I’ve written this before, during my time in Asia, but I truly believe the real adventure in traveling is getting to know the people of an area. Temples, pyramids, countrysides are all good, but fade for me next to the cultures and attitudes that shape a difference, even from town to town, let alone country to country. Each presents its own challenge in understanding and getting through whatever barriers there are to reaching connection.
In a tourist destination, like Manzanillo, one of the biggest hurtles is getting past the fact that normally someone from the United States will be leaving in short order. There is no need or desire to get to know you because you’ll be gone soon. Of course, for me, this is an anathema. I just try harder to relate.
Wherever I’ve been I’ve used the same tactics. However, that makes me sound strategic, but this all comes very naturally. I don’t pull out the weapons of social exchange, I just seem to glide right into these three things.
People like to hear their names. Whatever my profession or business has been, I’ve strived to learn the names of acquaintances, customers and even customer service personnel on the phone, whom I hope I’ll never have to talk to again. I always ask for names, repeating them back (especially if they are in another language) and using it the next time I see them. At the end of a good phone call with someone I’m hoping will solve some problem of mine, I always ask their name and thank them for helping me. More often than not, they are startled but appreciative, as are the cashiers, servers and managers whose names I’m able to remember. It’s worth the effort, and it humanizes the people you interact with and pulls you into their world. Well worth the effort.
It is true that humans tend not to look into the faces of peoples and cultures they’re not familiar with. Big mistake. Not only does this bad habit automatically separate people, but it robs us of so much information and experience.
Raising your eyes to a new face that passes you on your walk to the plaza or as you explore the surroundings of your temporary home on a pleasant beach, can only enrich your experience. There will be times when the other person doesn’t acknowledge your greeting or even resents it, but those are few. An automatic reaction of “That jerk!” doesn’t do you any good and, in fact, just serves to close down the part inside which has tried to open up. Brush it off and move on, but don’t, under any circumstances, let that send you running back to your old habit of moving through the mass of humanity we daily encounter without making any connections. You will truly be the richer for your effort.
And the next time you recognize a familiar face, try nodding to the person behind it and see if you don’t get a nod in response. That’s a big win!
THE POWER OF A SMILE
No matter where you are in the world, whether home or afar, a smile is truly your most powerful possession. With a grin: you’ll be forgiven your lack of language skills in a foreign country, assisted through nearly any problem, make surprising friends and soothe the savage beast in almost any situation. There are, of course, exceptions but you’ll find a sincere smile will get you through almost any travail.
I have acquaintances who instantly put on a grim face when faced with a problem, especially someone who will not instantly bend to their will. Big mistake. Find that place inside you that realizes that “This too shall pass” and try a smile. I’ll bet most of the time it serves you much better than that grimace that lives inside us all. In traveling, it is a much better option as you’ll find most societies don’t regard your troubles (coming from the Western world) as much of a problem. You may just find that they are right.
I have found that smiling at an unknown person I pass on the street not only makes me feel better but helps that person have a better day, too. In much of the world, the older local women often aren’t noticed at all and it almost breaks my heart how happy they are to be acknowledged – with a smile or greeting. If you remember their names, you’ve given them a gift of recognition whether or not you know it.
As I’ve mentioned, these three things are not just good for exploring the world, but also at home. I can’t tell you how many of my dining companions have shown irritation for my penchant for engaging with servers, but it pays me much more dividends than the reserve some many people regard as appropriate.
To hell with appropriate reserve.