Human Connection

A Little Human Connection Goes A Long Way

Derek Perspectives 84 Comments

Human Connection

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?


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Comments 84

  1. Hello Earl! I just came across your blog this week and have been reading backstories every evening since in an attempt to glean as much information as I can for my first solo trip. One of my concerns is touts and I thought I had it all planned: how I was going to ignore everyone who approached me in a defensive move so as to not get taken advantage of. This story (and several others) has completely changed my perspective.

    I just wanted to let you know how much I value and appreciate your insightful opinions and advice. I can only hope that traveling will make me a quarter the humanitarian you are.

    Thank you and I hope to run into you someday.

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  4. Hmm, I can agree with most of what I read here, but if I’m very honest, I must admit that while I want to be as good-hearted as all of the posters before me seem to be, there is this part of me that underneath of all the polite smiling and “No thank you, my friend!” gets to the point where the “sales effort” annoys me quite a bit..!

    I really don’t mind locals trying to sell me stuff, really I don’t, and I can relate to their trying to feed their family, but if, after 10 tries to kindly refuse, smiling all the time, I still get followed, I get frustrated, I can’t help it. Don’t know if that makes me a bad person but that’s the way I feel.

    Probably where it’s really too much for me is when I’m touched and pulled in different directions while being shouted at. Made that experience in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Being pick-pocketed in this fashion in Avignon, France, also didn’t help.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is: Yes, I try to be nice to street vendors, but I can’t quite agree with the general “People who get frustrated with street vendors are bad” – kind of tone that seems to be predominant in these comments.

    Sorry if that offends someone (honestly)…

  5. My friend, this is not only about relations between foreigners and locals. Just look at how people treat each other in big cities in the West.

    A long time ago I got into daygame, which helped me truly learn how to establish deep connections with people, both men and women. Sometimes, it is simply beautiful to walk away from an interaction, looking back and thinking how wonderful it was.

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  7. Very true indeed! Cant agree much! For me, i’ll look in the eyes n smile n gently say no thanks. N once in phuket, someone who initially wanted to do sales n after seeing my smile n hearing the polite no, she asked if im a muslim n need recommendations on halal food n she did provide a few good ones! Cant agree more with you, Earl! You’re awesome!

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  9. I completely agree! Everyone should realize that being a salesman is never an easy job. I think it is rude to ignore someone who approaches you no matter what it is for. A simple, “no thank you” is always deserved. Although I will admit there have been a few times where the “you want to see a comedy show?” salesmen in times square have been ignored. Possibly because I will get asked 20 times before I reach the end of the block. haha 🙂

    1. Hey Olivia – I was actually just talking about those comedy show salemen today with a friend of mine. It can be a little much at times, I will also admit 🙂

  10. This post touched my heart! Thank-you for stating what should be the obvious, not just in traveling but it everyday human kindness.

    Awesome awesome blog so happy we stumbled across it!

  11. Thanks for the reminder, Earl. I know and always try to do this, but sometimes you just get overwhelmed. I like being kept accountable by you like this!

  12. Great post, Earl, and a noble, humane strive.

    My ‘policy’ and intention will always be to do so too. To say “No thank you’ at the least.

    But I’m only human. It’s a two-way-street too.
    There may be moments or days, that I feel tired, or that I just had too much, and that I don’t have the energy or mood anymore to do anything else then ignore. And/or the other person, the tout or vendor, can behave so obnoxious etcetera, not accepting my kind “No thank you.”, that it leaves me no alternative then to shift to ignoring.
    Let’s be honest and realistic besides being decent and kind-hearted: sometimes we can take no more…Seems normal to me. What I DO try to avoid at all times, is to get angry and to act out. Because no matter how fed up I might be, I try to remind myself that they are only trying to make a living.

  13. Sometimes, people might generally be selling things but that might not be why they want to talk to u. I am from India and we met a guy on a street in Koh Samui who was excited to tell his story from the the border of India and Bangladesh. So each time we spotted him in the next few days, he would just give a smile, recommend places to eat and ask about our day 🙂

  14. “…they put aside their interest in selling me something and we end up having an actual conversation” — love that part of the post, as interacting with locals is such an important part of the travel experience. That being said, it’s obviously not fun to be hassled, but if you can turn into a cultural experience than that’s great.

