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?