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Smile and Say Hello Travel Tip

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.

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.

Dominican woman smiling

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.

Wade and Tony at a cockfight

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.

Sosua Dominican Republic

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.

Chinese man staring

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

Filed under: Culture and Society, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

5 comments… add one

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  • Mike Crosby March 5, 2010, 4:58 pm

    Great stuff again Wade. I hope you don’t mind me commenting with the constant compliments, but I find I get more out of your writings than on most other blogs. And I subscribe to around 70 blogs.

    Your writings are well thought and that I can apply what I learn from you in every day life.

    Even if it’s someone I know, a smile and hello go a long way.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 5, 2010, 7:43 pm

      Right on, Mike,

      You would have to be a real curmudgeon to not say hello to someone who is looking at you as you pass in the streets haha.

      A person can never tire of compliments, but I should be thanking you for reading and offering the time to comment. I really appreciate it.

      Thanks,

      Wade

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  • austen barranco March 7, 2010, 1:12 am

    Hello Wade, I am a new reader of your blog. This entry was great practical advice for travellers, whether just on vacation or a professional traveller. I wholeheartedly agree with what you wrote about smiling and aknowledging people who look at you. This same principle goes even in your own community. Cheers.

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  • Rob October 30, 2011, 4:24 am

    hi Wade,
    I found in India the staring was very prevalent and i admit that it used to drive me insane. I used to just scowl and get annoyed. but like you said i was just looking through the lens of my own cultural view of interpretation. 99.9% of the people staring love it when you simply smile back. i love flopping down on a bench on an indian train to find 7 people opposite transfixed on my face. the best way (in india) to break the ice is to do the head wobble. smiles break out immediately, they will wobble their heads in return and within seconds the brave one of the group will inevitably lean forward. “hello, what is your name”. after all, there are no such thing as strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet. good post

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    • Wade Shepard October 30, 2011, 10:30 pm

      Right on, the staring is often just an invitation to break the ice. The only time I’ve found it annoying is when the stares were overtly unfriendly, which is pretty rare. Just saying hello to people really does open up not only streets but acquaintanceship as well.

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