How to behave like a local when travelling

How to behave like a local when travelling

Tourists don’t always blend in when they are visiting somewhere.

There are a few things you can do, if you don’t want to be viewed as a common tourist, wherever you happen to travel in the world. All it takes is a little bit of research and consideration before you go somewhere.

Local Travel

Learn the language

Or at the very least a few words. Know how to say thank you, yes and no, and how to order a meal or book a bus ticket somewhere. Learn how to say “I don’t know” and “I’m still learning” and keep learning along the way.

Locals will appreciate your efforts beyond measure and go out of their way to help you. They will teach you more words as well, which will come in handy later.

Dress like a local

If they cover their shoulders, you cover yours (this is especially true for women). If they wear at least knee length shorts or exclusively trousers, so should you. In hot countries you simply go for the lightest possible material. Women can always go for a sarong. Locals will wear comfortable, loose clothes as well, so buy your clothes where they’re buying theirs and you’re set.

Dress like a local

Bear in mind to enter religious buildings (pagodas, temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) appropriately dressed. Don’t wear revealing clothes and aim to cover your shoulders and knees, in some places women should wear scarves.

Eat like a local

Eat like a local

This is easy when you’re in a country that has a rich multi-cuisine tradition. But in places such as Asia, Italy, France, Spain and Eastern Europe as well as large parts of US America and South America you will find more local cuisine than international cuisine and you’re better off eating like a local. It’s usually cheaper anyway.

In addition to eating like a local you also want to eat in the same places as the locals. They know where the food is best, so well visited restaurants are your best option for a good meal. Street food in Asian countries may not always be your best option, however. Beware of the feared Delhi belly. The standards of hygiene vary greatly and don’t usually compare to what you’re used to from home.

Do make yourself familiar with local table manners as well. If people eat by hand or use bread instead of cutlery, do the same. If you get handed chopsticks to eat with, work on your dexterity and leave the fork on the side.

If in doubt, ask

You cannot possibly know all the important local customs. Do as much research as you can. If chopsticks stuck in rice vertically, especially in v-shape, are considered a bad omen in Vietnam, then be sure to put your chopsticks to the side or across the bowl.

If someone scowls at you or you get the impression of having offended someone, but don’t know why, simply ask. Be considerate of other’s beliefs and don’t assume to know their ways better than they do. Don’t be condescending. You wouldn’t want a visitor to your country to lecture you on your customs or beliefs.

These are a few things to keep in mind no matter where you go in the world. But there are regional differences. Let’s take a look at some of those.

Asian countries

Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos

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Above destinations are very popular with travellers. They are cheap to travel in, offer lovely climates and plenty of things to discover. But as a tourist you will stand out. You’re probably taller, have a different skin tone and behave a lot more boisterous than the locals.

Obviously there’s little you can do about your hair or the colour of your skin. Here mostly your behaviour matters and how you dress. If you want to blend in avoid wearing tourist T-Shirts. Wear collared shirts instead. They don’t need to be super posh, just clean and perhaps not too brightly coloured.

Keep your voice down. There’s no need to yell. The same is true for your body language. Use it sparingly. Here is where alcohol needs to be discussed as well. Backpackers in particular will consume copious amounts of the cheap local beer and get drunk on a nightly basis. Locals don’t appreciate that. It sheds a bad light not just on yourself, but on every other traveller by extension. You’re also making yourself an easy victim for theft.

If you are planning to spend some time at a beach, please don’t walk around in beach wear anywhere but at the beach. Some Western men seem to think nothing of going bare-chested or even just walk around in their budgie smugglers (i. e. speedos; in any case inappropriately small beach wear) on their way to or from the beach. Not okay. And women should not take off their bikini tops to avoid white lines when they are tanning.

Locals don’t get the luxury of spending much time at the beach. They need to make a living instead. Your indulgence of burning yourself to a crisp is not only frowned upon but looked down on.


China is a difficult country for you to blend into, especially once you leave the main tourist areas. Humble behaviour is essential. Give preference to mute colours, dress conservatively.White is the colour of mourning and red is a colour of power and prosperity, thus preferred.

Beijing China

Behaviour is generally more formal than you’re likely used to. This begins with the greeting and how people address each other and extends to table manners as well and introductions by other people.

Take and hand out business cards. If someone hands you their business card, read it before putting it away. It’s a show of respect. Make sure to bring plenty of business cards to hand out in return.

Lastly, Chinese are very superstitious. Make sure not to mock superstitions, instead respect them and take them in stride. Smiling is a universal sign of friendliness, so it adds to keeping things amicable. You’re welcome to giggle no matter how old you are.


India is still a very traditional country. It is also multi-faceted. Women are better off to blend in as much as possible. Men have more liberties, but many of the things already mentioned above are true in India as well.

India Travel

India is crowded almost everywhere, the better you mimic local’s behaviour, the better you will be able to navigate the crowds.

Kissing in public can in parts of India be punished by the law. It falls under public obscenity. Similar restrictions are on touching the opposite sex, even your own partner, in public. Don’t even offer a handshake to someone of the opposite sex. If they initiate it, fine, but don’t go in for a handshake yourself.

The Western World

Western Europe (France, Germany, The Netherlands, UK)

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Incidentally Western Europeans also don’t like boisterous behaviour on their home turf. Though they may be among the culprits when abroad, at home they exert more control over their behaviour. They will greatly appreciate any efforts you make trying to communicate in their local language.If you are not just visiting but intending to stay long-term, which includes finding a job, learning the local language is a must.

In Western Europe you can generally dress any which way you like. They’ve seen it all and are fairly liberal. But you will show your tourist status, if you wear shorts in cold weather. Locals are very weather sensible here, which means they bundle up once temperatures drop. Also, in the UK an umbrella is a must. If you don’t carry one, you’re not a local.