    1. Hey Jessie – It’s definitely not fun to be hassled, but I can only imagine it’s not so fun being someone who has to hassle. So if I can remember that, then I will always feel that even the most persistent vendor deserves respect.

  15. All great points!

    But if I may, I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate.

    One of the reasons we often put our heads and keep walking is because as humans, WE don’t feel valued by the street vendor/village lady/annoying child. Instead, we perceive ourselves as just a commodity – a means to an end – since we KNOW that the sales person is ONLY talking to us for money.

    It’s human nature to pay attention to our own selfish desires, and thus ignore these people completely.

    With that being said, I fully believe it’s within our capacity has empathetic humans to overcome our basic emotional state, and greet everyone with open arms 🙂

    1. Hey Paul – I like it. Sure, we don’t feel valued, but we’re not the one’s struggling to feed our families. They NEED money and we are indeed the ones who can provide it. I don’t think of myself as a commodity though when I can take a moment and understand their situation. And that leads to the empathy you mention because I can’t give money to everyone, but I can certainly treat everyone with respect. Good points my friend!

  16. earl! yes.. you are correct. while it may be annoying for us travelers to be approached by street vendors.. we should remember that this is their job and they are just trying to make a living. having spent some time down in SE asia.. i find it fun to make eye contact with these strangers who are peddling. i like to refer to them as “my friend.” (of course also saying ‘hello’ or ‘no thanks’ in the local language is a nice touch as well) these people are trying to make it thru life just like us. we should treat this chance meeting with a little decency and class.

    1. Hey Jake – I do something similar in India, calling everyone ‘my friend’ and it’s a great way to break the stereotypical boundaries. I’m sure you’ve discovered that both people feel much better once a few respectful words have been exchanged.

  17. The stereotype builds and builds in both directions and tourists just seem like rude idiots to the vendors too! We have to interact, show each other we are human and break these norms.

    As your group members did I always look people in the eye and say sorry I am not buying anything today (tell the truth). This isn’t just in travel either, back home with homeless people I have been trying to stop and say a few words if someone asks me for money.

  18. Great blog entry, Earl! As humans, we all desire contact – whether it’s a hug, kiss, handshake, or just a simple hello. Even if we don’t speak the same language, those actions are universal and can often brighten up someone’s day! Thanks for sharing!

  19. I love this and I truly believe in the principle. It’s really just about showing respect. Thanks 🙂

  20. I must admit I am more of the ignore and walk away type while my boyfriend talks to everyone. It slows me down and reminds me that sometimes those strangers on the street can turn into friends instead of just annoying salesmen

  21. Good point Julie S. Often “time is money” for them as well.
    I always try to keep eye contact and say a polite “no thank you”, but sometimes I just really don’t feel like being hassled and when on those days I can avoid someone coming up to me by looking the other way, I will.
    I know it’s not polite and I can always say ‘no’, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy. I must say I often feel bad afterwards, though.

  22. I agree with the main point of your post whole heartedly, but also remain aware not to take too much time from a person if I’m not going to buy. Here in Guatemala vendors, especially women selling textiles which they drape across their arms and balance on their heads, walk through the restaurants (often with their children) to sell while you’re eating or conversing with somebody. I always try to smile and respectfully say no, rather than ignore these ladies completely.

    Marta and her 2 year old daughter Azucena walk through Cafe Atitlan at the same time every night. She is a single mom and sells the textiles she and her mother make. The bag on her head is incredibly heavy (she let me hold it). She can only support it on her head for an hour.

    After learning this I let her go right away because I know she would have continued speaking with me out of being so nice and out of politeness, but if she spoke for too long with me she would have fewer chances that evening to sell her textiles to support her family.

    1. Hey Julie – Yes, that does make sense. I would only engage into a conversation though if the person was clearly interested and sometimes, or many times, I find that such people are more than happy to speak to someone than to continue selling their stuff for a few minutes. And at the same time, it doesn’t take long to say a polite ‘no, thank you’ or to give a person a smile!

