Tag Archives: tourist

Localer than Thou – Overcoming Expat Snootiness

A few posts ago a friend and loyal CultureMutt reader, Tristan complained about overseas travelers that are in a phase where they refuse to talk to any other foreigner.  If you’ve tried to socialize with fellow travelers abroad at hostels or elsewhere, you’ve probably come across some of these types.  They somehow think that if they ignore all the other obviously foreign people and focus on being super “local”, they will somehow transcend the ranks of the mere tourist and become honorary citizens of the host country.  It’s gross.  And it only gets worse with long-term relocation expat types.  They are convinced that their three years and counting automatically qualify them as connoisseur insiders and that you have to spend at least as long as they have in the country before they will fraternize with you.

Here are my tips for how to deal with these types if and when you run into them:

Avoid them

This might be the easiest option.  If you are only visiting for a short time and you want to dodge the patronizing looks and condescending comments of expat know-it-alls, learn to spot them and then avoid them.  Expat snobs will name-drop, speak pejoratively about the US and a lot of the other typical tourist home bases and constantly act surprised at your lack of knowledge of some quirky local custom or hot spot.  As soon as you get these comments or as soon as you hear them being dished at someone else, get away from the source.  They are seeking some kind of complex validation and are never satisfied.  Better to actually talk to a real local, they are more likely to be receptive to honest questions and interest in their culture and way of life.

Speak the local language to them

But suppose you do want to engage the snobs, how do you do it?  One thing I noticed about “localer than thou” language students was that if you speak to them in the local language, you automatically win points in their book.  I remember a guy I met in France.  He ignored or rolled his eyes at most of his fellow language school students.  I came to the school on a recruiting trip and during my down time I started to speak French to him.  That seemed to be the magic switch that turned him into an engaging, enthusiastic conversation partner.  He was apparently sick of language students that he felt were holding back his progress by speaking English to him.  A lot of people disliked him for his seeming arrogance.  But he finished his year in France speaking superb French, something 90% of his classmates did not.  The key to engaging him was to help him achieve his goals by speaking French to him – simple as that.

Talk local

Going with the same logic, if you want to neutralize the snootiness of the localer than thou, get local with them.  If you ask them the right questions and show respect for their feel for the lay of the land, they will typically be willing to share.  However the will NOT want to hear about how expensive/cheap, big/small, quaint or ordinary local products and attractions seem to you compared to what they are at home.  A lot of American expats especially, are sick of being associated with American tourists that come bumbling into town with their potbellies, fanny packs and constant comparisons to how things are in Texas.  DO NOT embarrass or harass them with such observations, it does not help you or your bid for acceptance.

Traveling or working abroad is an art and you learn as you go.  Take the above into consideration, remember to respect and learn from the local way and you will set yourself up for success.



Bjorn Karlman

Don’t Fake Accents and three other rules for keeping it real when abroad

back in my Europe-dwelling days on a three-day Paris trip

When I was in my teens I lived about an hour by train west of London.  My dad taught at a college that drew a lot of American college students, eager to “do Europe” for a year.   One of the most frustrating thing about some of these students was the accent that they would try to fake.  Nothing made the English roll their eyes more than the latest American attempt at copying their accent.  It was genuinely painful to listen to.

The irony of course, was that in this desperate attempt at generating street cred, the offending 19 year-old American was accomplishing just the opposite.  The locals would at best put up with or overlook the posturing.  When it got bad enough, the aspiring Hugh Grant actually took a social beating.

Sure, socially punishing those that fake their accent may have been a little harsh of the English.  But the root of the problem was deeper than just a question of accents – it had to do with the accent impostor’s lack of self-confidence.  More than anything, self-confidence and a belief in what you can bring to the table is important when you are abroad.  You’ve got to keep it real.

Be your “confident self” – you will be rewarded

If you present yourself confidently, as though you have “nothing to hide”, your unique qualities and foreign ways will come across as refreshing and interesting.  It pays to be different.  This is very different from being cocky.  Cockiness masks insecurity badly and most people can see right through it, especially when you are being cocky on their turf.  But a warm confidence speaks volumes.

