When you travel, especially off the beaten track, you’re going to get stares from the locals. Those stares can be uncomfortable, especially if you come from the U.S. or a closely-related culture where staring is considered rude. Why are they staring at you? Is it something I did? Why don’t they stop?
Staring etiquette varies from region to region and over time. For example, the Japanese rarely stare because it’s considered rude, preferring to steal glances of you through a long side-eye when you’re not looking. In contrast there’s neighboring China, where sometimes people will not only stare but also point at you, and it’s not considered rude. Because the world is increasingly cosmopolitan, staring seems to be considered rude in more places and I think it now happens less. Back in 2004, my mom got lots of stares from locals in Shanghai because she is white. Fast forward to present day, where she gets hardly a glance.
But in many places off the standard travel itineraries, be prepared for some stares or uncomfortably long glances. For those of you who aren’t used to this, here’s a primer for you on why the locals are staring at you and what to expect.
First, are they smiling? Then it’s probably…
Overwhelmingly if you’re getting stares and smiles, it’s a good thing. People are probably fascinated by you because you look and dress differently, you’re new, you’re interesting!
Especially in highly-isolated and rural places, you may be the only foreigner passing through they’ve ever seen. This was the case for us in Indonesia, where people frequently stopped to greet us and ask for a selfie, even if they spoke only broken English or no English at all. Because Stoytcho is tall (6’4”) and white, he was a magnet for every middle-school tour group at every temple, so we’re in about a dozen class pictures.
In some cases, people are staring and smiling because they’re happy to see you, a tourist/visitor/traveler because you’re a herald of positive economic outcomes. We found this to be the case in Medellin Colombia, where we’d catch people staring at us, strike up a conversation with them, and find them thanking us for coming to their country. Things were really bad in Medellin (linkout) only a couple decades ago, so for people of Medellin, tourists are a big deal. That will probably change as more visitors come to the city, but for now, they stare and smile because you’re a sign of how much better life is now.
Lastly, sometimes people stare and smile because you’ve done something silly but harmless, like mispronounce a word. This will happen a lot if you’re trying to learn some of the local language. You’ll often hear this accompanied by a stifled giggle and someone may try to correct you. But that’s life and in no situation has a language mistake this ever been held against us.
Now, if people are staring at you and frowning, it may be…
Every culture has its own maze of written and unwritten rules and social norms and superstitions that are impossible to understand and difficult to remember for foreigners. So if someone is staring at you and frowning, you’ve probably done something wrong.
The good news is that while breaking cultural rules and norms is usually bad with varying degrees of seriousness, as a foreigner you’ll generally get a free pass. The only two exceptions to that free pass are: modesty-related and religion-related customs. Modesty-related customs are often dress codes or interpersonal interactions, like how much skin you can bare in public or how much romantic public affection is acceptable. Religion-related customs can vary, but usually relate to the aforementioned modesty, cleanliness, or separation of the sexes. Breaking these often makes a lot of people uncomfortable, or makes a lot of work for someone (i.e. they have to re-purify some sacred area thanks to your transgression). Hence, the frowns you’re getting.
Some great examples include those stares that young woman in the tank top is getting while she wanders around in Indonesia, or that guy who didn’t wash his hands and feet when coming into the temple. In my case, I committed a terrible fashion faux pas: wearing boots in the summer. I got an average of three scowls a day for that, apparently because it’s weird and just not done. It was so bad that Stoytcho’s aunt (linkout) concocted a white lie to get me to wear a pair of her shoes when we went out for ice cream because she didn’t want to be seen with me in boots. The solution? I switched to flip flops.
It can be hard to avoid breaking the customs of another culture while traveling, but this is where a bit of research in advance can help a lot. Before traveling, type in “taboo” and where you’re going to see if there are things you should avoid doing or wearing. These can vary in validity, so it also helps to consult a friend, acquaintance, or a travel forum.
There’s another reason people could be staring at you without a smile, though. That’s…
Because you’re strange, you’re weird, or you’re confusing. They’re staring at you because they’re trying to place you in some kind of context and having trouble. It’s not you, it’s them.
For better or worse, a lot of our judgements do stem from a person’s appearance. A white-person dressed in cargo zip-offs, a hat, and sunblock? Probably a tourist, has some money. Black woman, dressed nicely? A rich tourist or a model. A latino-looking guy in grungy clothes, carrying wares? Likely a local street vendor. That Asian-looking granny sitting on a park bench in rumpled clothes? Reasonable to assume she’s a resident octogenarian. We feel comfortable when we can place people into some kind of context and make assumptions about how we can interact with them. And when we can’t do that, we get confused and sometimes we stare.
As someone who’s ethnically ambiguous, this happens to me a lot. I look just enough like the local people almost everywhere we get stares, especially when I’m not with Stoytcho (who obviously looks like a foreigner). In South America, people would stare at me because I didn’t look totally white but I was an English-speaking tourist. In Japan, the ambiguity almost got me into trouble (linkout). And in Russia, the locals stared because I looked like a local Buryat girl dressed in weird tourist clothes. I got stuck in between the boxes of local and tourist, and it messed with people enough that they’d inadvertently stare at me for that extra second or two.
If you’re prone to receiving this kind of stare, the best way to deal with it is to smile and not take offense. It’s hard because when people stare at you, trying to figure out who or what you are, they don’t usually look friendly. They may even be frowning, although it’s an unconscious frown caused by their confusion. But if you make eye contact with them and smile, they usually realize they’ve been staring and avert their eyes or they’ll smile back. You may not fit neatly into their mental world, but that matters less once they realize you’re friendly.