It’s easy to befriend backpackers when you’re thrust together in a hostel dorm. After all, everyone is looking for a buddy to explore the highland market or hike the nearby trail—and then celebrate the event by sharing a beer.
But making friends with locals can be harder. This is partially due to “bubbles” along popular backpacker routes, where the Western culture is so potent that travellers can get easily isolated from their host nation, not to mention the language and societal barriers.
The biggest obstacle to any friendship—be in on the playground or geopolitically—are the twin notions of “us” and “them.” Here’s how to narrow that gap and make friends with the residents of your host nation:
It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It
Many people around the globe feel pressured to learn English for work, especially in regions that depend on tourism. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to accommodate Anglophone travelers who speak louder instead of slower and seem irate when they’re not understood—even though they’re the foreigners.
By attempting to learn even the rudiments of the language, you’re demonstrating an interest in and respect for your host nation that not all travellers extend. Consider taking an immersive language course for a few weeks and challenging yourself to speak the language abroad, regardless of your skill level. In my experience, locals are often stoked to hear a Westerner attempting their native dialect.
I suspect learning the fundamentals of speech also makes you less likely to get ripped off in cabs and stores, but I can’t prove that one.
When in Rome, Stop Being a Weird Foreigner
In the West, it’s considered impolite to slurp your noodles, but in China it demonstrates how much you enjoyed your meal; in parts of South and Southeast Asia, it’s taboo to eat with your left hand, as that’s the hand you use to wipe with in the bathroom; in some Asian countries, giving or receiving an item with only one hand is discourteous.
There’s no shortage of subtle nuances that extend beyond the obvious decorum of dressing appropriately and avoiding public intoxication in more conservative nations—even though some countries are so desperate for foreign dollars they cater to backpackers gone berserk despite the impact on the community and its traditions.
Adopting regional practices make you seem not only more courteous, but also less foreign, and therefore more approachable—to some people, anyway.
For example, while backpacking through India, I received a lot of negative attention despite dressing modestly. After trading in my baggy shirts and harem pants for a traditional salwar kameez, however, I experienced much warmer interactions.
As with language, it’s more about intention than perfection.
Burst Your (Backpacker) Bubble
The first step to befriending locals is leaving Khao San Road (or the regional equivalent) and finding a bar or cafe that isn’t a backpacker haunt serving comfort food and piping Bob Marley. If you’re unsure where the cool kids hang out, universities make great starting points.
Conventional wisdom dictates you avoid the topics of religion and politics, but I disagree. Hey, what would you rather talk about: the popular attractions in your city or your opinion on how it’s being run?
While travelling in Egypt, my most engaging and rewarding conversations with Egyptians centred on how they were being affected by the ongoing revolution. But be mindful of who’s listening—one discussion in Luxor resulted in an academic from Alexandria being asked to leave by a conservative hostel owner who didn’t agree with his liberal ideas.
That said, there is one piece of conventional wisdom that does very much apply here: Listen more than you speak. Whatever you’ve seen, heard or read about isn’t necessarily accurate; there are almost certainly extenuating social or historic elements that you, the outsider, don’t understand.
This may sound obvious, but acknowledge your ignorance and apologize in advance if you accidentally misspeak and cause offense. By doing this, I could pose in-depth questions about religion and culture that I would’ve otherwise felt uncomfortable asking, and have consequently learned a lot. Most people are patient and forgiving if you’re forward about your unfamiliarity with the situation and about your aim to learn, not affront.
Befriending locals is the best way to get to know a country—not just because they’re likely to know lots of cool places that aren’t listed in your guidebook, but also because they’ll offer rich context to what you’re encountering.