Delusional happy smiles don’t work with travel

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ January 12th, 2011. Updated on January 16th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » How to live overseas.
Models smiling with a The Longest Way Home Shirt

A beautiful smile is all a part of the tourism industry, but does it mean friendship?

How hospitality in tourism can be delusional to a traveler

As I upload photos from my new destination, and write-up the first post for next week I just realized something. I’m coming face to face with a lot of new faces with old problems solved.

One of them is about who can you trust when you travel? Not trust in the sense of life and death, but trust as in friendships; be they temporary or long-term. I thought writing out my past mistakes and lessons learned might remind me about this, and maybe give readers here some insight for their own plans.

All those happy faces?

Smiles and travel go hand in hand. Smile at the receptionist. Wave at the housekeeper. Make a joke with the security guard or taxi driver. It’s nice to be smiled at, and to smile back at people.

We do it automatically. It’s courteous, and rewarding. It can open many doors, and makes the world a better place.

But, there is also something called too much of a good thing.

If you are a short-term, once a year traveler, you may not get this article.

If you are traveling long-term, make friends when living overseas, travel on a budget, or trying to make friends as you travel read on …

The value of a friendly smile for the tourist

I won’t go into this too much. We all know about a good smile. We all know about the fake smile of courtesy served by many a hotel or recreational service around the world.

Some smiles are good, others fake, others just for business.

No, I am writing about when you smile too much and become an unknown target.

Smiling nice guys finish last … with a frown

When traveling long-term or living overseas you’ll no doubt end up staying somewhere for a while you like. You’ll be trying to make friends with people in the same area as you. And, you’ll get to know the staff well where you are staying pretty well too.

Two different smiles, two different meanings

Two different types of smile ...

No point in being grouchy to the receptionist when you know they are the key to making sure housekeeping arrive on time. The hot water works. Your laundry arrives on time. And, will happily tell you all the tips of the town you are in.

Yes, being friendly to the receptionist works.

However, you can over do the smiles and end up being taken advantage of.

House keeps, security guards, maintenance, and staff are not your friends

You don’t know many people. So it makes sense to say hello to the housekeeper and jest in a friendly manner. Or have a joke with the security guard. You pull back a little when you realize that maybe they don’t speak your language so well. They still laugh and smile though, so everything must be alright.

The truth is though, they see thousands like you every year. They are cleaning your mess, and standing around all day watching you enjoy yourself.

What’s more, every other tourist is asking the same thing and making the same jokes.

But, you are different and go the extra mile. Now they give you a big wave and smile every morning. The hand of friendship has been extended by you.

It’s now the problems start to occur.

Friendship vs performance in tourism and travel

The house keeper arrives and makes conversation. You are curious and want to make friends. Maybe they will do a better job and give you an insight into life in the country.

They talk a little. Probably about how hard life is there. They do their job and leave. Smiles and waves all around. Then, one day they don’t show up.

At around the same time the maintenance are meant to fix something for you but you notice them taking their sweet time about it.

You ask again as if they were a friend letting you down. Sure enough they eventually come.

But, the longer you stay, the worse it can get.

Personal experience with the smiling friendship approach versus all business

I’ve tried the all smiles and friendships with everyone approach, long-term. And, the less smiles, no friendships all business approach. What’s more, I’ve done both at the same accommodation. At different times of the year, with different staff.

Big Smile from a Miss Camiguin Contestent

What lies beneath this smile ... friendship or business?

Without doubt, sadly, the less smiles, no friendships all business approach worked a lot better.

The “let’s be friends” approach resulted in more frustration and loss than anything else. One by one items of my “branded” laundry went missing. To the point that the manager had the staff come to my room to apologize.

“The problem was, the staff were laughing and smiling as if I was their best forgiving friend.”

Some would say it was the culture that forced the laughing smiles or nerves. I know better.

The all serious approach

Previously I had taken no time to get to know the staff other than the manager. I was not interested, and too busy to chat with anyone. I never had a problem. The few times minor things happened, I let loose some vented rage at the manager. And, the problem was solved.

The all smiles, be friends with everyone, approach simply instills a false sense of friendship and value in the situation for you. To others it’s a sign that you have let down your defenses. Don’t forget,  the hospitality industry whether in a developed or undeveloped country is trained to smile and be friendly.

Is there a middle ground to smiles in tourism, travel and friendships overseas?

Yes, it’s called respect.

The hotel manager and head receptionist are the real keys. Many staff in developing countries are paid a low wage, and are only employed for 6 months at a time to avoid government benefit payouts.

Respect all and be courteous. Throw the odd joke and smile at the manager or head receptionist to show you are human. These are the people you need when the other staff go awry.

