. I’m talking about bed pillows paired with duvets, and ice in your beverages, and the quality of toilet paper, and so on.
I hate to break it to you, but…these things will likely be different outside of your house. If your health is not going to be impacted, just go with it. (And if your health is going to be impacted, apologize while you ask for things to be changed.)
Don’t Try to Stump the Tour Guide
It’s so awesome that you’ve read every book about World War II, and, more specifically, Winston Churchill’s secret bunkers during World War II, but now that we’re all together on a tour of those bunkers, the rest of us wish you’d stop asking the guide a million pesky know-it-all questions and just let her do her job.
It’s her country, after all. Shush.
Avoid Pointing Out How We Do It at Home
I cannot deny that America generally makes bigger cars, ice cubes and toilets than many parts of the world, but after a while, continually pointing that out becomes incredibly annoying to your host country’s people.
It’s not like they can pop over to Wal-Mart and get a bigger toilet for you, ok?
Look on the Bright Side
If you’re touring a concentration camp site or a battlefield, it’s appropriate to be solemn. But in almost every other situation, try not to bring up the worst of the country’s past in conversation.
If your new mate at the bar is telling you about something they love about Russia, avoid bringing up the gulag, ok? Everyone deserves to feel some pride in their home.
Everywhere you go has a dress code; pay heed to it. Leave the rah-rah American stuff at home out of deference to the place you are, and invest in a few basics that are easy to dress up and down depending on local custom.
Be especially alert to dressing appropriately if visiting religious destinations. When in doubt, ask.
Not Everyone Knows English
I know! The nerve of these people, growing up in places where English is not widely spoken or taught! But alas for you, that is how the world is.
Even in major cities, you will encounter people who do not speak English (or do not wish to try to speak English in front of rude American tourists demanding that they should). It’s always best to politely ask if someone speaks English before babbling away at them. And if they don't, excuse yourself politely, or make do the best you can, making it clear that the fault lies with you for not speaking the language of the area, not with them.
Not Everyone Wants to Be Your Friend
I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where not chatting with at least three people at the grocery store is considered odd, even rude. But there are plenty of places in the world – London comes to mind – where being aggressively friendly is seen as off-putting. Take a look around you before you start gabbing.
Is the Tube stop silent because everyone is secretly longing to break out of their shell and chat? Or is it silent because people are happily lost in a book or their own thoughts and really don’t want to hear your opinion of the transit system?
Learn to Tip Correctly
Before you leave, investigate how tipping works in the countries you’re visiting, so you can avoid giving offense for tipping too much, too little or not at all. In some areas of the world, tips are the primary source of take-home pay for those in the service industry. In other parts of the world, tipping is seen as rude, implying the service-giver isn’t making enough money.
Research beforehand and, if stuck, ask someone.
Accept the Pace of Life Where You Are
Visitors to New York City often complain that it’s too fast-paced in midtown Manhattan. Well, maybe it is, but that’s the way life runs there: fast.
Likewise, your destinations will have their own distinctive pace. You may have to wait longer – ok, a lot longer – in some parts of India. You may be overwhelmed by how quickly things go by in Singapore. That’s the way it is. There’s really no use complaining about it.
Don’t Judge How People Parent
For some reason, even though there’s constant debate about how to best look after children in America, Americans are very quick to judge how people in other countries parent their kids.
My advice? Unless you see a child left on the railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her, let it go. People in other countries may leave children alone for longer than you do. They may let them get dirtier than you do. They may let them drink earlier than you do.
The bottom line is, it's none of your business.
You’re there to visit and learn and grow, not judge. The biggest tip I can give you, then, is to be alert to your own behavior for jerky mistakes, and when you see them, apologize. (I won’t say you have to go as far as I did and apologize for total strangers, but hey, it helped.)
You threw a fit when the hotel wasn’t air-conditioned, because the place you’re visiting doesn’t really have air-conditioning? Now that you’ve realized your mistake, apologize. You assumed someone spoke English and they don’t? Apologize.
We all make mistakes, and most people will appreciate it if you acknowledge when you have. They might even make an effort to be more friendly and welcoming to someone who so clearly wants to be genuine and understanding.