By the way, don’t do the Nazi salute in Germany nor carry any Nazi paraphernalia. They’re prohibited and ignorant tourists get arrested every year for doing the Nazi salute, even if it was just done in jest.

Southern Europe (Italy, Spain)

Let’s talk about Italy first. It might sound like a stereo type, but Italians are very fashion conscious. You will rarely find an Italian man wearing a muscle shirt and board shorts. Not even at the beach. Lively colours, collared shirts and long trousers are the norm and the clothes should match not clash. And leave the socks at home.

The same is true for women, except that they wear dresses or skirts with blouses.

Florence Travel

In Spain you may find more bare shoulders, at least among women. But good quality clothes are common, appearances matter and again, men don’t wear sport shirts or shorts. Dress conservatively to be on the save side. Men should not wear thongs (also called flip flops), but can wear a decent pair of shorts. Women can wear trousers, but should not show up in mini-skirts and bikini tops.

However, in beach resorts you can wear as little as you like.

In both countries people are generally warm and friendly. They will go in for a kiss on the cheek or even hugs as long as you are not a complete stranger. If someone offers you a kiss or a hug, it would be very rude to recoil. Smile and greet people as they greet you. A “mille grazie” goes a long way when you say thank you in Italy.

Do bear in mind to brush up on the pronunciation of Spanish in Spain. It is rather different than the Spanish pronunciation in Latin America. You’ll mark yourself as a foreigner immediately, if you go with the Latin American pronunciation.

Australia and New Zealand

The first thing to remember is that these are two different countries. They have a great relationship, but locals get offended by the notion that one is a part of the other. They have different prime ministers, different party systems and different currencies. They also have different English dialects, so brushing up on some idiosyncrasies will help you a great deal.

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Flip flops are called “thongs” in Australia, for instance, but “jandals” in New Zealand. Same thing, completely different name.

In both countries you can wear just about what you like. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are especially common in hot Australia. If you go barefoot in New Zealand even in town, nobody will raise a brown. Owning a pair of gum boots will mark you as a local in New Zealand as well.

People are friendly in both countries. If you’re invited to a “barbie”, remember that they’re talking about a barbeque and that you should accept. Ask if you should bring any snacks or drinks and you’ll make friends for life.

North America

Canada and the United States are also two different countries. Mistaking citizens of one for the other may be considered insulting, though it very much depends on the individual person.

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Canadians are renowned for their friendliness. They’re very helpful, apologize even when sneezing and say thank you for everything. If such behaviour comes easily to you, you’ll fit right in. Rudeness is not appreciated.

Remember that winters are very cold here, so you need the warmest clothes available to mankind.

In the United States life on the coasts is very different to life in the middle. Coastal cities, especially the west coast cities and New York on the east coast are very multi-cultural and just about anything goes. There’s no real way to actually stand out in New York, so don’t bother. L.A. is very laid back and you will only stand out, if you wear a suit.

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Learn the regional differences as they vary widely. The states in the centre of the country are much more conservative than coastal cities. But they’re also a lot friendlier and less aloof. Community matters.

South America

Tipping for just about everything is common in Argentina. If someone is putting your bag away for you, they do it in order to try and make a living. A small courtesy tip is sufficient.

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flickr image by Doug Scortegagna

The “dress like a local” rule doesn’t always apply. In most Latin American countries people wear western style clothes. But there are many tribes in the Andes that have their own customs and custom dresses. Don’t dress up like they do. That would be presumptuous.

Make sure to get acquainted with Latin American pronunciation. If you learned the Spanish pronunciation first, unlearn it now. Also remember that Brazil is the only country to speak Portuguese in South America and it differs substantially from the language spoken in Portugal.

Speak Spanish first, however, no matter where you go. Don’t assume that English is known. In many places it is spoken, but in just as many it is not.

Arab Countries

Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco

Whilst these countries are used to European and American tourists and are somewhat more liberal than other Muslim countries (discussed below), you won’t find it easy to fit in and behave like a local.

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Once more, how you dress is most important. It is best to simply wear what locals wear, this is especially true for women. There’s no need to wear any kind of veil, but having a scarf on you that you can wear loosely around your head will go along towards earning the respect of women, protect you from potential harassment in the streets (especially when you have light coloured hair) and also offer some protection from the brutal African sun.

Arabic is not an easy language to learn, but Egyptian Arabic is an easier dialect and is widely understood, because Egypt’s TV and film industry is watched in much of the Arab world. Learn at least some phrases.

In these countries couples need to refrain from PDA. Anything beyond handholding is pretty much out of the question.

UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran

In these countries everything that is mentioned above holds true as well, but customs are even stricter. You really should have a scarf as a woman. PDA between couples is generally out of the question and women have to get used to their male companions being addressed first.

Don’t be surprised to shake a lot of hands. It’s quite common to be shaking hands when meeting and departing, no matter how short an encounter you have with someone. Physical contact between the same sex is quite frequent, so don’t be surprised to see two males holding hands in the streets. Be sure to use your right hand when touching someone or handing something to someone. The left hand is considered unclean.

Avoid alcohol in these countries. It’s not necessarily readily available, but any kind of public drinking or drunkenness is completely unacceptable. During Ramadan you should not eat, drink (water or soft drinks) or smoke in public.

Lastly, remember that free speech is not the same here as it is at home. Criticism of religion or country, including its rulers, is often prohibited. Rude speech and rude gestures can potentially earn you prison time.

Respecting local customs wherever you go in the world will earn you the respect of locals and will increase your chances of being treated as one of them exponentially. So, read up before you visit a country with vastly different customs than the one you are from.

Date posted: 27th March, 2015

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