Making friends with housekeepers, maintenance and security seems to have more negative effects than positive. Smile, but don’t smile too much. Show respect, but don’t get personal. It could well backfire on you.

Short term vs long-term travel friendships

I freely admit to sighing a huge relief when I walk into a “branded” coffee store. Hands go up, and people wave hello. They know me by name, and even know what I drink. It is nice. But, they will not become my real friends. The truth is, this would be very rare.

No matter how lonely you get in a new country or on the road traveling – remember that people working in these places see thousands like you monthly. It’s their job to be friendly. Don’t confuse this with friendship,

You will be gone soon. They know this. No harm in being friendly while you are here, it can even open small doors. Just remember if you take it too far and rely on this;  it may come back to bite you.

Show respect, and you’ll have a much better time. Find friendships away from where you are paying for things.

This is my experience, maybe you’ve had the same or disagree.

This is an additional article on travel and life overseas to help others and serve as a reminder in this journey

Next week … first journal from a new country …

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32 Great responses to Delusional happy smiles don’t work with travel

  1. LeslieTravel says:

    Interesting post. While some might see your position as pessimistic, I understand where you are coming from. Throwing fake smiles and making banter with the service people you meet doesn’t necessarily mean you respect them or they respect you.

  2. Stuart says:

    I have come across this in Australia. Staff at hotels are staff, they are trained to be nice even if they hate it. Not a place to make friends I agree

  3. you’re right – there’s a time and place to make friends. and common courtesy can go a long way. that’s one of the problems with long term travel – making real friendships. great article here!

  4. As another long-term-traveler, I agree with you. I am smiley and happy to all I cross paths with – except persistent hustlers – but never get involved with them (a couple of exceptions) as often others start looking for an advantage / service / gift from you, as you’re perceived as a person of infinite resources and goodwill just cos you’re a world traveler and from the West.

    And RE: Wandering Educators: “one of the problems with long term travel – making real friendships”; agreed. But I like being alone, mostly. Surviving socially by making short friendships with the “new friendly strangers of that day”, then moving on, alone …

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    • Very good point. Many people on shorter term trips are taken in my open arms with smiles. It’s nice, it feels good! Even to me, I like it. But, I know where the line gets crossed. Stay a while longer, and people will experience it. Though even then, many don’t get it, until they get burned.

  5. Ciki says:

    great post Dave! true, i might not be able to tell a fake smile from a real one.. but after a while, you will just know. Still i’m not that bad. it takes me about a week to suss it out.. which is a lot faster than some thick people!!

    Respect is key! if you don’t want me to vomit on your car, don’t shit on my lawn! :D

  6. Audrey says:

    I don’t think you’re being cynical at all, but just realistic. Your point about treating people with respect and letting them know you are human is a great approach.

    Dan and I have been talking about this over the last couple of weeks. We’re in a touristy area of Thailand right now (Koh Samui) visiting a friend. It’s been interesting to see the perspective of people in every kind of business from those here on a quick vacation and those who have been here for a while.

    Smiles are great – trust me, I’d rather those smiles than some of the scowls we used to get in Prague – but it’s important to keep it all in perspective.

    • “Smiles are great – trust me, I’d rather those smiles than some of the scowls we used to get in Prague – but it’s important to keep it all in perspective.”

      Very good advice! Ditto about watching the tourists vs longer term people in Thailand. If a hotel or service is very good and experienced, the staff even know the more experienced travelers when they see them. There’s a different attitude there too. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Either way, it’s good to know what’s going on around you

  7. Anna's World says:

    This is advice many expats need! So many people living in apartments think that a morning smile can be about a new friend. Then the next morning it’s about a loan of $10!

    Keep up the good work. Looking forward to next week!

  8. What an insightful post. People in the hospitality business have ‘smile’ as part of their job description, it takes time knowing them to catch the genuine ones — something that short term travelers will be hard to do.

  9. Leigh says:

    I think this differs greatly on where you travel. There’s a horseback riding place about an hour from Salta where people return year after year from all over the world precisely because the owner and people who work there become friends to them. They still pay, but it doesn’t make the post ride asado and wine any less fun or intimate.

    I also find that either a person is professional or they’re not. If your job is to clean up, you either do it, or you don’t. I’m not entirely sure basic courtesy of hello and a smile make a huge difference.

    On another side, even when you do make real friendships with people while traveling, there’s never a guarantee that friendship will last beyond the couple of days you’re together.

    • Hi Leigh and welcome,

      Your points are all very true for short term travel. The horseback place is a prime example of what a smile, and great hospitality can bring you. e.g. repeat customers.

      For longer term travel stays, or living abroad it’s often a different ball game though. True, short term friendships over a few days of travel may or may not be extended. But for those traveling over a longer period, and those living overseas it’s vitally important to be able to see through many of the short term friendships and all those “fake” smiles.

