Learning How to Stare Blankly at Other Westerners in Thailand

Although I’ve lived in Thailand for a few years I still find it hard to know how to react when bumping into other westerners. If we make eye contact should I just ignore them or should there be some type of acknowledgement? When I first arrived in Thailand my natural reaction was to offer a smile, but I’ve since learnt that this can be a mistake. In the past the response to my smile has most often been a blank stare and on a couple of occasions it led to insults. I fear that one of these days making eye contact with another westerner and smiling could end up with them punching me on the nose – some people do seem to get actually angry when I acknowledge them in any way.

I am well aware that there is no reason why other westerners should feel the need to acknowledge me; it’s not like we’re related or anything. We all come from different backgrounds and if it wasn’t for the fact that we all stayed in Thailand we would have nothing in common. I understand all this and that is not my problem. It is just that my natural reaction when I make eye contact with anyone is to smile. When I meet eyes with a Thai I smile and they almost always smile back for my troubles. I don’t smile at people because I want to befriend them; I’m not even interested in having a conversation – not really. I just smile because it feels rude not to do so if you make eye contact; I also can’t really help myself.

I lived in a Thai village for five years and there were only two other westerners living within a twenty mile radius. Every week I’d go to the local market, and almost every week I’d bump into an older western guy. The first time we came across each other I offered a friendly smile. I thought it was appropriate considering the fact that we were such a rarity locally. He completely blanked me. We spent the next five years bumping into each other and trying to avoid eye contact. The locals must have thought the whole thing hilarious; my wife thought the whole thing was crazy – I have to agree with her.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of different things to deal with the problem of bumping into other westerners. I’ve almost mastered the blank stare, but I dislike doing this to anyone. I think it’s rude. The first few times that people gave me the blank stare it did bother me; it probably bothers a lot of other people as well. Now and again you do get a smile back from another westerner but it can be like playing ‘paper, rock, scissors’. If I offer a blank stare they might have a smile in return; then I feel like a shit. If I offer a smile but they have the blank stare then it just feels uncomfortable.

I know that I’m not the first westerner in Thailand to deal with this dilemma. I’ve actually had varying degrees of success with some tricks I’ve picked up from other ex-pats. One of the best lessons came while shopping in Tesco Lotus in Phitsanulok. I noticed that some westerners would deliberately turn around and change aisles if they noticed a fellow foreigner on that aisle. I soon get into the habit of this type of supermarket chess because it avoided the need for making eye contact altogether. It is not the ideal solution and it can take a lot of effort. It certainly seems a lot easier than trying to force myself to not to make eye contact or even worse to stare blankly at another human being.

I always wonder how other ex-pats in Thailand deal with this situation. Is this a problem for you?

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50 thoughts on “Learning How to Stare Blankly at Other Westerners in Thailand

  1. Paul I have certainly encountered this. I just can’t figure it out. I certainly don’t avoid eye contact but rarely get acknowledged by Westerners.

    Back home I would always acknowledge strangers in some way and generally speaking I would get some sort of response.

    Mind you having virtually met some of the Westerners here through the pages of a well known forum I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much.
    Mike recently posted..Thailand National Parks-Prachuap Khiri Khan

    1. I just think it’s a shame. The online forums attract a lot of westerners, and many are quite happy to chat with other ex-pats for hours every day online – in the real world though its a different story.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Great post.

    Living somewhat outside of the usual areas for foreigners I try to be friendly when I see another foreign face but do also encounter the ‘I’m not going to acknowledge you’ from time to time.

    In fact, one of my best friends out here is a guy I bumped into by chance, we talking and the rest is history. This keeps my faith in remaining friendly when encountering other foreigners.
    Jon recently posted..Still here close to two years later

  3. I would never normally make a habit of talking to a complete stranger for no other reason than “we are both in the foreigners abroad boat” but i always try to allow my body language to suggest that i won’t be rude to someone if they did nod an acknowledgement to me. But i do feel uncomfortable about getting into conversation with these people. They always feel the need to give you their life story and often expect you to reciprocate. In just a few short minutes you have enough information to steal someones identity. Then there are the ones who always seem to know more than you about Thailand. If you’ve been here 7 years then they’ve been here 8.
    Generally i keep myself to myself which isn’t that difficult when living in darkest Takhli…….
    Tom………
    Tom Yam recently posted..Mumbai transit

    1. Thanks Tom Yam, these types of conversation can be a bit boring after awhile. I think for most of us moving to Thailand is a big deal and we think everyone else is interested in our adventures – how wrong we are.

