Embarrassment. I have felt this emotion after finding myself surrounded by compatriots who conduct themselves below appropriate levels of civility. When abroad, it can be helpful to connect with fellow expats; often it can be easy to build a rapport as you share many commonalities. Though you’ve just met, there is a certain level of familiarity. But what happens when things get too familiar?
Often, people get more raucous in group situations. Suddenly what you thought could be a promising social mixer— perhaps you’d meet some cool people; maybe pick up a date or two— has now become a hootenanny, sans any residue of comportment and grace. You and other less ‘turned up’ attendees exchange glances. At least you’re not alone in your discomfort. Your ears pinch at the shrieks and shrills erupting from your table. Gradually other patrons complain to the management about your party’s decorum. This only agitates the hostility. You’re now planning your exit. You’re not entirely alone. You and a few other guests annex the soiré and continue the evening in a more chic manner.
When abroad (or anywhere) there’s a need to connect with others. Yet, sometimes you have have to be very deliberate with whom you become acquainted. There exists travellers who flow gracefully with urbanity and savoir-faire from one great metropolis to the next. And on the other end there are some who, irrespective of their hometown or host country, are brash and parochial. Certain character traits and pieces of knowledge can make your sojourn tremendously more enjoyable (or at least more tolerable).
Basic knowledge can be a great aid. No one is demanding or expecting fluency— that could come later if one’s interest is piqued. But possessing the ability to utter fundamental greetings (Hello; Thank you; How are you?; It’s delicious.) and ask for what you need will get you far.
We’re in the post-Google era. Which means there is no legitimate excuse for ignorance. Know your surroundings. Try reading up on recent news about the country. Even if you don’t have the time or let’s be honest, desire, to read the articles, you can scan the headlines. This can help spark your curiosity and lead to more nuanced conversations with locals if the opportunity presents itself. Maps are good too. Knowing where you are in the country can help you understand a country’s relationship with its neighbors. All of which tell a rich story.
Confidence is also key. Who’s not attracted to a confident person? You’ll have a better relationship with yourself and more opportunities with the outside world. Confidence will attract favorable situations while keeping opportunists at bay. Allow me to illustrate. In Istanbul I found myself in a taxi where the driver was a little too excited to see me. After a half day of studying my tourist map, I had a pretty good handle on my bearings. So once I realized we were going the wrong way I expressed my disdain. Pull the car over. Now. I didn’t end up at my desired location, but sensing something was amiss I acted on my intuition and saved myself further aggravation. When you’re confident you can make your own course. You can engage fellow travellers/expats. You can embrace the natives. You can do your own thing if you don’t have a travel companion with complementary interests. You’re not a groupie.
It’s important to represent too. Implied in ‘represent’ is that the folks who encounter you are left with a favorable impression from their time with you. Representing is also beneficial to future generations of travelers. People are imperfect. If they have an ill experience with a nubian drifter they may presume that all melanin-induced folk have some inherent flaw. Not everyone is a black Adonis, nobel laureate or Josephine Baker. You need not stress over what the world thinks— just don’t be sophomoric on the road.