  10. sugar says:

    Hey, are you smiling now? Ha ha. I’m sure you know.. here in the Philippines, we’re know as the land of smiling happy faces. We’re sincere too. (*_*). I aggree with what you said, too much of a smile can lead to something else lile lax in someone’s work (ie housekeeping). Also, I think that one doesn’t need to smile too much. There are times when a foreigner doesn’t feel like smiling everytime he sees a guard or the usual folks around him.

    PS. I read the travel book and move reviews. Now I’m interested too see Shooting Dogs and and Photographer. Thanks. Oh and comeback to the Phils again.. you’re super welcome :)

    • Hi Sugar,

      Yes, in my view the Philippines is more a land of a thousand smiles that Thailand. I think the more people that choose to visit the Philippines will see this and The Philippines will win this tourism title :)

      I hope you are able to find a copy of War Photographer, if you like documentary photography this is good! Shooting Dogs too. Thanks for taking the time to check out the review section, come back here soon too!

  11. The smile is a tactic to get what you want, to connect with a person in a favorable way. It is a default position for many travelers to smile and to be smiled to. But a frown and an angry face often works just as well.

    In travel, all to often, your relationships are merely on the surface — it is their strategy against yours — choose wisely how you interact: keep things on the surface.

    “Making friends with housekeepers, maintenance and security seems to have more negative effects than positive. Smile, but don’t smile too much. Show respect, but don’t get personal. It could well backfire on you.”

    This is all too true. Once you break down the barriers, everything tends to fall.

    • Indeed Wade, sometimes the smile and the frown are the tactics of travel war. My frown wins every-time, my smile I have to work on. It’s helped, but sometimes scares people off too! ha ha.

      I think this whole topic is much more suited to long-term travelers or expats than short term travel of vacationers. Don’t know if you agree with that or not?

      • I agree strongly that this is a tip for long term travel. I do not believe that brief bouts of tourism will get the results that you are talking about here, as you need to get deeper into people to see the negative impacts of excessive smiling.

        At first, when meeting someone, you smile a lot, giggle, laugh. This is normal. But after a few days, acting like this seems to be construed as a sign of weakness, and people sometimes seem to feel as if they can take advantage of this — or that if they smile big at you, that you will just smile back and take their bullshit.

        It also feels odd to go directly from a bright and smiley face to a frown and hard face on the opposite extreme. And, often, a direct way of speaking to people is necessary in travel to be respected. We live in a tribal world, and respect often means the difference between having problems with people and not.

  12. Steph says:

    It’s really sad when people take advantage of the kind and friendly you. I hate that people like this are living in this world. Don’t they have a heart, don’t they want to really be a friend? However, I still believe in the good that is in some people. I avoid to generalize and still believe that there are people out there whose smiles are genuine. I hope we meet them soon.

  13. Avril says:

    Thank you sir Dave! We all wish you the best & pray to see you again.

  14. Andrea says:

    Great post and very thought-provoking. I would think it might be a bit different in hostels where many workers are just travellers like you, but otherwise completely agree with your points!

    • Indeed, if there are other travelers working in a hostel or guest house they can often be quite genuine (girlfriends / boyfriends of the owners being exceptions I’ve found!). This is good point though, thanks for bringing it up.

  15. Hi! I just found you on Twitter. Classic article, I’ve never read, or even thought about something like this before. But the more I think back on my past travels, I realise that it’s so true.

    I remember making friends with some staff in a guesthouse in Flores, only when arriving at our next destination did we realise that our beach towels had gone, plus one nice t-shirt!

    This is great travel advice, I think that not being a walkover is very important on long trips, I think the longer you travel, the more you wise up to things like this.

    Thanks for the read.

    • Hi Slice, welcome on-board, and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Shame about those staff taking your beach towels! I’ll have to admit I’ve seen some clothes disappear myself over the years.

      A tip I use is to take a photograph of my clothes spread out over a bed before handing it over to a guest-house for laundry. I don’t know if this would have helped you, but it might in the future.

  16. Andy Jarosz says:

    ‘Find friendships away from where you are paying for things.’ Good advice – you’ve applied this to a very specific context (travel, Asia) but from my experience it’s relevant in pretty much any situation. A good article.

  17. This was an engaging read. I know from experience working in the service industry that ‘fake smiling’ was a necessary evil at times. You bring up a valid point that it takes time and effort to really establish rapport and relationship with others.

  18. rokh says:

    well i myself would never think to make friends with people who are servicing me, we cross path because we are having some business engagement of sorts …leave friendship making to chance encounters and other more meaningful settings..

    but i do agree we should respect and be nice if we can cause after all they are just making a living. the world will be a rounder place if we are all just a little nicer.