The Fallacy of Interacting with Locals

When people regale you with their travel stories, have you ever heard people talk about their local interactions? I hear it all the time amongst serial travelers. When people explain what they do on their trips, they say they go out and interact with the locals wherever they are. They say the locals are so friendly or they were rude or whatever the case may be. But did they really interact with locals?  Can they judge a local population after their short visit? Here’s what I call the fallacy of interacting with locals.

The Fallacy of Interacting with Locals, locals, Philippines, Lee Abbamonte

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time but wasn’t really sure how to phrase it. I already know sanctimonious travelers and others are going to jump all over me about it, but I don’t care. People are just people and many travelers think their travels are more profound than other peoples for whatever reason. It’s part of the one-upping that goes on in travel that drives me bonkers.

 

If you know me I generally stay out of any travel argument because travel can be like politics amongst “serious” travelers wherein everyone thinks they’re right and nothing gets solved.  Also, by no means do I think I’m perfect nor a better traveler than anyone else.  Plus, I try my best to not be a hypocrite in travel and in life.  Although like anyone, my views have often changed over the years as my experiences and priorities have.  So if I said or wrote something at 28, I may have a different outlook now at 38; and that’s OK.  Peoples views can change.

The Fallacy of Interacting with Locals, meet the locals

The fallacy of interacting with locals can be explained by asking a simple question. How did you interact with locals?

 

I ask this simple question for a reason.  I find that many travelers’ local interactions are centered amongst people that are paid to be nice to them. People such as taxi drivers; hotel concierge, bartenders; waiters; and other service industry workers. This is understandable as almost everyone interacts with these types of people on their travels. But all are paid or tipped to be nice to you.

 

This is part of the fallacy of interacting with locals. Tourists often times don’t venture out of their comfort zone even though they think they do and often rave about it.

If you have a chatty taxi driver who takes you to the fancy hotel where a nice bellman takes your bags to a lovely check-in person; who has the helpful concierge refer you a top restaurant with a charming bartender and funny waiter…does this mean you’ve interacted with locals? I personally don’t think so but many people do.

 

On a more budget level; if you’re at a hostel with a bunch of western backpackers who tell you about an amazing bar with all western backpackers getting drunk and you have a blast…did you interact with locals? No you didn’t but you had a great time and you love the city and I’m sure the local bartender was pretty nice. See what I mean? The fallacy of interacting with locals is everywhere and often even more so with young budget travelers who tend to flock together and stay to themselves.

The Fallacy of Interacting with Locals, Nepal, Lee Abbamonte

Now I want to clearly state there’s nothing wrong with doing this at all. We all have our ways of traveling and none is better than another-I firmly believe that. People have comfort zones and I have been just as guilty as anyone at times of staying in my comfort zone in certain places. But as I always say (plus I enjoy a sensible debate), you’re not a real traveler until you’re comfortable being uncomfortable.

 

My favorite and in fact best travel stories always have to do with people. People I met along the way who made a heartfelt difference in my experience. More often than not, these are locals. Real people who aren’t paid to be nice to me.  Conversely, I’ve had my opinions of places shaped negatively by locals too.

 

But either way, you don’t get into these situations by accident; you have to put yourself in the position to have them happen. If you stay in your hotel/hostel or around touristic things, you’ll only meet tourists and people who work in tourism. It’s a simple fact. This is one reason tour groups are the worst.

 

That said, simply walking around aimlessly will not allow you to meet locals either. Think about it where you live. I see tons of tourists every day in New York City and as a local I avoid where tourists go like the plague. Of course if someone looks lost I may offer assistance but that’s just common courtesy.  It’s odd to think this way about yourself but locals in other cities do that to to us-we’re not that special. It’s human nature to avoid certain things.

 

Also, just because someone on the street gives you directions or can speak English doesn’t make it a real local interaction. But it’s a good start because you’re being outgoing and you never know where that might lead. I’ve had great times as a result of doing just this.  You never know!

