Establishing Straightforward Relationships as a Foreigner: Understanding Types of Interactions, and Roles

It might be unnerving to think about negotiating with strangers for what you need and want on a trip.  Asking for help, receiving services, or making arrangements with people you don’t know can expose you to a wide range of personalities, moods, cultural differences, and the occasional thoughtless or rude response. As a traveler, it helps to view your interactions as falling into one of two categories: 1) those that you have to initiate, and 2) those that the other person has to initiate. Another way to think of these respective categories is:

  1. Those interactions that you can’t control, and
  2. Those that you can.

Generally, if you’re paying for a service, then someone else has to initiate the interaction – and will likely do so in a courteous and sensitive manner (yes, I know, this is a very optimistic assumption!).  Since as a tourist you are paying for a number of things including hotels, airfare, secondary transportation, and meals, the majority of your interactions will be those where the other person must approach you and offer what you need and want.  Understanding this can go a long way towards mitigating your anxiety since breaking the ice with someone is almost always the most stressful aspect of an interaction.  Let tour guides, waiters, bellhops, maids, flight attendants, and hotel receptionists do their jobs, and relax.

Examples of interactions that you usually initiate include those with taxi drivers; when asking for directions or help; when making reservations or arrangements you haven’t yet paid for; or with unresponsive service staff.  If you’re like most people have some anxiety, you try to keep these interactions to a minimum – or resort to email for reservations or to file a complaint.

There are several scenarios where either you or another person may initiate an interaction, such as with store clerks, police or security, other guests, or other tourists.  In some cases you’ll want or need something enough that you’ll broach someone whether it causes you anxiety or not; in other cases, someone may notice that you need something, or are having problems, and come to you.  You’ll have to decide whether it causes you more stress to approach someone out of the blue, or wait a while to be approached.

Is there a correlation between how much money you spend and how much thought you have to put into interacting with others?  Not necessarily.  Although budget travelers are going to pay for fewer services and have to be more proactive in getting what they need, people who are traveling in luxury are going to have more discretion in their interactions with a large number of service people, and may spend a lot of time and energy concerned about how much to tip, who to call for a certain type of service, etc.  Things are going to be most straightforward for middle-of-the-road travelers.

Roles you play

There are basically three roles you play as a tourist.  These are:

  1. Customer;
  2. Guest in country; and
  3. Fellow tourist.

Once you realize that this is how others see you, you may lose a lot of fear of interacting with others.  Here are some things to be aware of regarding each of your roles.

Customer.  Despite your status as a paid customer at a hotel or on a flight, train, ship, etc., you might encounter some unwarranted negativity from service people that causes you distress.  It may seem obvious, but different service people will have different attitudes toward tourists.  Many are in their jobs because they enjoy interacting with people around the globe; others are frustrated with working for low wages, and resent that you have the means to vacation thousands of miles away.

If you’re stuck in a days-long arrangement with stress-inducing service staff, try softening them up by getting their mind off work.  You can usually do this by talking about what you love about their city, compared to what you don’t like at home.  Frustrated people want to rediscover their surroundings, or see that they have things better than they realized – and curiosity about what your home country is really like often gets the better of their unfriendliness.

Guest in country.  If you wander off the typical tourist path, you may interact with the people of your host country outside of just the service sector.  This could be at a supermarket, a bus stop, or a post office, where – depending on how provincial your destination is – you could be stared at or treated as something of a novelty.  Friendly and curious people can cause you to feel very awkward without intending to.  If their attention or scrutiny causes you anxiety, remember that you have a lot of control at the start of an interaction with someone, but the longer you engage, the less you’re able to deny invitations or queries without stress.  Do your share of smiling and excusing yourself – and move on with your business.

There are plenty of stories about Americans (and a lot fewer about Canadians) who are openly derided or snubbed abroad, but if you’re traveling alone or with only one other person, you’re far more likely to be judged as an individual rather than subject to stereotypes.  Some of the personality traits that are common among anxiety sufferers, such as being reserved and sensitive to the needs of others, work against the usual stereotypes applied to Americans, and in your favor.

Fellow tourist.  Consider this: you’re more likely to have an unpleasant experience with other tourists than with service personnel or locals.  This is because you’re essentially competing with other tourists for the best seats, space, or attention wherever you go.  People from different cultures may demonstrate a variety of impatient or aggressive responses when it comes to seeing what they want to see, and going where they need to go.  Keep in mind that your public behavior may be equally unfamiliar to them, and may even come off as arrogant or threatening, even if this is the last thing you intend and you’re behaving like you always would.

Despite these challenges, you should be prepared to occasionally interact with other tourists to get what you need or want.  You may need to use someone else’s phone because your battery has gone dead, or you could need a couple bills of the local currency because the local TravelExchange kiosk doesn’t open for hours.  The basic rule is to not expect any favors from other tourists.  If you need something, you should have something to offer in exchange.  This could be, for example:

Ÿ                     Your still-valid metro ticket in exchange for someone’s map;

Ÿ                     A camera trade to take pictures of each other in front of landmarks; or

Ÿ                     A couple Euros in exchange for using their cell phone for a few minutes.

Making it clear what you have to offer, and what you would like in exchange, makes it difficult for the other person to say no, yet doesn’t make you come off as pushy or demanding.

On the shuttle bus from Buenos Aires to the cruise port.  Do you folks mind moving over so I'm not standing on the red line?

On the shuttle bus from Buenos Aires cruise check-in to the Celebrity port. Would you folks mind moving your luggage so I’m not standing on the red line when the door opens?

3 thoughts on “Establishing Straightforward Relationships as a Foreigner: Understanding Types of Interactions, and Roles

  1. As an American, I think it is so very important, as we travel outside of our own country, the importance of remembering that we are indeed guests. Americans often have a bad rap when traveling as some of us tend to lean toward the loud, garish or boorish end of the spectrum. Remembering our “indoor” voices, inside as well as outside, is so important. Speaking a greeting before jumping into our inquiry is a great act of decorum and kindness. Graciousness, as well as a smile, goes such a long way and bridges the language barrier every time even if you’re fist met with a disapproving eye.
    Always, thank you for such wonderful advice—-
    Wishing I was set for a new adventure!!

  2. When we were in Paris with our family last year, we reminded our grandchildren – who are very well behaved and polite – that we are emissaries from our country. People will judge others from the U.S. based on our behavior. We had a great time and I hope that we left our host country feeling great about us and our countrymen/women. Thanks for the excellent tips, Anxious Traveler.

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