How to Fit in When Abroad (or how Not to be an American in Paris)
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
Woo hoo – this is a fun one. I fit in everywhere because je suis un beau chat. My human fits in as well (she has a bit of a knack for that, I think), but she does stand out occasionally. So, what can you do? Also, this is from an American perspective because the human is American, of course.
This post is divided into two sections: How not to be an American, and How to Blend in Better. The first part is for those who have not traveled abroad or felt that they were obvious while abroad. The second is for those who travel regularly, but people always guess you are an American.
Funny story, though. People abroad have a hard time guessing where my human is from. The reason is because she has an odd accent partly because of her history and family; also, she picks up local accents. One of her good friends in Korea is British, and for the longest time was surprised that my human was indeed and American.
How Not to be an American:
1. Stay stylish. Now, you do not have to have the latest fashions, especially if you are not a person who likes them but leave the active wear at home. Bring only one pair of gym clothes if you are going to use the gym or go run in the morning. Also, sneakers – they stay home as well. A good pair of walking shoes just means that they have a back, some support, and are closed-toed. The human tends to where tennis shoes (white toed, fabric top with laces), but only on her casual days.
The best ideal is to wear nice jeans (not ratty ones and not mom or dad jeans). Layer on a nice blouse or t-shirt and if it is chilly have a scarf or sweater. Where comfortable shoes, but make certain they are summer sandals, or loafers.
In other words, this photo is all that you should not be. I cannot believe my human dressed like this! It is unbecoming my human.
2. Drop the fanny pack (or its equivalent). Seriously, Americans, not everyone is trying to rob you. After all, how do you manage to survive in your own country?! People target tourists, so the best thing is not to be a tourist. To that end, carry around a nice purse, the human uses a bag she can sling over her chest to keep her hands free. It has a flap to keep things close.
The other choice is to have a nice bookbag. This is becoming more common in places for people to wear bookbags as purses. The human does this, and most everyone in Korea did this. Just make certain that it is a nice bookbag, not a school bookbag, not a backpack for hiking. This works well for men and women.
3. Leave the ball cap at home, too. Bring a pair of nice sunglasses instead and pack in a small umbrella if it will be rainy where you are going. While headwear used to be the norm, it has been a long time since it was the norm in most places around the world – except America.
If your hair gets in your eyes, a pair of clips, hair ties, or even a headband works just as well, and is not as obviously American.
4. Tone down the volume. Americans are notoriously loud; other cultures are just as loud, but not like an American. It’s uniquely American, I think their level of volume. I think it is because Americans are also very exuberant.
The best way to do things is to pretend you are in a museum at all times. In Europe, this easy to do, because the cities and towns are quite old. Well, in fact, most of the world is older than America. Just pretend you are visiting your persnickety old aunt who doesn’t like loud noises and can hear you just fine.
5. Language acquisition is a must. Now, you do not need to know the entire language fluently, especially if you are traveling only for a short vacation but knowing some basic phrases in the language of the dominate culture will go a long way to improve your status. For example, if you are visiting Switzerland, you need to know what part of the country you are visiting as they have four national languages, roughly divided into regions.
For the most part, learning the standard (oftentimes, the capital dialect) is the best option to have. Korea, for example, has regional dialects, but most everyone understands the Seoul accent. The exception is Jeju Island – learn a couple of their phrases (for more information check out this blog)
How to Blend in Better
Now that you have traveled a few times, you know the best ways to blend into a new culture, but people are still picking you out as an American. Why? These four are the big reasons.
1. The accent. We sound like Americans. This is where the human’s accent is odd. She has a blend of a Philadelphia (technically Lancastrian) accent, American South and Canadian vocabulary with a little bit of Western New York thrown in for flavor. Her accent is never quite American and sounds more Welsh. A friend of hers went on a mission trip in England once, and all the children thought the friend was Welsh. When my human visited it there ten years later, she understood why. There is really no way to mitigate your accent, but to acknowledge that it is how people pick up on where you are from.
2. Happiness. This is a weird one, I will admit. Americans tend to be happier than others. Even though they never score high on the global happiness factors, whenever they are abroad, they are smiling. This is also something that I find to be connected to those not from the coasts.
Another human example, while in France, she was warned by one of the missionaries she visited to not smile. She was confused because she didn’t normally smile. The missionary said it was very hard to not smile at people. The human grew up in a more urban area of the US; but the people in her now area are
For Coastal folks, it may not be as much of a problem, but for the Mid-westerners and Westerners, just … smile less. Pretend you are a cool cat who is indifferent to the world.
3. Say, Hello. For places, especially in France, when you enter a store, greet the people with a Bonjour (or equivalent in other countries). Now, I would suggest you do this for smaller stores and restaurants. It is also polite to say ‘hello’ to bus drivers, taxi drivers and others. Do not have a long conversation, just acknowledge them and their work and be about your business.
On the opposite side of this, apologize less. It is a joke that Canadians apologize a lot, but Americans do it as well, and loudly. You do not have to apologize for being busy. The human mama did this once on a bus, and the Koreans just gave her an odd look; like, yes, of course we understand; you don’t have to announce it.
Lastly, “Have a nice day,” is an Americanism. This applies mainly at stores (where the human used it a lot. Things change after you live abroad). You may be polite, but it marks you as an American, especially in English countries. Just say thanks and be off.
4. Looking and Tipping. The human did this a lot (the looking part) especially for trashcans. I think it is funny. In America, I have been surprised by the number of trashcans. We did not have them in Korea, and Korea is a very clean country, relatively speaking.
Tipping is another thing, and in both cases, it is less of what you know to do, and more of those ingrained muscle memories. It just happens.
Don't worry too much if you cannot hide your American tells; you have a short, but explosive national history, and many people think America is the best place to visit. I rather like my life here, but I know that sometimes not being readily identified as an American makes my human very happy.