  4. Paul my apologies for missing this one when the print was still wet, I’ve been on a run of work and now have a couple of days off. It’s my chance to read around the blogs and try to knock out something myself.

    I thought I was the only person in the world who suffered with the farang non acknowledgement phobia. I deliver it (blank stare) and get it posted back all the time. I think it has deep psychological roots attached to it, too deep for me to totally fathom out.

    I’m not a natural smiler although I am trying to change my ways towards it. Some days I can but others I can’t (smile) but when it comes to eye contact with a fellow westerner in rural Thailand I do try and avoid it…..but why?

    I think it’s down to why the person is actually there in the first place. For most it’s probably because they wanted to escape the dog eat dog western world rat race and meeting another farang is a reminder of their inability to deal with western society in the past. A kind of sign which says ‘I guess I didn’t make it big time back home, things didn’t pan out how I hoped they would.’

    It is probably wrong of me to stereotype everyone as western failures because many are now living in Thailand because of their past success. Perhaps the other westerner is viewed as an intruder into their cotton wool wrapped new world where money is predominant with respect. Maybe talking with other foreigners will show them to others as themselves being a lesser light. There is always the fact you don’t know if the other farang speaks your language anyway. Talking to someone in heavily broken English is a complete pain in the butt.

    I get over the eye contact bit with some real dark shades, I find it works every time.

    Excellent post and your culture shock one has given me an idea for a post myself.

    It’s my birthday today or burt-day where you are and I’m shortly off out for a few sherberts and to practice my smile.
    Martyn recently posted..Pattaya’s Mini Siam

    1. Thanks Martyn and happy birthday. Maybe we have played supermarket chess in the past 🙂 You make some very good and honest points here ; there are always two sides to the story. It is easy to take these things personally, but at the end of the day these people don’t know me and I don’t know them – maybe I’ve just got them on a bad day. I remember after a few years in the village I would sometimes feel desperate for a chat in English; maybe I seemed a bit needy 🙂

  5. Residing here for 10 months now, I do not feel like a real expat (yet), but still your sharp observations gave me a kind of Aha-Erlebnis.
    My solution when meeting westerners is the middle of the road approach:
    Looking happy, with an inner calm, no smile, but perhaps a vague smile.
    In fact I try to be happy as much as possible, without excessive use of boosters like alcohol etc.
    If the person smiles at you, you’re still able to return it, if you get a blank stare, it will not give you a bad feeling, you did nothing wrong, in worst case it will make the other feel even more uncomfortable, but that is their problem, not yours.
    If you don’t feel like being/looking cheerful, I guess avoidance is the best choice, like you suggested.
    I-nomad recently posted..Now everyone can fly

    1. I never really thought about doing it that way I-nomad – good idea. I often seem to smile automatically but I’ll give the vague smile a go. Avoidance does feel like the cowards way out.

  6. Reading through I cannot tell whether or not I’m the first gal to comment… but I can tell you this – western women in Thailand are known to get an agressive (sometimes hateful) response from some western men.

    When I asked about this bizarre behaviour, I was told that our being here angers some of them greatly.

    On the other hand… I’m a private person. I do not walk around looking to make eye contact with people either in Thailand or elsewhere. I’m not being rude. It’s just who I am. If I walk into a shop I frequent often, then sure, I prepare myself for smiles all around.

    If making eye contact on the street does happen, and there is a smile coming at me, then I smile back. It’s an automatic reaction because I love to smile, laugh, kid around (it’s another reason why I enjoy being around Thais).

    But I’ve been on the receiving end of pure hatred coming from western men and it’s unsettling. And it’s happened enough that I do find myself making a special effort to avoid looking in their direction when I’m out and about. Maybe that’s not the best way to handle it, but that’s how it’s worked out so far.
    Catherine recently posted..Interview with Thai Skype Teacher Khun Narisa Naropakorn

  7. Thanks Cat for adding the western woman’s point of view. I’m a bit shocked by what you say, but I’ve no problem believing you. I have met a few ex-pats who have a very negative view of western women. Mind you, it can work both ways. I have met some western women who view every western man living in Thailand as some type of sexual degenerate. It is sad that it is like that but what can we do.

