Ah, the ultimate compliment. In your travels, if someone asks you for directions – consider yourself lucky! Being looked at as a local who seems to know what they’re doing is pretty impressive for a study abroad student. However, you may also sometimes find yourself struggling to fit in. In that case, allow me to offer you some advice.
The most important part of fitting in with the local culture is how you present yourself. It’s not difficult to pick up on some of the local norms, specifically what the locals wear. I often joke about how when I went to Paris, the one thing I learned was to wear all black and never smile. It might not be a bad idea to buy a staple piece or two that will instantly make you look like a local. Presentation also involves how loudly you speak. Pay attention to social cues to ensure you do not always fall into the “obnoxious, loud American” stereotype.
This next tip may seem a little odd, but I use it even in new surroundings in the US: avoid looking lost. If you and your friends are in a new city or end up in a shady area that you were not planning on being in, always avoid looking like you’re lost. Even if you end up passing your intended destination, walk with purpose. Panicking will most likely draw the wrong kind of attention. If you do end up getting lost, a solid tip is to look for a hotel. Especially if you are in a place where English is not the native language, there is a better chance that someone will be able to help you there. For instance, when I took a weekend trip to London, my friend and I arrived much later at night than we’d expected. The tube was shutting down and we were in a panic. After getting off at a stop and having no sense of direction, we walked around until we saw the green lights of a Holiday Inn. There was an immediate sense of relief in asking a trusted source for information.
This brings me to my final point, which is to always keep an open mind. Don’t expect things to go as planned, and ultimately try to prepare for these kinds of situations. Try not to let any cultural differences get in the way of having fun, but also always remain cautious. Obviously, it’s okay to always be yourself, but attempting to blend in will create the sense that you respect and are mindful of what the locals do. More importantly, blending in and understanding the local surroundings will lessen the chances that people will try to take advantage of you because you look like a tourist. Just be careful and you’ll have a great time abroad!
Valerie Quickel is a senior Marketing and Global Management double major with a minor in French. She went on the Plus3 China program in Summer 2015 and studied abroad in Paris, France in Summer 2016. She then interned at Pitt’s Study Abroad Office during Spring 2017.
This article originally appeared in The Traveling Times, an online Pitt SAO newsletter.