One Frustrating Comment That All Travelers Make

Until now, I’ve shied away from writing a blog post that is critical about travelers or traveler culture. I didn’t weigh in on beg-packers. I haven’t criticized the false dichotomy of traveler vs tourist (it’s the same thing guys, we’re all tourists!), and I haven’t joined in on lambasting trust fund kids on their gap years. But as I ride my bike around Cambodia and move from remote areas of the countryside to heavily trafficked tourist cities, I’ve decided its time to address a frustrating comment I’ve heard from almost every traveler I’ve spoken with.

Ask any traveler what they love about Cambodia, they will inevitably answer “the people are so kind!” or something similar.

This isn’t limited to only Cambodia. I’ve heard it said about Myanmar. About Nepal. About Laos. And I’m certain that it is said about many more countries around the world. “I love [insert country here], the people are so nice!”

Why Is This Problematic?

Whats wrong with saying this? On the surface, it seems like a great thing to say about a country. It’s a positive comment that expresses how open we are to meeting people from this culture that is so different from ours. To be honest, I used to say this all the time. This comment is one of the reasons I came back to Cambodia in the first place.

But since being back in Cambodia and learning more about their culture and making friends with Cambodian people, I’ve begun to think more critically about my old ways of thinking, and I’ve noticed a few troubling things.

 

EDIT: I’ve removed a section here where I discussed only seeing westerners make this comment about Asian countries. I have been corrected by friends from around the world. This comment “the people are so kind!” is made in the same spirit about countries around the world, rich or poor.

Being able to say that “the people are so nice” allows us to make a sweeping positive comment that says something and nothing at the same time. We’re expressing an opinion about a culture but it only indicates that we haven’t actually learned about or understood that culture in the least.

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Cambodian Countryside

Smiles Are Not A Substitute for Interactions

At least in Southeast Asia, I think this notion that “the people are so nice” stems from the fact that strangers will almost always smile when you make eye contact. And yes, it feels good to be smiled at all the time.

I often read blogs or talk to people who say “even though they have nothing, they are still so happy and content with their lives!” This comment is based on a smile and a two minute interaction with a local before returning to their foreigner filled hostel.

But the ever present smiles in Southeast Asia come from a culture tradition and don’t necessarily mean that the person smiling at us is actually happy.

On the flip side of this, I’ve met travelers who say “I don’t really like Cambodia, the people aren’t very nice. They always frown at me.” Which, okay, I don’t like to be treated badly either. But why not ask yourself why the Cambodians could feel that way? What is going on below the surface that you aren’t seeing?

We’re getting close to the heart of my issue with this “the people are so kind” comment.

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A Buddhist Icon in Cambodia

“The People Are So Kind” is Insensitive and Reductionist

When we boil an entire culture and entire people down to “the people are so kind” we are romanticizing their life and ignoring the depths of their culture. We’ve decided that, based on our week or month spent traveling around this country, we understand “the people” who live here, only because they smile at us.

Beginning to see the problem?

Something I noticed as I backpacked around Asia was this: when we travel through a country, we don’t really get to know that culture. When we travel, we see a country’s highlight reel. We see what they want us to see. We don’t see the big picture.

How can we assume to understand “the people” of a country from just a short visit to their touristic cities and main attractions?

I think this becomes more noticeable when you decide to settle down in a foreign country. After a few months, the beauty fades and the reality remains. The country is still beautiful but you also begin to understand that the people who live there have problems, have daily stressors, have flaws. They can be happy and sad. The country can be enjoyable and annoying. What you loved while traveling is still there but the picture is more nuanced now.

To be fair, even after a full year of living in Cambodia, the people and culture here still surprises me on a near daily basis. Assuming that you understand a culture or understand a group of people is, dare I say it, pretty arrogant.

When you decide to say that “all the people in Cambodia are so kind” you are allowing yourself to say you know Cambodia without actually getting to know Cambodia. This applies to any country. The people are happy because they smile all the time. They are unpleasant because they don’t smile.