    I’m glad that you smile back when other people smile at you 🙂

  8. Paul, thaivisa used to be drowning in men angry at western women until they cleaned it up. Do you remember back then? It wasn’t so long ago (one year, perhaps two). I didn’t stop by the regular forums often, but enough to notice.

    And you are right about it working the other way round. Just this week I read a western gals blog where she was going on and on about sexpats (her word) in Thailand (similar to what you said).

    Mind you, I was talking about this very same thing just recently with an expat male friend of mine. I mentioned that sexpats were limited to small sections of the expat society (there are none in my group so I assumed it was so) and he just rolled his eyes while grinning at my innocence (as only one can via email).

    But honestly, I don’t know. The men I hang with are what men are. Some are sweet. Some sexy. Some totally clever even. They are men. And I like having them around 🙂
    Catherine recently posted..Interview with Thai Skype Teacher Khun Narisa Naropakorn

  9. Thanks Cat,you are right about it not just being women who think that western men in Thailand are all sexpats. It seems to be part of human nature to think in terms of ‘broad strokes’ – probably why there is such much bickering on web forums and in the world as a whole.

  10. It sounds like the men who are angry are the ones who are feeling “judged.” Or could it be that they are basing their ideas of why the Western women are in Thailand on their OWN behavior, and therefore making judgements about the women? This is a very interesting discussion.

    Regarding this post, I sort of take the approach of I-nomad, above. When you are new in a country, and no one speaks your language, you are more likely to reach out to any other Westerners you encounter. Now I’ve been in Morocco a long time and know plenty of people, as well as speak one of the local languages, so I usually keep to myself (but don’t avoid eye contact or anything like that) and let the other person make the first approach if they wish.

    I’ve found that it also makes a difference which country the Westerners are from in terms of how they want to be approached, or NOT be approached. For example, some British and French prefer to keep to themselves, whereas more Americans would be in the habit of speaking with strangers (as we do in our own culture more than British or French do in their cultures). But seeing someone at a distance, you don’t always know which country they are from, or which type of person they are.

    I enjoyed reading your feelings. It’s good to know that just about everyone has similar feelings about not knowing whether to approach others, even if they don’t admit to it!
    Mary recently posted..The REAL Reasons Why Lavish Tipping Practices Continue in US Restaurants

  11. As a woman expat, I can always tell which expat male is married to the Thai woman he is with, or just messing around. If he is messing around, as soon as he sees me, he hangs his head and his ears go beat red.

  12. I’ve lived the same problem. I’ve been in Chiang Mai for many years already. I usually take my breakfast every morning in a coffe shop where most customers are american (teachers,or evangelists I suppose, or cia ??? 555
    No “hello”, no “good bye” No smile.. Maybe they think I’m an evangelist too and I’m going to steal their followers !! or an other teacher who is going to steal their job… I’m french and I speak french english, thai.. So, now I do the same What else ? Anyway I used to think aerican were friendly guys. and that only french people were snobbish… I’ve changed my mind…

  13. I’m late commenting on this, but I find it interesting! This kind of thing happened to me a lot in Osaka, where I lived for a year and a half, as well. One time I was talking to somebody in a bar and he said, “Isn’t it interesting that we’re just talking to each other because we both speak English? If we were at home, we probably wouldn’t ever even talk!” Um, okay?

    I think a lot of Westerners are kind of embarrassed of the idea that they want other Western friends. You live in another country for a reason, and a lot of times people want to feel that they’re immersing themselves in the local culture. I personally try to be an equal-opportunity friend maker; I don’t really care what country my friends come from, if that makes any sense.

    Still, no reason to be rude to people, although I myself have been guilty of the look-past, as well…
    Megan recently posted..WTF What THE Fridays

    1. Hi Megan, thanks for commenting. It is interesting to hear that this discomfort between westerners isn’t just limited to Thailand. I wonder do Asian ex-pats feel the same way when they are living abroad.

