How to be a good alien: what a lifetime of living as an outsider has taught me

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Ironically, it was a trip to the highly classified, mystery-shrouded United States Air Force site of Area 51 in Nevada which helped put my alien status into perspective. 

I’d been living in America for almost three years, working as a full-time travel writer, but I was still very much a Brit-out-of-water. That’s when I met Nate Arizona, a professional ufologist (someone who studies UFOs) – who runs tours to the super-secret US base.

“If you look hard enough, there are things out here that are potentially not of this world,” said Nate, as we sped down Nevada’s dusty Route 375, better known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. “That’s what I don’t get about people these days. They’re always arguing over their tiny differences, without appreciating that most of us are from the same planet.”

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Despite differences, we’re all from the same planet

Something clicked on that Area 51 trip. The realisation that in the galactic scheme of things, the UK and America were extremely close neighbours – and I hadn’t really left home at all. Not only that, but by the simple merit of being a naturally curious human being, I automatically had plenty in common with everyone I met.

Living in a foreign country can sometimes be difficult, but it can teach you invaluable lessons that can be applied to travelling, too. Firstly, that locals are often just as interested in you as you are in them; secondly, that they’ll usually be happy to brag about where they live; and, thirdly, that’s how you pick up all the best tips.  

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You can pick up plenty from the gentle babble of conversations

Being a good alien also involves listening. Paying attention to what is being said to you, of course, but also to what is being said around you. That’s why one of the first things I do when I arrive in a new town on a travel assignment is go to a barbershop for a haircut or beard trim. Not only do barbers tend to have all the best local tips and recommendations, but you can pick up plenty from the gentle babble of conversations: the day-to-day unguarded minutiae which illuminate the true fabric and texture of a place.

The obvious flipside of being a good listener, of course, is not talking too much. From my experience of living in the US for six years, I can corroborate that the British accent is still observed with glee in most social situations.

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Words like “tomato”, “aluminium” and “water” will often raise a smile

While words like “tomato”, “aluminium” and “water” will often raise a smile, others – like “Clinton”, “Obama” and “Trump” should rarely, if ever, be uttered. Even constructive observations on gun control, shared with liberal locals, can come across like Victoria Beckham offering vocal lessons to Aretha Franklin.

In general, there are three main rules for successfully interacting with foreigners on their own turf, whether you’re moving there or just visiting. They’re sometimes referred to as the three Es: ‘Esteem’, ‘Engage’, ‘Enquire’. Namely, show respect, make an effort to interact and ask questions. 

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What to find an awesome bar or restaurant? Talk to locals

One of my friends, a keen traveller called Jon, is a master of this. His favourite question? “What makes you happy?” It sounds corny, but it really works, and nine times out of 10 results in a recommendation for an awesome local bar or restaurant.

Obviously, I cheated a little picking an easy country to move to. Not only is America one of the “big four” for British expats (alongside Australia, Canada and Spain), but they also speak the same language. It’s a lot harder to be a successful alien in other countries, but there are cheat codes for that, too.

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I always sign up for a food tour on my first day

When I’m travelling alone to a non-English-speaking country, I usually do two things. Firstly, sign up for a walking food tour on my first day. It’s a brilliant way to get the lay of the land, as well as a crash course in local customs and where to eat for the rest of your trip. Buenos Aires is just one example of a city with a great free tour – ideal if you’re continuing south through Argentina

Next, I prepare my Get Out of Jail Card. This is invariably a business card from my hotel, with three magic words in the native language scribbled phonetically on the back: “hello”, “thanks” and “cheers”. That way, you can always ingratiate yourself to the locals – and always get home.

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You can always ingratiate yourself with locals

Of course, there are pitfalls to avoid, many of them hidden. Passing food with your left hand in India, for example, or making the thumbs up sign in Turkey. Not to mention waving your chopsticks around in China, or tipping in Japan (this is considered extremely bad practice, as excellent service comes as standard). For these, I swear by Culture Smart – a superb series of printed travel guides which address the customs and cultures of a place, rather than simply providing tips.

Ultimately, travel naturally connects us – so don’t fight it. Just because your nationalities are different, doesn’t mean you don’t have plenty in common. All you need is the courage to ask questions. We’re all from the same planet, after all.

Award-winning writer, Jonathan Thompson, is a regular SOLO columnist. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures right here.

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Images: Jonathan Thompson & Flash Pack

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