Learn from but do not copy

A willingness to learn lies at the heart of any successful relocation experience.  Rather than coming with an expectation that you will teach others how things should be done, arriving in another country with a blank slate and a willingness to learn is so helpful to you and so appreciated by locals.  This does not mean that you copy locals as in the above example of inauthentic accent imitation.   Instead, this is all about learning from the good and letting it organically enrich your life and experience.  Have you relocated to a country that spends two hours on lunch every day?  Learn to appreciate this natural emphasis on life balance, natural rhythm and nurtured relationships and apply it to your life.  Are there tweaks that you can make so that your family and friends feel more appreciated and cared for when they are in your presence?

Be the “reasonable foreigner”

The opposite of the “ugly American” or Swede for that matter, is the “reasonable one”.  I am always impressed by those that arrive in a new country and context with a clear determination to build bridges.  There is so much that you could potentially disagree with and start judging when you travel.  RESIST THE TEMPTATION.  Instead, seek out the areas of common ground that you can build upon.  There is always a lot of good that can be celebrated about your host nation’s culture and ways.  Be the foreigner that seeks these good things out.  Make sure your hosts know that you appreciate them and their unique cultural qualities.  If you start by emphasizing common ground a near-magical thing happens – the locals around you start to think “she gets it” or “he’s adjusting so well” and they will be much more likely to want to invest time and effort in getting to know you and making you feel comfortable.

Travel and relocation can be some of the best adventures of life if you approach them with a gentle confidence.  Be real.  Be yourself.  This builds trust and goodwill – the currency of international success.



Bjorn Karlman


But It’s So Dangerous! Don’t Let Fear Stop You Traveling.

Less than a week after my family moved to the Philippines in the late 80’s, we were burgled for the first time.  We lived on a campus patrolled by shot gun-wielding guards.  Once one of them fired a warning shot at a would-be robber as he took a metal saw to the bars outside my bedroom (luckily, I was out.)  Within two years of our arrival there was an attempted military coup in the Philippines that I distinctly remember because of the bombs that could be heard in the background of programming on local radio.  Also, my favorite Manila supermarket turned out to be one of the temporary rebel strongholds.

Shortly after we moved houses, the father of the family that moved into our old house was tortured, shot and buried in the sugar cane fields that stretched for miles behind my house.  Reports of murders and kidnappings were not rare.  As a kid I was not allowed to tell my grandmother some of the stories from the Philippines because they would freak her out too much.

Having said all this, I would not trade these growing up experiences for anything and I would fully recommend travel to the Philippines.  Does that make me a reckless adrenaline junky?  Am I ignoring lessons that my earlier experiences should have taught me?  I don’t think so  Here’s my list of reasons not to let “dangerous” travel conditions put your off world travel:

Trouble spots are usually easily avoided
Just like any major American city, there are parts that are safe and parts that you avoid.  Guide books, locals and some basic street smarts will help you dodge the problem areas and enjoy the majority of the country.  Chances are that, with the exception of particularly war-torn countries, you’ll be about as safe overseas as you’d been staying at home.  You’ll find that reality is rarely as bad as the rumors you’ve heard.  Which brings me on to the next point…

Media hype
The media thrives off of sensationalizing any story.  The pictures, statistics and quotes of overall despair sell newspapers and the public eats it up.  So often, dangers are blown out of proportion.  A riot, skirmish or other security risk will happen in a specific area and the media will portray the whole country as being under siege.  And it goes both ways.  I have European friends who are afraid to come to the US because they know people carry guns and we have school shootings .  Based on hearsay and media hype, they’ve convinced themselves that they are in danger of being shot while visiting the US.