  23. hey Earl. actually a very fair point and one that I haven’t really had the chance to consider before. i think a lot of us do draw back because of how it’s purely a monetary relationship at first, but we also definitely need to keep our minds open to them as human beings!

    And, like many people say, this can also be applied to home. I find that culture in the US in public places are very impersonal for some reason; the lack of eye contact while walking past, the lack of communication.

    1. Hey Michelle – It’s natural to think that way, to determine that since money is that main goal of this person, we should just ignore them. But I think you’ll see that exchanging a smile or a few words will change that dynamic, not all the time of course, but often enough to make it well worth it!

  24. I think I’ve handled people approaching me in an Ok manner but I also think I could’ve done more.

    This will probably sound insane but sometimes I see someone on the street and I really want to give them a hug. I never do out of fear on how they will react, so I smile as often as possible and even if I don’t get a smile back it doesn’t matter, I know I’ve tried to connect with another human using a simple gesture. That’s all it takes and when that person smiles back and says hello, doesn’t it make your day?

    Thank You Earl for this wonderful post.


    1. Hey Rashelle – First, we can all always do more. None of us are perfect and there is always room for improvement 🙂

      And yes, it does one’s day when you exchange that smile or have that tiny moment of interaction. To me, it’s more gratifying than any other aspect of travel.

  25. I’ve never been able to understand travelers who look away and ignore touts like they’re not even there – no one deserves to be treated that way. I agree that, in most cases, a “no, thank you” is easy to do, but at least provides acknowledgement and shows a degree of respect. That said, I’ve been to a few places where “no, thank you” is an invitation for more solicitation and sales pressure – “Why not?”, “I’ll give you a good price” etc. (Kuta, Bali was probably the worst place for that). I struggle with what to do in places like this because I don’t want to get myself caught in a never-ending pitch, but I also don’t want to shut these people out completely.

    1. Hey Jessica – I can agree that Kuta is one of the toughest places on the planet when it comes to vendors/touts. But I think the best you can do is stop, look them in the eyes and say something like, “I appreciate the offer but I’m really not interested.” I’ve found that giving a longer version of ‘no thank you’ tends to stop the more aggressive vendors from pursuing me any longer. Not always, but often.

  26. Great sentiments to remember abroad or at home.
    I deal with similar situations at home on a daily basis. There’s a saying that we’re all just one pay check away from sleeping under the bridge – in the last 2 years I’ve come that close if not for the care of a couple of very good friends who offered shelter and funds. So traveler, or not… Breathe in, release, remember it’s their job to ask you, you don’t have to buy, you don’t have to donate and you don’t have to be rude. 🙂

    1. Hey Maria – It doesn’t take much for our situations to be reversed and as a result, it seems only natural that we should remember that at all times and be as polite and respectful to those who have it harder than we do. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as always!

  27. I couldn’t agree more. A few weeks ago my friend and I stopped in Jamaica on our cruise. It was a bit annoying to have everyone try and stop us but we did end up talking to a local man who was super friendly and gave us insight into Jamaica and its culture we couldn’t have gotten somewhere else.

  28. I think this unfriendly behavior comes from living too long in America where we do not make eye contact on the street or say hello to strangers, much less nod. We don’t experience many street vendors (and many places don’t even allow it) so we lack experience in how to be polite to them. Street scenes are so much more vibrant in other countries! It’s a shame when people don’t recognize the encounter for a chance to experience another culture!

    1. Hey Julie – Definitely. I do think that part of the reason people ignore vendors is because, as you said, they are not used to it and they don’t know what to do. If we could only realize that those vendors are just people, like you and me, trying to make it in life, I think we’d have a much easier time interacting with everyone.

  29. Hi Earl. Very well said! Love your perception of the world. We should always treat other people the way we want to be treated. If someone else struggles more than us to survive, the least we can do is understand where they are coming from and not belittle them. We tend to underestimate the power of compassion and this human touch. Travel is personal and to connect to a place means connecting with its people. Once again, good job! 🙂

    1. Hey Nita – Connecting with people is not only vital while traveling but it should be something we strive to do every single day. The greatest rewards of life happen when we interact with our fellow human beings around the world!