The Fallacy of Interacting with Locals, Douala, Cameroon, Lee Abbamonte

So how do you meet a real local you ask? The answer is you meet them whether by chance, by going to where locals hang out, or perhaps by setting it up ahead of time. Perhaps meeting someone online or staying with someone who can show you around or introduce you to others. There’s no golden bullet for meeting locals but the one thing you must do is make an effort and put yourself in the position to meet locals. You must be outgoing and friendly.

 

This cannot be understated. If you want to meet and interact with locals and get a real feel for them and their culture, you have to talk with real people. To do this you must put yourself in a position to make it happen and be likeable. Otherwise it won’t.

 

Remember service industry people will always be nice because it’s in their best interest. But the fallacy of interacting with locals lies in thinking those people are emblematic of the people as a whole. They are trained to make you feel comfortable.  To really experience a people, one must actually speak to and interact with them.

 

It’s not easy, even for a super outgoing person like me or anyone at all.  Anyone who says otherwise is full of it. But I assure you it is possible. The experiences you have will be some of the best of your travel life because they’ll feel real and not manufactured. That’s a great feeling and makes for a great story. There’s no fallacy in that.

Comments

  1. If you don’t try you’ll never get, it’s that simple. Well said sir.

  2. I got a good chuckle out of this as I can totally relate to what you are saying here. Doing a favela tour in Rio – albeit with a local tourism operation in Rio – was not exactly my idea of “interacting with the locals.” Did it give good insight into life in the favelas? Yes. But can I really say that my interactions with the people on this tour is a good representation of what the people of Rio de Janerio are like? Absolutely not.

    While it was great to hear that some of the proceeds of my tour goes towards reinvestment within the favela, a large portion of the tour was us going from shop to shop to buy arts and crafts from the locals. I don’t regret going on the tour as it gave me some insight into what life is like for these people, but I really can’t say that I interacted with locals in this particular situation.

    I agree and commend you for encouraging your readers to get out of their comfort zone if they truly want to interact with locals. My most memorable travel moments have come through my interactions with other people – whether it be for a few minutes or a few days – and those only came through my efforts to step outside my comfort zone and talk with as many different people as possible or take up their offers to hang out for a bit when my gut feeling told me it would be safe to do so. Nothing worth having comes without pursuing, right?

    • Thanks for the great comment Ray and yes it’s nothing against anyone because we’re all guilty of it but the real thing only happens when you allow it to!

  3. Thank you for saying this! I have said to friends for years they should not do tour groups and leave the dang hotels and actually do something! Meet someone! Experience a place!

  4. I live in Romania at the moment and I am American. I have barely interacted with a Romanian aside from my job, the hotel and restaurants. I keep saying they’re very unfriendly but I think maybe it’s me who is unfriendly or unapproachable. Good article. Thanks.

    • Wow, thanks for the honest comment Paul. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice and smile. That goes a long way toward endearing yourself to others. Just some friendly advice from a guy who smiles a lot!

  5. Marilyn Terrell says:

    Yes, it can take some preparation, but it’s well worth the effort. Before my trip to Taiwan, I asked a mom on my daughter’s softball team if she still had family or friends in Taipei I could meet. Over email she introduced me to her best friend from high school, who took me to meet her kung fu teacher, invited me to a neighborhood origami party, explained rituals at the Buddhist temple, took me to dinner with her family, brought me to the best night market, and arranged for me to have a reflexology massage, all in a single day. Her extraordinary welcome completely transformed my trip.

  6. Once my Venetian friend took me to dinner with a bunch of her friends. While they all spoke English, they did not do so just because I was included in the group. I totally understood the woman who spoke about her kitchen renovation, but most of the film critic’s words were lost on me. Yet I felt comfortable in the group because the body language, meal sharing and warmth were inclusive despite the language barrier. One of my best ever “local” interactions.

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