Local friends
I’ve been able to navigate many potential problems just by having local friends.  Locals will often appreciate your friendly overtures and will take special care of you.  They typically want to make sure you have the best experience possible while visiting their country so they will tell you what to say or not to say, how to travel and how to conduct yourself

Use the resources available to you in order to plan effectively
Some useful sites to check out for travel advice and warnings are:

U.S. Department of State International Travel Information

UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office Travel Advice by Country

The cost of NOT traveling outweighs the risks involved

The greatest risk of loss associated with travel is not taking the trip.  Outside extreme case scenarios, you are generally better off taking a trip and growing from the experience of adventure, exposure to new cultures and exploring a new way of life than you are staying at home and trembling at the thought of something different.  So go ahead, be adventurous.  Be smart in your travel but also learn that you are far better off taking risks and experiencing the world than you are staying put.



Bjorn Karlman

How to Go from Tourist to Insider In Four Easy Steps

femme afroI hate tourists.  They walk around obliviously, slowing everyone down as they consult flimsy, hotel-issued maps and fuss over pictures in front of every street corner with an assortment of cameras hanging around their necks.  They ask the dumbest questions, wear the most outdated fanny packs and Hard Rock Cafe Roma (This is STOCKHOLM, Stupid) T-shirts and have an odd affinity for cheap, mass-produced crap like glow-in-the dark Eiffel Towers and organic, phallus-shaped chocolate Towers of Pisa.

Some of my hate has to be inwardly directed though, because I have so often been the tourist stopping traffic as I chase down the illegible street map that has blown out of my hands and into the busy street.  Not fun.  And not what your next trip has to be like.  Here’s your fast track to insider status:

Get Religion: Or at least visit something like a church, synagogue, mosque or even a local chapter of a club that you are associated with at home.  These are great places because locals tend to be friendly in them and WANT visitors.  Suddenly, you are no longer an annoying tourist.  Instead, you have been transformed into an exotic guest that they will want to invite home, show all the best places and generally entertain.

Volunteer: Enjoy doing something service-related once in a while?  No better place to do this than while on a trip overseas.  Not only will you feel the satisfaction of having helped people out, you will connect with trustworthy locals who are like-minded and will want to get to know you.  If you are stumped for short-term service projects abroad try woofing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where you get free food and lodging around the world in exchange for volunteer help on organic farms.

Skip the hotel and Stay at the Home of a Local: This is not as impossible as it sounds.  Don’t despair if you don’t know a soul in your destination country.  Check out www.couchsurfing.org.  The organization has a network of people around the world who let guests crash at their places for free. Membership is great because the idea is you can host or be a guest whenever it suits you.

Forget the Blitz-Krieg Tour: If you want to feel like an insider, there are two advantages to planning prolonged stays in one place as opposed to city hopping.  First, a stay of a couple weeks to a couple months will ensure that you have a rudimentary lay of the land and know the basics like good local eats, the price of a taxi and the time wasters to avoid.  Second, the locals will invest more in you the longer they think you will stick around.  If you are back on the train in a couple of days they won’t even bother learning your name.  If you are there for a few weeks you stand a good chance of forming some relationships and learning to dodge the tourist traps in favor of some authentic local experiences.

A final word:  Generally speaking, people in most places are about as comfortable with you as you are with them.  If you show some real warmth and interest in them, chances are they will reciprocate.  So don’t sit around feeling awkward and out of place.  Insider status is yours for the taking.


Bjorn Karlman

Grin and Bare It… Topless Culture Change

Topless - summer beach conceptIt was hands-down one of the funniest things I had ever seen on a beach.  I was with a friend in Nice, on the French Riviera, surrounded by locals and tourists in various stages of undress.  Not far from me were a couple of topless girls and local etiquette stipulated that everyone had to act like everything was normal.  And, for a French beach in the summer, everything basically was.  Well, at least it was until a group of American teenagers, in predictable khaki shorts and baseball caps, came over and struck up conversation with the topless ones.

The guys’ intent was clear: they wanted a picture with the women.  Amused at the ballsy request, the women obliged the horn dogs and posed with their newfound American friends.  The guys were delighted but conversation quickly dried up because of the language barrier and they took off.  The best part was when one of the guys hollered, “Y’all keep it up now!” over his shoulder.  Beautiful.

