Interacting with the locals abroad

Solo traveller

Traveling the world gives you the opportunities to meet many different kinds of people you’d never normally get the chance to. Not only will you meet other travelers while traveling, you’ll also meet many locals. Your interactions with locals will generally differ depending on what kind of area you’re in (i.e. whether it’s a tourist or non-tourist area) and your sex (i.e. whether you’re male or female).

As a traveler in a foreign country, it is important that you’re respectful to the local people, and that you respond to any offers of hospitality in the right way.

Meeting Local People in Non-Tourist Areas

When traveling through rural areas (or areas where travelers/foreigners rarely visit), you may find that you’re seen (and treated) as something of a celebrity. You may be visiting a place where no-one has ever seen someone of your race/culture, so don’t be surprised if people stop in their tracks to stare at you, if large crowds gather to watch you eat or if children are unable to contain their excitement and follow you around everywhere.

Meeting Local People on the Tourist Trail

While in non-tourist areas the locals will be interested in you, in more touristy areas the local people will no-doubt be more interested in your money (and how they can get it). This isn’t to say that you can’t have genuinely wonderful interactions with locals in tourist areas. Of course you can, but it will be a lot more difficult. Because tourist areas are often filled with tourists (by definition), the locals that live in these areas will naturally be more accustomed to interacting with foreigners, meaning you won’t have the same novelty as you would in non-tourist areas.

Because of this, don’t be surprised if you occasionally meet a local who is rude to you. Instead of getting annoyed by this, remember that not all places have the same views on customer service and courtesy as we do in the western world, so don’t try to shoehorn your own country’s culture into theirs. As you might expect, a large majority of your interactions with local people in tourist areas will revolve around transactions (i.e. you paying them for some goods or a service).

This is typically where most disagreements will arise, as locals may try to extract as much money as they can from you. Of course, traveling can be an expensive hobby so it’s good to try and keep your costs down, but don’t quibble over the cost of a few pence and remember that the money you’re spending will probably go towards feeding a person’s family.

Responding to Offers of Hospitality

As you travel and interact with local people, you might occasionally be presented with an offer of hospitality. For example, a local person might invite you to dinner with their family or offer you a place to stay while you’re in town. How you respond to these offers largely depends on where you are. Genuine offers of hospitality in areas filled with tourists are rare, for example, and should be treated with caution (as probably involve you being taken to their brother’s souvenir shop and ‘encouraged’ to buy something). Alternatively, you can live with a local.

In my experience, most (genuine) offers of hospitality come from working class people living away from the major tourist areas (which is slightly surprising as these are often the poorest people in the country). For many of these people, playing host to an exotic foreigner (that’s you!) is seen as something of a badge of honor. Therefore, turning such invitations down (out of charity or guilt) can be seen as an insult.

If you feel guilty about eating the food of a person who is significantly worse off (financially than you) but you don’t want to turn their offer down, one way to show your appreciation is to bring them a small gift as a sign of your gratitude and appreciation.

Bridging the Language Gap

These days, English is the first, second or third language of most countries, meaning it’s likely that wherever you go, someone will speak it in at least some capacity. That being said, as you travel it is likely that you’ll meet lots of people (particularly those who are older or lower class) who won’t speak English at all. Basic interactions with these people can be had through improvised sign language and facial expressions (i.e. pointing and smiling), but you’ll struggle to have interactions of any depth unless the two of you speak the same language.

Whenever you visit a new country, it’s a good idea to try and learn a few of the key phrases (such as ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘how much?’, etc.) before you get there. These common phrases will help you to get by a little better, but it is often said that to really understand a local culture, you must speak the local language. Learning one new language is hard enough, so if you’re traveling across 10 different countries this is nigh-on impossible. Therefore, instead of trying to learn multiple languages, it’s best to learn one that’s spoken in a lot of places (such as Spanish or Portuguese).

A Word of Warning to Female Travelers

Depending on your gender, interactions with local people in foreign countries can differ drastically (especially in Asia and the Middle East). Typically, female travelers will attract far more attention (and even harassment) than men and will be a source of curiosity. In order to avoid unwanted attention, educate yourself on the dress code of the country you’re entering (this information can be found in most guidebooks) and stick to it. Also, when traveling in ‘traditional’ cultures, be wary of making eye contact with me, as this could be misconstrued as a sexual invitation rather than an acknowledgement of their presence.

A Final Note

Finally, the biggest mistake you can make when interacting with locals abroad is to attempt to ‘acquire’ these experiences as if they were souvenirs. Instead, realize that these are real people you’re interacting with, and try to relate to them as one person to another.

Nick Smith writes about how to find jobs abroad for couples at You can find him on Twitter as @WorldInhabit.

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