  14. i have encountered this attitude with other farangs many times and i don’t quite understand how difficult it can be for someone just to say hello or give a nod of acknowledgement when i say hello to them.
    one reason i came up for their attitude is that they think there should be no other farang in their area, and are quite upset when they see another white face.
    i’m quite thickskinned and don’t worry too much about it and sometimes i have great fun in winding these fellows up by saying “hello farang” or “hello baksida” which leaves them with a big scowl on their face

  15. With the exception of everyone who has posted on this website 😉 I find that there are so many freaking weird farangs living here that I don’t want to have anything to do with them. I used to be more courteous when I first moved here, always willing to talk to another farang and hear their story but after encountering one to many nutjobs I’m more guarded to who I talk to.
    Tony recently posted..Bangkok Podcast- Thai Wedding Ceremony

    1. Hi Tony, I can certainly understand what you’re saying. Sometimes getting into a conversation with a stranger in Thailand can be a bit like Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber 🙂

  16. I think a lot of this depends on where you live, small town niceties are not really in the big smoke, wherever you are.

    There are so many expats in Bangkok that smiling at every stranger (be they Western or Thai) is not really practical, and frankly I think you’d be considered a bit odd to be smiling at everyone, always..

    However with that being said, I do smile strangers with whom I regularly come into contact. For example we work in the same office building, go to the same pub etc.

  17. i had a mix doberman-alsation named pogue mahone and absolutely enjoyed teaching westerner and thai to say “kiss my ass” in irish
    it’s not my fault if a smile and a g’day in thai or english drives someone crazy, it’s their fault for not being open to being happy

    g’day y’all

    glad this one got reposted, missed it 1st go

    1. Hi Tom, I remember this teacher I worked with in Bangkok; he was an English guy. He would go up to other westerners in the street or supermarket and introduce himself – he only did it to annoy them. I’m thinking of teaching my son a bit of Irish, but we probably won’t bother with “pogue mahone” 🙂

  18. i dont g’day people to annoy them
    i don’t see why everyone just can’t e civil and hello each other
    i am old but remember
    helloing everyone you made eye contact with
    whats wrong with wishing people a good day

  19. You have clearly not yet mastered the ‘nod’.
    It can be curt, dismissive, inviting or just plain sleepy, as you like.
    There is a whole art to the ‘nod’.

    Nods.
    Pandit.

    oh and 🙂 to Paul’s readers.

  20. wow a nice little post was opened a flood gate of something
    why not just spend your life with a look of contentment
    and quit wondering what or if other people think

  21. Hi Paul, this is an interesting topic you’ve broached here. It’s a strange phenomenon that fellow farangs seem to hate the sight of each other. Unless we have something in common, like working together, I rarely engage in conversation with other foreigners. I personally believe it’s a strange mixture of the novelty of being here, and the backgrounds of the type of people that come out here to live on a permanent basis. Nowadays, I try to react to farangs as I would back home: if I see one in the supermarket I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with them in England, so why do it here, unless there seems to be some reason to. Anyway, I see no reason to be rude, but I generally get a bad vibe from other foreigners, and so I just keep focused on my own business. Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. Thanks Ray, some other foreigners do seem to give off a bad vibe- a sort of ‘don’t even look at me’. I wonder sometimes how much of this is in my own head – it can be hard to judge.

  22. Since I first read this post I have decided to say “hello” to every westerner and “sawadee khap” to every thai I make eye contact with. And have had no problems. I am old as well, 63

  23. Very interesting guy’s and gal’s.I am moving to Thailand shortly.To my fav little seaside town in Thailand.Wont mention where,because ,yes I am also very protective of my little patch.Have been visiting there ,for over 20 yr’s.When I see other farang’s, I am extremely resentful,as I feel they are invading my space,so I never smile or say hi.I am actually a very friendly,social person.it is just resentment that my little secret is out and the imminent invasion is starting 🙂 oh hell!!!! I smiled. 555

  24. I think this speaks to how entitled and rude some of us westerners have become. It is almost as if, they feel so entitled to be where they are, that they resent the implication that they are in fact a foreigner through your acknowledgment of them. I think any blank stare should be met with a swift kick in the yarbles post haste!

  25. I just smile, to me it doesn’t matter if i get a blank stare or ignored, that is their decision.
    I smile because i’m friendly, sounds like you are too.
    Dont ever let people stop you from being you.
    It’s their problem, not yours 🙂
    Amy M recently posted..Tapas Cafe

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