It happens to all of us when we travel. We walk down a street and before we know it, people are approaching us, locals who are trying to sell us something we don’t need or trying to convince us to eat there or sleep here or to join a day trip somewhere. Maybe they want us to exchange money at their shop, have our shoes shined, eat their street food or buy their blankets. You get the idea. Foreigners are targets and as a result, we often have to deal with people trying to convince us to part ways with our money.
Our typical reaction when we encounter these situations is to often put our head down and keep on moving, ignoring the pleas and sales pitches and promises. We tend to label anyone who is trying to sell us something as a nuisance and as someone that we need to avoid. We distrust such people so easily, perhaps because they appear to only be interested in getting our money, or perhaps because of the assumed differences between us.
We fear what we don’t know and when a woman wearing a traditional village dress or a man who is talking to us in a language we can’t decipher approaches us, we just don’t know how to react. Our natural tendency is to grab onto the fact that since they are trying to sell us something, it’s okay to just walk away.
But wait a minute…
Who cares if they are trying to sell us something? Who cares if they are wearing jeans or a traditional dress or speaking in Hmong?
At the end of the day, we really aren’t so different from the people we come across, no matter what they are wearing or what their language might be or what they are trying to sell.
The important thing to realize is that almost everyone we encounter is a fellow human being just trying to survive in this world, exactly like you and me. And as a result, such fellow human beings deserve to be treated with respect. Instead of ignoring them or getting frustrated by their presence, we should look them in the eyes, we should say ‘hello’ (in the local language of course!), and we should acknowledge them with a smile or a polite ‘no, thank you’.
I’m not saying we should buy something or even engage in a conversation with every single person that approaches us, but a little acknowledgement certainly never hurt.
The point of travel is to connect with foreign lands, cultures and, yes, people and the only way to achieve this is to treat others with respect and to recognize that we all need to earn a living, we all need to feed our families and we all want to improve our lives as much as possible. In the end, this is why we all go to work each day as well and that is why those trying to sell you something on the streets of Delhi, in the markets of Bangkok or in the lanes of Cairo, deserve to be recognized as fellow human beings, not as anything less.
(During my recent Wander Across Mexico Tour, our group was often approached by people selling things wherever we went. And I was happy to see the members of the group usually look people in the eyes and say ‘No, gracias’ instead of just turning away. It might sound silly but even these small gestures make a difference.)
I had a very good friend during my University years who would always hug people whenever she saw them or said goodbye. It had a lasting effect on me as, since then, I have always tried to shake as many hands and offer as many hugs as possible, or at least touch someone on the shoulder while speaking with them. It adds a greater degree of human connection and I have noticed a major, and positive, difference in how people react when I do these things. (Thank you Angela!)
Such simple actions help create a bridge between people and cultures, even if it is a tiny bridge, instead of widening the gap that already exists between foreigner and local. And once you start doing it, I’m certain that it will become as positive an experience for you as it has been for me and I am also certain that those you interact with will be very appreciative.
Not only do people hassle me less when I look them in the eyes and say ‘no, thank you’, but often times, they put aside their interest in selling me something and we end up having an actual conversation. Over the years I’ve ended up having tea and meals with people who were originally trying to get me to open up my wallet, and I even once spent the night at the home of a tout who had been following me down the street in Delhi trying to get me to book a room at a crappy hotel that his ‘friend’ owned. We became friends and he ended up showing me around the city for two days as well.
A little human connection goes a long way.
With all of this said, I’m a realistic guy and I understand that sometimes it is indeed annoying as heck to have a group of people mob you while walking down the street, everyone trying to get you to shell out a few dollars for their low-quality goods. But, we are visitors to their country after all, and the idea is to not let that frustration ruin your day or stop you from interacting with locals at all.
If we can always remember that we are all connected, then we can bring ourselves to look people in the eyes, to smile, to touch their shoulders and to say, ‘not today, thank you’, instead of automatically walking away with our head down, widening the gap between us in the process, a gap that we should be helping to close.
What do you think? How do you handle people approaching you while traveling? Any other pieces of advice or good stories to share?