Every time I travel to a new place, my cultural characteristics and habits – direct reflections of my personal upbringing and social norms from back home – become very apparent. I’m immediately more aware of how I do things differently than people living in other parts of the world and I naturally become an “outsider.”
Surprisingly, being the outsider is one of the things I love most about travel. It forces me to step outside of my comfort zone, learn about other ways of life, and see the world from alternative perspectives. When you’re in an environment that’s completely different from what you’re used to, awkward travel situations are bound to happen.
Awkward experiences abroad can be frustrating, enlightening, and even funny! Here are a few tips on how to handle them – somewhat – gracefully 🙂
A Talkative Stranger on Public Transportation
It happens to all of us – you’re on a train, bus, plane or other form of transportation and a stranger next to you is a bit more talkative than you’d prefer. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations with other travelers by meeting them randomly this way (and received some of the best local travel tips), but sometimes you just want time to yourself.
What to do: Smile, be polite and respond to whatever they’re saying, but avoid furthering the conversation. It can help to say something like “It’s been a long day, I’m exhausted,” to signal you want to get some rest.
Trying to Communicate When You Don’t Know the Language
Not being able to communicate when you don’t know the language can be one of the toughest and most frustrating things about being abroad. Asking for directions, telling your taxi driver where you need to go, trying to find out how train schedules work or scheduling tours are examples of when communication issues can come into play.
What to do: Learn some basic, important phrases that will help you get around. Get an idea of the things you want to do or see beforehand so you’ll be prepared to ask for them. See Key Phrases to Learn Before You Travel for more suggestions!
Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb
It’s inevitable: the locals will know you’re a tourist. You dress, speak, look and act differently. You’re constantly carrying a camera and/or backpacking backpack. You look lost and are asking if anyone around you speaks English.
What to do: Research the local social norms and culture before your trip. Showing that you’re making an effort to abide by local customs can get you a great amount of respect and people will be more willing to help you. Don’t wear anything outlandish that screams “tourist.” Blend in as much as you can, especially if you’re a woman. It’s safer and lessens the chances of you being targeted for pickpocketing.
Aggressive Street Vendors
In any city that attracts a high volume of tourists, street vendors will be capitalizing on the situation. They’ll try to sell you anything from jewelry, photos, handmade goods, candy, to seemingly cheap city tours. They may also utilize tricks on unsuspecting travelers, like being super friendly and offering to “give” you a bracelet, only to make you pay for it once they tie it on your wrist.
What to do: If you’re not interested in buying anything, just smile and say “No, thank you,” in the local language. In many instances, street vendors can be really aggressive and follow you. Be stern, just tell them no and walk away quickly.
Doing or Saying Something That Would be “Normal” Back Home, but the Locals Find Strange
This could be anything from dining etiquette, drinking traditions, mannerisms, how you say certain things in your language versus theirs, greetings, etc.
What to do: Laugh about it! Ask the locals how they would do whatever it is you did that was strange to them. It’s a good opportunity to celebrate and appreciate your differences in a lighthearted way.
An Argument With a Friend You’re Traveling With
This is one of the worst circumstances to be in abroad; no one wants to fight with their friends! Travel can be stressful and put you in situations that you may have never experienced with your friends before. Being on time for flights when one person isn’t punctual, trying to agree on which attractions to see, and finding restaurants when you’re on different budgets are all examples of potential situations that could cause tension.
What to do: Don’t let an argument ruin the trip! Try to make amends with your friend and reiterate that both of you should be enjoying where you are right now. Remind them that travel can bring out the worst in people and you both should just let it go. For more tips on who to travel with, see Choosing Your Travel Companions Wisely.
Making a New “Friend,” Then Realizing They Want More
I love making new friends abroad. I’ve found that for the most part, people enjoy befriending travelers because they’re interested in their lives, what it’s like to live in their home countries, and sharing travel stories. Every now and then, you’ll find that a new friend you’ve made is interested in being more than just friends and if you don’t feel the same way, the situation can be awkward.
What to do: Most of the time, you can tell if he/she is hoping to lead the relationship towards a romantic direction and you can diffuse their advances early.
If you’re already attached, it’s simple – just casually mention your significant other. Not in an “in your face” kind of way, just something integrated into the conversation like, “Last year, my boyfriend and I went to…” If you’re single, passively make comments about how you’re not looking for a relationship or that you need to leave soon because you have to wake up early the next morning.
Sometimes you don’t realize they want to be more than friends after you’ve already spent a significant amount of time with them, making it harder to turn them down. What you thought was a friendship, they may have seen as flirtation. In this case, it’s best to be honest with them and just tell them how you feel.
The Food You Received Isn’t What You Thought You Ordered
When an entire menu is in a different language, there’s a definite chance you’ll order something and have no idea what it is. Or perhaps you recognized a word or two and had one thing in mind, but the dish itself isn’t what you expected.
What to do: If it looks good, try it! Attempting to explain what you thought it was probably wouldn’t work anyway and at least you’ll be trying something new. If it’s something you absolutely can’t eat, due to allergies or if you’re a vegetarian, see if you can order additional items (instead of sending it back, which can send the wrong message). Another option would be to politely pay for your meal and eat elsewhere.
Getting Funny Looks or Being Laughed at by the Locals
Le sigh. During your travels, sometimes people will make fun of you for reasons you won’t understand. Even if you don’t appear to be doing out of the ordinary, it’ll happen. You can be an anomaly to them and they may find you amusing, or their stares may simply just be that they’re curious about you.
What to do: Ignore it! No reason to get upset or try to figure out what they’re laughing at. You’ll never see them again anyway.
Have any personal awkward experiences abroad? I’d love to hear them! Share in the comments below 🙂