SOSUA, Dominican Republic- When traveling through the streets of a foreign city, very often you will find that the people there really seem to enjoy staring at you. Apparently, you are funny looking.
Often you are looked at with facial expressions that can only be interpreted in your own culture as menacing, judgmental, rude, or even ugly. These stares make you think that you are not wanted, that you are intruding, that if you don’t go away that someone may do you harm. These stares can be intimidating, until you return the favor and say hello.
A simple greeting is often the simplest way to get the gate keeper to open the door.
I don’t know how many times I have heard travelers and tourists saying that the people in China are rude because they stare at them. They take offense to people looking at them, chattering about them in a language they cannot understand, pointing and yelling at them. So they call them rude. Maybe they are. But you are still funny looking.
I admit, there facial expressions on the face of the common Chinese street dweller may seem a bit obtuse and, if viewed through my own cultural lens of interpretation, they do not seem very friendly. Though, in my experience, this look is often a poorly chosen mask, these people are often simply curious, astonished, bored, or are thinking of what you look like without any clothes on.
If you look them in the eye and say hello as you pass, maybe stop and talk for a moment in whatever pieces of their language you can mutter, they usually break into big smiles and will look at you as if you are no longer some sort of oddity, but a human.
The stranger who walks by people in the streets without greeting or introduction seems to provoke a challenge, a sense insecurity, or even a motion of disrespect. It is often a belittling action to ignore a person — especially when they are looking at you. A simple hello and nod can acknowledge that the people you walk by are, in fact, human, and you are not just a moving edifice to be gawked at — though you still may be funny looking.
Perhaps it is rude to stomp through another person’s turf without even an indication of regard, with no introduction, without a greeting. When I hear travelers whine about how Chinese people are rude, I try to observe how they walk through the streets: it is often very quickly, meekly, and with their heads down.
Though, sometimes, the person staring you down may be as ugly as their face foreshadows. I found this to be true in the rural south of Montenegro. But the hello and smile test is a good way to find out what you are dealing with.
The stare down that a traveler can receive when walking through a street of onlookers can sometimes be intense. But the power dynamic can be flipped with a simple greeting, and an equilibrium can be established.
Sometimes I feel like a politician as I walk down the street. Outside of a tourist area — within one saying hello is just a bloodletting for the sharks — greeting people as you pass can turn a street of scowls into a street of interesting conversation, or, at least, a street that no longer seems unfriendly. Offering simple greetings is a good way to test the dynamics of your surroundings, and to assert yourself by forcing people to acknowledge you as an actual human, and not a walking bowl of vegetable lasagna that can be gawked at with impunity.
A greeting shows that you acknowledge someone, and puts them in a position to show you regard. It is a respect game.
In the neighborhoods of the Dominican Republic, a lot of the men in the streets are big and they sometimes stare you down with a sneer that can be initially interpreted as being slightly menacing. But once you look them in the eye, say hello, and crack a smile, they, almost invariably, smile back and return your greeting.
The tables have now been turned, the dynamic shifted. I offer a sign of respect, and it is often returned in kind. Greetings were devised for a reason. Your friends and neighbors have no need to say hello to you — they know you, you are safe, normal — greetings serve as a way to size up a stranger, and I have found it to be a show of respect to make this small offering whenever I find someone staring me down as I pass.
A greeting is a sign of respect, it is a way to show that you are not shifty. Only shady people with something to hide don’t say hello. It is a sneaky move to try to skirt through a community unnoticed.
If you walk into a country, act big, make eye contact, and say hello as though if were an invited guest, you will often be treated as such. If you sneak around like an awkward sort of tip toeing rat, you will probably just be stared at.
I travel the world just to walk up to someone in the street, say hello, and ask them what they are doing. I am usually greeted in return. The more of an ugly face someone shows you, the better the opportunity to stare back, and demand a smile and a hello. Testing your surroundings is part of the great game of traveling.
I once tried to blend into my surroundings when I traveled, I use to try to dress and act “local,” I use to scurry about in the streets as if I belonged there — I was 19 years old and thought it was a sign of traveler status to “blend in.” But then I quickly realized that I fooled nobody. I also found that I was missing opportunities to meet people. I walked fast and missed a large part of the show.
An ugly face staring at you is often a sign of inquisitiveness. There is a reason why a person would take the time to watch you pass. You can cower and pretend you don’t notice that everybody is looking at you, and leave a place disturbed, or you can say hello, stop for a chat, and try to meet the people who live where you travel.
Smile and say hello to the world that stares you in the face.
Travel Tips — People look at you travel tip — Be a Big Man Travel Tip — Dominican Republic Travelogue entries