Twenty-Something Travel was one of the first travel blogs I discovered–and wondered why the heck didn’t I think of that? Needless to say, I’m a big fan of the site and its message and I jumped at the chance to guest post for Twenty-Something Travel when I was launching C’est Christine. I love that Steph decided to return the favor and guest post for me the subtle adaptations you make when integrating into a culture. Here’s her take on how to not attract creeps in London.
On my very first day in London I was chased down the street not once, but twice. Both times it was big, burly Eastern European guys, who leered and confidently asked me personal questions in thick accents while I struggled to find some place, any place, to disappear to.
It was my first time away from home by myself, and I was both terrified and confused. I wasn’t dressed provocatively and I’m certainly no supermodel. At first glance I couldn’t look that much different from the hordes of British women going about their business unmolested. Why were they singling me out?
After some close observation of the locals, I realized what I was doing wrong. It was something so subtle and natural to me that I’d never given it a second thought. Whereas native Londoners walk briskly about the city with their heads down, avoiding eye contact, I was strolling down the street with a huge smile. And looking strangers in the face. Apparently that was all the invitation these guys needed to single me out as different, friendly and possibly easy.
I’d done my research before moving to England, and I thought I’d learned the important cultural differences. Traffic drives on the left, say trousers instead of pants, etc. No matter how prepared I thought I was, there was still a lot of learning to do. There are a lot of unsaid elements in any culture, things like body language and tone of voice; things so subtle that you can’t learn them except by observation and adaptation.
My big, American personality didn’t quite fit into London. I’d managed to find a job as a receptionist for a ritzy art auction house, but when I greeted clients with an exuberant “Hello! How are you today!?!” the looked confused and somewhat put out. “Calm down,” my supervisor told me in a clipped accent, “you’re startling people.”
The tea situation did not help matters. It’s no secret that the English love their tea. I have always been a Diet Coke girl, but I found myself drinking upwards of 7 cups of tea(milk, no sugar please) throughout the working day. I couldn’t help it, it was part of the office culture. I’d barely be halfway through a mug when a new, full one would be thrust upon me. I don’t know how everyone else manages to stay composed. I was a jittery, hopped up, smiling maniac.
After a few weeks in London, I did learn to tone myself down a bit. Not completely, but enough to stop scaring clients, or attracting unwanted attention. Big sunglasses helped, as did figuring out how to channel my self-assurance. Being a confident, smiling, slightly loud American is part of my identity, and I’m okay with that. I like the fact that I’m friendly. It has its perks: my dating prospects exploded with cute British boys impressed with my boldness. In less social situations, I tried my best to restrain my natural exuberance and fit in.
So yes, I changed myself for England, but in the long run England also changed me. I’m different in a myriad of ways, both subtle and significant. I’m much better at blending into the crowd when I need to and I’ve perfected my icy stare. More importantly, I’m much more attuned to social cues now; I’ve realized I can be me without being ME full throttle all the time.
Oh, and I still love tea. But only one, maybe two cups a day now- I like being able to sleep at night.
Stephanie Yoder is a girl who cannot sit still. She writes about travel for young people (the why, the where and the how) for Twenty-Something Travel. When not on the road she lives in Washington DC.