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May 25, 2015 Comments (4) Connecting with People, ONE Proj blog, Practical and How-To

You Want Buy From Me? 3 Tips to Become Invisible to Touts

Woman selling corn in Laos

When wandering the streets of Sa Pa, Vietnam, I turned to speak to my brother Jon.

He wasn’t there.

I looked back to find him chest-deep in a swarm of the infamous craft-vendor girls. Above them, the whites of his eyes shone at me with comical panic. The girls ignored his protests. They attached scarves, bracelets and other crafts, telling him “Just for looking. No problem!”

Some of the same girls even waited outside our hotel each day, just to ambush him. I’d never seen anything like it before. He was the streetlight to their inner moth. And he hadn’t even bought anything from them.

Jon hadn’t spent much time travelling in developing countries where everyone’s always hustling you. During one of the Sa Pa ambushes, he called out from the melee, “Why doesn’t anyone ever hassle YOU!?”

Honestly, I couldn’t tell him then. I hadn’t thought about it. I’d been to some of the more aggressively tout-infested places (in Arusha just for us to exit the bus, the driver had to stand in the doorway swinging a broom handle), and never really had much trouble.

And it’s not because I’m permanently glaring cut-eye, either. So many wonderful strangers have found me (telling me I “looked open”) and made my travels rich with serendipitous experiences.

So now I’ve thought about it, and for all the Jons out there, put together a list of how I give off ‘defusing vibes’ without closing out the good strangers.


1) Avoid holding eye contact.

I try to wander the world with my head up, making eye contact with a pleasant look on my face (see 3 Tips on How to Talk to Strangers). But when I catch sight of a tout, these eyes don’t linger. Touts are often waiting,1 and your gaze is like turning the crank on a jack-in-the-box.

But if you do spring the jack, there’s still another option:


2) Give the subtle head-shake with a long blink

When I see a tout light-up, an immediate head-shake combined with slow-blink, seems to defuse them at some primal level. It tells them “I know what you’re up to. And you’re wasting your time with me.”

Often though, you don’t see the tout – they see you first, and call out to you. In this case:


3) Don’t slow down

When someone calls in your direction, you’ve only got a split second to decide if they’re a tout or a friendly local. Trust your instincts. If you feel “tout”, don’t break stride, but don’t ignore them either. Answer politely as you fade into the distance. (I usually say ‘no thanks’ or even ‘sorry’ in the local language. But without such words you can even shake your head while putting hands together in a universal sign of respect).

Wearing my Darwinian hat, I think the major reason for the existence of annoying touts is that it must work. So let’s all work to change this, one interaction at a time. My final advice is karmic. It may not help you, but it will hopefully help others:


Reward the least annoying touts

When I’m being tackled by touts offering a service I actually need (i.e. taxi from a train station) I like to encourage good behaviour. I shoulder through the shouting mob and bee-line for the most chilled out dude I can see. Sometimes he’s so relaxed I even need to ask if he’s a taxi driver.

Voila. My tactics for avoiding touts: Don’t Hold Eye Contact, use a Subtle Head-Shake Blink, and Don’t Slow Down. It may seem common sense to some, but clearly not for all the Jons out there.

I hope you find the list useful. Because one element of connecting with the right people, is not wasting time connecting with the wrong ones.

  1. I think of it as ‘energy saving mode’

4 Responses to You Want Buy From Me? 3 Tips to Become Invisible to Touts

  1. Josh says:

    I’ve used many of these tactics myself and find it to be pretty effective in most cases. However, there are times when I want to go shopping and must engage with said ‘trinket mob’ (i.e. picking up some souvenirs for the folks back home). The moment you engage with one merchant in a market it’s no holds barred for the rest. The most important thing for me to remember is to remain lighthearted, calm. When I choose to enter the bullpen I try and make it a game. I keep a smile on my face and always enter a haggle using humor, not frustration (or disgust), when settling on a price. Another trick I learned is to buy something early even if you don’t like it all that much. This gives me an item to hold up to other touts, expressing to them that my shopping is done for the day. Have you ever deployed these other solutions? I’m with you though. I find it best to simply keep my streetlight doused.

    • mike says:

      INteresting strategy! Of course I keep it fun when bargaining as well (I’m sure you’ve read my 4 Tips to Bargain Better with Laughter and Smiles). I have never employed your ‘early buy’ strategy, usually just politely declining people’s offers.
      A strange thing happened yesterday: Since I am in Uzbekistan and everyone’s faces are amazing, I was making portraits in the bazaar. The women were so friendly and patient, I was going to buy something to say thanks, when they started handing me free veg as a thank you for taking their photograph. Amazing!! Of course I went over and bought some more of their things (even though I know this wasn’t her motivation by the gift. This sort of thing keeps happening to me, across Central Asia).
      This place is truly remarkable (for this and many other reasons I hope to share once I’m done writing about Sumatra).

      “Streetlight doused”!?

  2. Oooh – I never thought of combining the head shake with a slow blink. That’s firm.

    One of the things I learned while living in Vietnam was to say “No thank you, I already have one” in Vietnamese. (I experienced the mobs of girls in Sa Pa,too!) And when the tout suggests another item, reuse the phrase again and again until the encounter turns into a comical and lighthearted exchange. When I moved to Cambodia, I made sure to have key phrases in Khmer ready to go in an instant, including the one above. I even had the opportunity to use it when a tuktuk driver suggested that he could be my boyfriend!

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