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Where to ‘Act Like a Local’: Countries That Appreciate an Effort to Blend In
Written by Mandy Voisin

While you may be used to the way things are done in the United States, as soon as you step foot on foreign soil, you’re in someone else’s world. Respect for a destination’s customs and decorum is usually required in order for a trip abroad to go smoothly. Yet so often, tourists expect residents to help (asking for directions, requesting the check, etc.) without even trying to conform to the native cultural norms.

And while there are plenty of nations that welcome good-natured visitors regardless of how they adapt–with warm, welcoming people ready to assist on seemingly every corner–in certain countries, a little effort to act and speak like a local can go a long way and make all the difference.

Here are a few places where it’s a good idea to know how things are done, learn some of the lingo, and try to blend in:


Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

France has a reputation for being cold to tourists. In fact, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius launched a multi-million euro campaign in 2014, encouraging the French people to be warmer and more welcoming to tourists. But many French people would disagree with the stereotype, saying that their customs are just different than Americans’. For instance, if your waiter seems to be ignoring you and leaving you alone at a restaurant, relax.  In France, the object of dining is to claim a great table and stay as long as possible. Your waiter isn’t bothering you every 10 minutes, not because you are a foreigner and they don’t like you, but because that is how they treat everyone. They leave you alone to enjoy your meal in peace.

As for speaking French, although 39% of people in France speak English (including those in the countryside), you can’t assume you will run into those people. More importantly – the people there appreciate foreigners even attempting to speak their language.

Before I left for France a friend warned me, “Say Bonjour every time you greet someone. Not hello. Bonjour.” I thought that was a little strange (doesn’t everyone recognize the word hello?), but when I arrived I realized how important that advice was. Although I attempted to learn more phrases, having never taken French classes, I struggled with the pronunciation and the accent. Still, I found I was more likely to get the help I needed if I began my sentences in French versus English. In a way, it showed the people I was asking for help or directions that I cared enough about their culture to try. And then usually we launched just fine into conversational English and were able to go merrily on our way.

Important Phrases to Help Get Around

“Bonjour” (bohn-ZHOOR): Hello
“S’il vous plaît” (see-voo-play): Please
“Parlez-vous anglais ?” (par-lay-voo ahn-glay): Do You Speak English?
“Où est-ce que se trouve…?” (oo escuh suh troov): Where Is…?:
“Combien ça coûte?” (COMM-bee-yen SAH coot): How Much Does it Cost?
“Merci beaucoup!” (mehr-see bo-koo): Thank You Very Much!
“Une carafe d’eau s’il vous plait” (OON cahr-AHF doh): A glass/jug of water, please.

Know Before You Go

  • Don’t ask busy-looking people for directions. They’re likely on their way to work or currently working. Try asking street vendors or shop owners you purchased something from instead.
  • The French are generally not as expressive as Americans. Their neutral face is not a smile – especially at strangers.
  • France is the most visited country in the world. There are often so many tourists that it’s easy to see how they could get frustrated. Being polite will take you far.
  • If diners in French restaurants ask for water, they’ll be brought bottled water and charged for it. So if you’re an American looking to sip H2O from the tap with your meal, be sure to ask for it in a “carafe” (see the phrase above).


Sakdinon Kadchiangsaen/Shutterstock

Thailand is such a beautiful country, rich with happy and helpful people. It is also the most religious place I’ve ever visited. Shrines are everywhere – literally; almost every corner of Bangkok has a shrine resting, with flowers and candles being sold out front and people stopping to kneel and pray

We were told early on in our stay to be respectful of the shrines, even if we did not stop to pray at each one like many of the locals. “Nod your head respectfully,” a local suggested. “It may not be a sacred place for you, but every shrine is a sacred place to us.”

Showing respect by being quiet, smiling at the vendors selling flowers and, when necessary, removing your shoes is one of the best ways to blend into Thai culture.

Important Phrases to Help Get Around

“Sawatdee” (sa-wùt dee): Hello
“Mai Aow” (My-Ow): 
I don’t want it
“Pôot thai mai dai” (phuut thai mai dai): 
I can’t speak Thai
“Kow Jai Mai” (khao jai mai): 
Do You Understand?
“S̄nām bin” (Sanaam bin): 

Know Before You Go

  • When you say hello, press your palms together and nod your head at the person you are greeting. It is an integral motion of respect and very appreciated by the Thai people.
  • Thailand is a consitutional monarchy and the royal family is very important to citizens. Everywhere in Thailand you will see the royal family’s likeness. Standing during the national anthem and refraining from making disparaging remarks about them denotes respect.
  • Avoid touching displays (especially religious), as some Thais are highly superstitious, and feel it can disrupt harmonious balance.
  • There are many street sellers in Thailand that will pursue you for business. Saying “I don’t want it” in Tai coupled with a smile will let them know in a polite way that you are not interested.
  • Thai is a tonal language. Listening to key phrases online, or asking a friend who speaks Thai to teach you how the words sound will help those you interact with understand you much better.



Making an effort to blend into Japan is perhaps one of the most rewarding of my personal travel experiences. Bowing is a sign of respect there, though I typically would bow at the waist, instead of just with my head as I did in Thailand.

It is also considered slightly rude to tip for services in Japan. To them, the price is the price. That was a welcome custom to embrace.

Most importantly, Japan is a collective culture, where the group is more important than the individual. Drawing attention to yourself is the worst thing you can do there, especially in a public place. For example, loudly blowing your nose or talking on your cell phone in public areas (such as a bus or train) is frowned upon in Japan.

As for language, a lot of people in Japan speak English, but you can’t count on running into them. Still, I found most people were very friendly and willing — even excited — to help. Pointing and even (in one instance) drawing  helped a lot communicate with Japanese people willing to help.

Japanese culture is very courteous and respectful by nature, so approaching any conversation very politely, expressing gratitude and humility for help will get you far.

Important Phrases to Help Get Around 

“Arigatoo gozaimasu” (ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zah-ee-mas): Thank you
“Onegai shimasu” (Oh-neh-gahy shee-mahs): Please
“Suminasen” (Soo-mee-mah-SEN’): Pardon Me
“Gomen’nasai” (Goh-men-nah-sahy): I’m Sorry
“Gomen’nasai” (Goh-men-nah-sahy): I don’t understand
“Nihongo ga [yoku] hanasemasen” (Nee-hohn’-goh gah [yoh-koo] hah-nah-seh-mah-sen’): I don’t speak Japanese [well]
“Toire wa doko desu ka?” (toy-reh wah doh-koh des kah?): Where is the bathroom?

Know Before You Go

  • Always take your shoes off when entering a home. Often businesses appreciate it as well. There is usually a rack for you to put them on.
  • Stand in front of a particular stall in the restroom instead of forming one longer line at the door. Otherwise, you could be waiting for a while.
  • Learn to eat with chopsticks. Often forks and spoons are not even available.

About the author

Mandy Voisin

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet.

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