The young guys’ break with etiquette was amusing.  If they had been locals or at least somewhat accustomed to Mediterranean protocol, they would have been considerably less eager with their photo requests.  Everyone came out of this one well – the nervous kids, the nonchalant boob models and the amused onlookers.  Observing the whole incident made me think about the huge role of cultural rules in the day-to-day – right down to beach attire and how to acknowledge topless strangers.  It also made me think of what allows us to bend the rules of culture (in this case, approaching topless women) and test the boundaries society decides are appropriate.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” identifies the drivers of societal change as Connectors (social magnets that are master networkers and love nothing more than working a crowd), Mavens (information specialists, people that have the information society needs) and Salesmen (Charismatic, persuasive people that can get people to agree with them).  When all three kinds of personalities come together and benefit from a strong message and favorable circumstances, you get enough traction to affect major societal shifts.

Watching the kids I saw each of the personality-based change agents.  There was the Connector – the kid in the group that probably was the reason they were all on the beach, skipping the assigned lecture on Franco-Spanish relations. Then there was the Maven – the pervy nerd who’d worked out what stretch of beach would yield the best topless odds. And finally, there was the Salesman who talked both his friends and the busty French into posing for the camera.

So there you have it:  a little example of how cultural change, however insignificant, can be achieved. Whenever cultural rules feel rigid and overbearing, remember that with some clever planning, some key leadership and a little luck, rules can bend and boundaries can shift.  And there’s nothing that some teenage spunk and some multicultural levity can’t fix.

Rise to the occasion, LEAVE A COMMENT

Bjorn Karlman

Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups

loose gears

I really enjoy it when people get what’s coming to them. Rarely have I found this more satisfying than in cross-cultural situations when some oaf has clearly made no effort to be culturally sensitive and then suffers the inevitable backlash. Case in point: during Nato’s airstrikes against Belgrade in 1999, a Serbian friend of mine was talking about how beautiful the city was when a visiting citizen of one of the Nato member countries helpfully offered, “Well it won’t be when we are done bombing it.” The offender was shunned from that point on.

If you are reading this you probably have as little pity for this clown as I did. But what happens when YOU are the offender? There is a good chance that if you do any kind of mingling with people from other countries, something you say will upset someone. There is obviously no fool-proof way to avoid causing this kind of offense and it is possible to be too paranoid about potential insensitivity. However, there are a few avoidable moves that will frame you as a dimwitted, nationalistic philistine without a cosmopolitan bone in your body. Here they are:

Talking too much about your own country
Yes, if you are an American traveler, you will take an international beating for the reputation Americans have as loud-mouthed, nationalistic brutes whether or not you yourself have done anything to encourage this stereotype. Luckily, Barack Obama’s reversing of George W. Bush’s moronic unilateralism has made today the easiest time for Americans to travel in at least a decade. Talking too much about one’s own country is something that anyone from anywhere can be accused of. When I first moved to the US I was a little too eager to tell people about Sweden. I look back now and I am embarrassed… luckily my American friends where gracious and gave me some time to adjust to the fact that as interesting as Sweden may be, I was now living in the US and could afford to wave my own flag a little less.

Unnecessary Comparisons
This is a screw-up that is very closely linked to excessive commentary on your own country. Sometimes it is soooo tempting on overseas trips or in discussions of international flavor, to compare foreign lands to your own. Steer clear of it. If you have a local guide, they are hoping to show off their country, they don’t need to hear about yours and they certainly don’t want to hear about how your country’s architecture/health care/communication style somehow is better.

Lazy Assumptions
I got a lecture from an Argentine friend when I suggested that refined conversation was, by definition, calm and collected. She completely disagreed. Refinement, she said, did not at all come from the kind of monotone, subdued interaction that I was describing. Animation, energy, passion and dramatic fluctuations in tone and volume were not just OK, they were just as refined as anything I was talking about. I backed right down from my Northern European assumption.