  30. Thanks for this post Earl. I’d just like to add that everything you said can also be applied to your home town. I see too many people purposely trying to avoid someone whom they assume will be asking them for money and / or their time. Nothing wrong with politely looking them in the eye and saying No.

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  32. Great post. I actually wrote a similar one a few months ago while I was living in Chiapas, MX, where the main streets are full of indigenous vendors and you’re approached at least every 5-10 minutes while sitting at a cafe and constantly if you’re walking. Some people treat them like so many flies buzzing around. Hawking things all day every day on foot is exhausting and discouraging at best, and I’m sure a smile and polite refusal is appreciated by these beautiful, hard-working people.

    1. Hey Dixie – While we were in Chiapas, it was the same. And I noticed that most of the vendors did indeed smile back when not ignored. They were great people who certainly appreciated being spoken to.

  33. Hi, Earl, that was a very moving blog. I feel the same way. I lived in France as a child and visited several times. I always like the way you walk down the street and people look you in the eye and say bonjour or ca va? or something that acknowledges we are two human beings intersecting at this point in time and place. And the double kisses if they know you, just love that! I noticed that my children’s generation (twenties) are very prone to hug everyone they know and run into, etc. Love that! In America, it is generally not popular to catch the eye of someone on a city street (as in New York!). You are supposed to walk by someone and ignore them as if you alone are walking in that space. So not only while traveling is the advice wonderful and humanizing, but for those of us that are just walking down the street at home and encounter another human being—how ya doing? Hey, whats up? Hello, gorgeous day, isn’t it? Peace, Patricia

    1. Hey Patricia – Yes, yes, yes…and I bet when we start doing this at home, at first we will notice some strange reactions from others since it is not so common to speak with strangers. But keep at it and I’m certain there will be some amazing interactions that take place!

  34. Excellent point! It’s much better to not be aloof, to try to open up at least a little bit, even with some touts in India who can come across as brash beyond belief. As a traveler (an ambassador in a sense), it’s much healthier to try to have empathy, to realize that the world can be a tough place and that people need to make a living. Many struggle just to provide food for their families.

    1. Hey Mike – Exactly and for many of us who are reading this blog, we will never know what it feels like to struggle in that way. So at the very least, those who are struggling certainly deserve to be acknowledged and interacted with as fellow human beings.

  35. Wonderful advice! It’s absolutely true and works nearly 100% of the time. The few merchants and sellers who pester after your polite refusal are not a good reason to change your ways. For them you should learn the polite way, in their language, to tell them to Stop ………please.

  36. So glad there’s a post like this as I really hate it when travellers dismiss people that approach them, when as you said they’re only trying to make a living, and this is a part of travelling and exploring new cultures and people. I usually smile and say no thanks if I’m not interested in buying their goods. I always think that a simple smile can go a long way!

  37. Earl, you’re preaching to the choir on this one. I’ve always tried to at least acknowledge the locals trying to make a living in one way or another. Seldom are there times when I’m in so much of a hurry, that I can’t smile and say no thank-you. I try to be a good ambassador, as what this world needs is peace. Each time you go the extra couple seconds to be nice to others, a small dent is made into the distrust of other cultures.

    Your Blog deserves a commendation award for bringing these subjects to light. It’s simple, everyday behavior that every traveler should be aware of when interacting with strangers around the world. Thanks Earl

    1. Thanks Steve. And I understand that we can’t do it all the time…we are human beings after all. But if we can just remember that everyone around us is also normal human beings, I think we would take those extra seconds to connect with more people and to strengthen the bond between us all.

  38. I love this post! It’s true for even people in the U.S. where I reside! However, what do you do about children? When I was in Fatehpur Sikri I was overwhelmed by the number of kids trying to sell us things or get money (not because I don’t love kids) but because they would climb on top of the rickshaw or get really close to the car I was in and I was worried about their safety. I asked numerous times nicely for them to hop off because I was worried. What do you do in this situation?

