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