Joining a Sea of Strangers on the Streets of a Foreign City: A Practical Approach
There are dozens of books you can read on understanding the social norms and etiquette of a particular country you will visit. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and attempts to capture a culture can lead you to believe that millions of people behave similarly in all cultural and social interactions. In reality, etiquette is more rooted in local ways of life, with differences across provinces, rural areas, counties, and even city neighborhoods. Think about how you would answer an American culture question from a Dutchman taking a road trip from Harlem, New York to a small fishing town in Maryland, to New Orleans, and then back to New York City – this time to Manhattan. Would you know where to start?
One of the goals of social norms is to establish standard behavior so that people know what to expect of each other, and can stop thinking so much about basic interactions. While many cultures encourage freedom of expression, many have tolerance “blind spots” and hypocrisies that may have originated in conflicts between religious, social, and political beliefs. Not understanding or respecting social norms, no matter how exasperating they sometimes may be, can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, dejection, and significant stress. Remember, your goal is to feel comfortable as quickly as possible in a place you’ve never been, so you can get your mind off “code of conduct” stress and enjoy your trip.
First arrival. Sources of anxiety when arriving to the streets of a foreign city or town may include:
- Not knowing what is appropriate street behavior (voice level, pointing, stopping to make a phone call, etc.);
- Not wanting to offend people (e.g., violating taboos);
- Smaller than normal personal space;
- Level of formality expected or demanded; and
- Fear of confrontation if making a mistake or upsetting someone.
A negative experience can amplify embarrassment into shame, with anger, distrust, and loss of confidence along for the ride. Fortunately, negative experiences and encounters can be mitigated by a few key approaches. These are:
- Self-awareness; and
- Assimilation according to your own comfort level.
We’ll go over each of these below.
Observation. Sit at a plaza café or a small park, alone or with your travel partner, and just watch people go by for an hour or so. Notice things such as:
- What are people doing that you find unusual or unnatural?
- What are they not doing on the streets that you’re used to seeing? This could include activities such as adjusting one’s clothes or hair, blowing one’s nose, or snacking at a pedestrian stoplight
- How do other people react to someone who engages in generally anti-social behavior (such as letting a door slam in a stranger’s face, or corralling a taxi that someone else has hailed?)
Self-awareness. Realize that you have two different street behaviors: one when you’re at home, in your accustomed environment, and one as a tourist or outsider. At home you’re used to being part of the scene around you; as a tourist, you’re usually preoccupied with the scene, and stand apart from it. You may walk more slowly, stare, stop suddenly, and meander or change direction. You may be more polite and more patient than normal, and you may be louder or quieter than normal. Your “tourist” behavior may or may not be more suited to the mannerisms of those around you. Ask yourself:
- How many of your unassuming street behaviors are going to draw unwelcome attention?
- How good are you at controlling your first impulses and responses?
- How much will this matter in your particular environment?
Comfortable assimilation. Trying to blend in too much with the locals may take a lot of the enjoyment out of your travel. Hurrying, looking down instead of around, and constantly restraining your interest and curiosity aren’t anyone’s idea of a nice tour. Identify which two or three of your habits are the most disruptive or displeasing, and make a regular effort to tone them down. Remember, the goal is to spare yourself embarrassment and anxiety – not make yourself uncomfortable.