    Also, when you go to India, how do you just “look around” or I guess as we call it here, “window shop”. Sometimes I feel guilty for not buying something because I feel like I am teasing the owner, but just want to look at somethings and see what’s out there and then decide if I want to buy it.

    1. Hey Delnaaz – First, with India, window shopping is part of the buying process so nobody’s going to be offended if you don’t buy. They might wish you did buy something but at the end of the day, they know that most foreigners are ‘just looking’. As for children, that’s hard to say as in a place like India, safety is an entirely different that what we imagine. Of course, I wouldn’t want them to be doing anything dangerous but at the same time, I’m not so sure I could stop them.

      On a side note, during my first visit to Fatehpur Sikri, my friend and I were hounded by these two jewelery sellers wandering around outside the mosque, always coming up to us and following us around. Eventually, I stopped and started talking to them. I ended up staying in Fatehpur for 1 week, hanging out with these guys, playing cricket with them at sunrise, eating lunch and dinner at their homes and meeting their entire families. All from a simple conversation.

  39. I do agree, but as commented above, it’s not just about travelling. It’s just as relevant to Big Issue sellers, chuggers and also beggars. They’re all human beings, but how often do people walk past without any acknowledgement of their existence.

    1. Hey Megan – Absolutely. It applies to everywhere and everyone. I just see things from a traveling perspective since that’s what I do most of the time but the lesson is the same no matter where we are.

  40. This is a super post Earl! It has inspired me to write about an amazing encounter I had on this last trip to Paris. When I finish my post I will link it to this article.
    Many thanks for educating people to remember that we are all on this journey called life together.

  41. This post is perfect timing as we were just having a conversation about this the other day with a friend visiting who had just spent time in Cairo and Istanbul. It really doesn’t take much to say “no thank you” or acknowledge someone by looking them in the eye and giving a polite nod. I’ve also found that if I do have a practical question (i.e., where is the bus or where can I find x food) that tends to change the dynamic and the person who was once trying to sell something has taken it upon him/herself to help me. It turns everyone involved from stereotypical roles to people.

    1. Hey Audrey – Anything that removes that initial seller/tourist barrier and turns us into fellow human beings can lead to wonderful interactions. And at least in my travels, I’ve found that it doesn’t take much for someone to really give up the ‘sellers mentality’ in exchange for a genuine conversation.

  42. I totally agree. I know I get into the “GO AWAY” mode sometimes (but if I see you walk out of your fancy car, with your diesel jeans and tommy hilfigure shirt, then come up and ask me for money, yea, i’m probably going to tell you to piss off).

    But in the markets, on the beach, and when people are actually trying to sell me things, I try to be polite about refusing. And sometimes I have to catch myself and remind myself these people are not rich kids trying to get free stuff from foreigners…they are actual hard working human beings who are just trying to make a living. That’s why, when I do want something, i try to buy it from the local man walking down the street selling fruit and avocados, rather than buy them in the big grocery store.

    1. Hey Dani – I’m the same and being polite or consciously deciding where we spend our many does make a difference. By the way, where are you that wealthy people are coming out of their fancy cars asking you for money?

  43. Whenever I have a charity person or Big Issue sellers come up to me, I always try to at least say “no thanks” to them. Having working in telesales before, it was more appreciated when someone said “no thank you” instead of just hanging up. I was just trying to make a living, just like street sellers are!

    1. Hey Rebecca – Excellent point. And it can be applied to just about anyone that we would normally automatically ignore. It’s so strange to me that we find it easier to walk away than to utter a few simple words.

  44. I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU!!! We’ve been living in Phuket, Thailand for just over a year now, and it breaks my heart when I see the tourists completely ignore the Thai vendors or shop keepers in the streets. Thai people are so lovely, and everyone is just trying to make a living, like you said!!

    Thanks for sharing!!!!!

    1. Hey Lourika – I can understand why we do it but hopefully we can change our habits. Thai people are indeed lovely and it’s a shame to have such a barrier between us.

  45. Hi fellow human, I heartily agree with you. Let’s treat everyone with respect and dignity wherever we visit.

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