Travelling within different cultures can be rewarding as well as emotionally draining, particularly when you’re the focus of much unasked-for attention. Those who’ve travelled in Asia know the feeling all too well—stepping out of a train station or into a busy market and feeling the immediate press of bodies, voices and stares, along with rising giddiness as your brain tries to ride the tide of information flooding in from your senses.
You pick and weave your way through crowds, with the air hot and heavy with unfamiliar scents; horns blaring over music drifting from cool doorways and dusty windows; faces blurring into hard stares and entreating smiles; and through the chatter of everyday life, voices propositioning you in odd English. The horizon is filled with new experiences and boundless possibility.
That cocktail of wonder, apprehension and adrenaline is what pulls most of us from the comfort of our homes. We want to see new places, meet new people and immerse ourselves in different ways of living.
Putting up barriers
The seasoned traveller knows that to really get the pulse of a place, there’s no substitute for local knowledge. Interactions with locals can lead to some of the most memorable and meaningful experiences you’ll bring home with you.
Unfortunately, there are also those who prey on the ignorance or goodwill of tourists. Trusting the wrong person can cost you money at best, and at worst, put you in serious danger. Even from those without criminal intentions—the hawkers, tour guides and touts—the attention can start to feel aggressive and the intensity of it can be emotionally draining.
For that reason, we often begin to put up barriers. We instantly refuse offers and invitations, we ignore greetings and we avoid making eye contact. We walk through busy streets and markets with our eyes forward and shoulders tensed, reluctant to let our gaze linger too long and attract unwanted attention.
This can feel like an effective survival mechanism, but by closing ourselves off and not engaging with people during our travels, we lose a lot of what we came looking for in the first place. The question is, when faced with a frustrating and overwhelming amount of attention, how do we keep ourselves relaxed, compassionate and open to new and authentic experiences?
Find a positive frame of mind
It all begins with finding a positive frame of mind—an upbeat way of interpreting the world around you and integrating new experiences. While this framework will necessarily differ from person to person, there are two major pillars that everyone can build on.
- The first is to have a compassionate view of yourself and others. In this new place, you’re an exotic and interesting person, and people’s attention doesn’t come from a place of animosity, but curiosity. Even those who particularly annoy you don’t bear you any personal grievance, but most likely rely on travellers like yourself to support their families.
- The second pillar is to take time to set your intentions. Be thoughtful about why you’ve travelled to a particular place and what you’re hoping to accomplish.
Having a strong and positive mental framework will give you the confidence you’ll need to interact from a place of stability, instead of feeling pulled around by external circumstances.
Engage with people
Most importantly, by reframing an overwhelming level of attention in a positive light, we can take the next step towards immersing ourselves in the culture we’re encountering—by engaging with people. From tuk-tuk drivers to tour guides, and rug merchants to riverboat captains, instead of seeing people as a barrier to enjoying a place, we can embrace them as part of the experience and use our interactions with them as opportunities to speak with individuals who lead unique and interesting lives.
Those who work in the tourist industry are often used to being brushed off, ignored or insulted, so a joke or a friendly word can brighten their day and open doors for you. When you exude the kind of attitude that you want to receive, not only will you have more positive interactions, you’ll feel happier and more relaxed because you’ve taken control of the tone of your conversations.
Give everyone who engages with you the basic courtesy of eye contact, and if the situation permits, a smile, nod or greeting. Note that there are obvious caveats here: if you’re a woman travelling in a patriarchal or conservative society, it may not be appropriate to seem overly friendly with the opposite gender. However, even when you can’t be friendly, you can always be polite.
Respect all—including yourself
Keeping politeness and courtesy in mind, understand that you owe everybody basic respect, but nothing more than that. Having a positive frame of mind with firm intentions means that while you respect and engage with other people, you also recognize and respect your own boundaries.
Despite being offered advice, assistance or even gifts, remember that you’re in no way obligated to compromise your plans. In fact, the majority of interactions will likely involve refusals, so don’t be intimidated by them. Though most of us are socially programmed to be uncomfortable with refusing people, the best course of action is to be straightforward and avoid lying or making excuses.
From a practical point of view, lying is simply ineffective. You’ll usually be dealing with professional salesmen who’ll have a practiced counterargument for whatever excuse you come up with on the spot.
From a personal point of view, lying makes most of us psychologically uncomfortable, and a full day of it will leave you feeling embattled and bitter.
A better tactic is sincerity. Apart from being more effective (it’s hard to find a rebuttal for “I don’t want it”) it’ll leave you feeling better about yourself and less stressed out in the long run.
Take control of your experience
Ultimately, you need to take control of your travel experience and embrace the attention you receive. Try to find enjoyment in dealing with people, even in challenging situations. If you act like a victim, you’ll start to feel like one.
Internalizing stressful situations is the start of a negative spiral that can bring down your entire journey. Instead, it’s best to adopt a positive mindset rooted in compassion and mindfulness.
When you’re at ease with yourself, this makes it easier to have empathy for others. And when you interact with others from a place of genuine empathy, you’ll see more positive responses. When you meet someone, you’ll be much more likely to step outside of that merchant/customer relationship so you can interact as two regular people.
Most people are proud of where they live and will gladly share it if you’re willing. So the next time you’re feeling hassled while on a trip, remember that there are new destinations waiting to be discovered all around you, and that something as simple as a smile might be your ticket!