Wimpy Eating Habits
Whenever my family and I visited friends’ homes growing up in Asia, food would appear. Our hosts were often intensely interested in what we thought about their food. I learned very quickly that it was NOT OK to ignore the curry and make comments about the food tasting “interesting.” If you are traveling, embrace the opportunity to try something different. Stick your neck out, puff up your chest and ask for another pupusa…

Being an Island Unto Yourself and Your Own
It’s tricky. You are a long way from home. You are homesick. And the confusing blend of new language, food, customs and beliefs has you wanting to either stay indoors or join a club that exclusively admits your own nationals. Resist this urge to hibernate. Some culture clash is to be expected. If people sense that you have no interest in reaching out and learning about your host country, they are less likely to make an effort with you.

One final word: don’t freak out if you are guilty of any of the above. International interaction and cross-cultural communication of any kind is going to involve a lot of trial and error. If you upset someone, a sincere apology is often all that is needed to move forward and enjoy the process of learning about new ways to be human.


Bjorn Karlman

Scam-Proof – How to Avoid Being Duped While Traveling

China Part 2a from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I came across the above video on the blog of productivity guru and author of “The Four-Hour Workweek”, Tim Ferris. Tim who is extremely well-traveled, was recently in China on a trip with Kevin Rose (internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Digg among other things) and another friend, Glenn McElhose. Kevin and Glenn got completely scammed by two women pretending to be local art students that led the pair through an elaborate set of “cultural” experiences – excessive purchases of supposedly local student art, over-priced tea drinking, etc.. I won’t spoil the video because it is well worth the 20 minutes for anyone planning a trip abroad (or anyone that is curious about how scam artists do their thing).

The video was especially interesting to me because it brought back a slew of memories of contact with scam artists of various guises. Take the over-persistent, uber-friendly fast talker who offered illegal climbing tours of the pyramids near Cairo. There was also the Nigerian taxi cab driver who attempted to cram a host of other passengers in on our dollar. Even more disturbingly, there were the phony Manila police officers that flashed fake badges, kidnapped my friend’s father and only let him loose after a substantial monetary exchange…

Nobody enjoys being the victim of a scam artist, so what can be done to prevent this absolute damper on your vacation? The first step is as readily obvious as it is ignored: Do your homework. Invest in a pocket travel guide on your destination.  It is less than $20 and is worth every penny in the value that they add to your experience. You’ll know what to go see and what to avoid. If you prefer to go paperless, try virtualtourist.com (recommended by Tim Ferriss), a superb, free, online resource, written by actual travelers, constantly updated and containing everything from detailed listings of city attractions to information on scams – even the specific scam that Tim Ferris’s friends fell for.

A second step that I have found useful: If at all possible, find a reliable local guide that can give you the basics on where to go, what to see and what to ignore. Who can you trust? Well, definitely not the eager cab driver you met at the station who has an uncle with the cheapest Muay Thai tickets in Bangkok. I stick to: 1) Locals recommended by friends at home. 2) Official hotel/hostel staff. 3) Religious officials (local clergy, missionaries, etc.). 4) Official bureaus of tourism. Remember: DO NOT listen to someone just because they are friendly, persistent or somehow seem to have all the right things to say – scammers are professionals and have gone through the trial and error process that has refined their show; they are SUPPOSED to be convincing.

Third, have a researched itinerary. Know what you want to see on any given day and have a clear, solidly researched plan for:

  • What things cost (DO NOT accept the price that vendors give you without first researching the approximate pricing for what you want.)
  • Approximately how long the journey should take (cab drivers will happily take you on elaborately circuitous routes IN TRAFFIC, simply to run up the tab.)
  • What to do in an emergency – make sure everyone has a local phone card and the number of the hotel and your embassy.

With a post like this you always run the risk of turning people off traveling altogether. That is absolutely not my intention. With some street smarts, travel can be one of the most enlightening experiences in life: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain


Bjorn Karlman