The reality is much more complicated.

I have some Cambodian friends who are kind, caring, and some of the best people I’ve ever met. I have other Cambodian co-workers who I cannot stand and hope never to see again. In short, the people I know in Cambodia are just like the people I know in any other country: some are kind while others are self-righteous assholes.

Perhaps things could be better if, as travelers, we try to remember that the citizens of any country are actual people, with actual lives that have ups and downs, and actual personalities that are a mix of good or bad.

There is no country where “All the people are so kind”.

What can we do instead? What positive thing can we take from this rant?

If we really want to learn about different cultures pick up some books about the country before heading over. Read about their history, recent and ancient. Pick up the English language newspaper in the capital city and read about their current events.

If we look at other cultures as equals, instead of tourist attractions, the entire experience of travel becomes so much richer.

End rant.

TL;DR: Please stop saying “I love [insert country here] because the people are so kind!” It’s insensitive and a total cop-out. Make an effort to learn about the culture instead.

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One Frustrating Comment All Travelers Make

38 thoughts on “One Frustrating Comment That All Travelers Make

Add yours

  1. I see what you are saying here!
    When I was travelling, I noticed other travellers not engaging with the locals but just grabbing photos and stuff – which frustrated me.
    I think there’s a core difference between travelling and travelling with a purpose – and engaging with culture should always be at the forefront of travel!

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    1. I totally agree! I try to read at least the wikipedia articles about a country, maybe pick up a book or two. I’m surprised how many backpackers I’ve met in Cambodia who don’t know who Pol Pot is or when the Khmer Rouge genocide happened. I don’t want to be elitist but at least having some respect for the culture you’re visiting is, I think, important.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah respect for culture is incredibly important! Even just knowing about important cultural customs and stuff just allows you to engage better!!

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  2. Very good point! I always try to read up on the history of a country before I travel there. I am amazed that backpackers in Cambodia wouldn’t know who Pol Pot is!!

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  3. I think this is a fascinating and very intelligent read. I’m just as guilty myself – I might have met lots of friendly people in a country but that doesn’t mean I know them, and of course they were nice to me – they are trying to earn money. I’m nice to everyone at work too!

    While it’s ideal to get deeply under the skin of every country we visit, of course that’s not always practical. But at least keeping it in mind that there are deeper complexities below the surface is really important. Thanks so much for writing this!

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  4. Just to play devil’s advocate…
    I currently live in Eastern Ukraine. People in former Eastern-Bloc countries are notoriously dour. Very rarely will anyone smile at you on the street – there is a saying here “he who smiles is either insane or American”. But, despite all that, people here will go out of their way to help you. I’ve experienced unparalleled kindness here from people who walk around looking like their cat just died. So, I will say it, not to dispute their poverty or to try to stereotype them (e.g. Cambodians = friendly, French = rude) but to reassure other people that even though the locals scowling, they will still point to where the metro tickets are sold.

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  5. I totally agree! People say this all the time about my home country, Ireland and I just always want to reply with “well I know a good few assholes, let me introduce you for a real ‘local experience'” 😉 In poorer countries my pet hate is “they have nothing but they’re so happy!!” …it’s like, yeah, but I’m sure they’d be happier with proper health services and some disposable income. It overlooks the complexity of people’s lives. Great post.

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  6. OMG I agree wholeheartedly with this! And to be honest it’s kinda annoying to hear it all the time. And it’s even more annoying when one does not take local norms and cultures into consideration. God knows I’ve met so many selfish, self-privilege travellers that you just want to give them a good shake 😦

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  7. I wholeheartedly agree! It is very problematic and actually one of the reasons I love living abroad and moving every year or two, is to really immerse myself in the place and see more than what you see as a tourist. You still are never getting the whole picture, as you can never quite understand what it is to live the life of a local anywhere, when you are a foreigner, but its amazing to really be able to see places for more than just the surface level.

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    1. Yes totally! I also love living abroad as an expat. For the last five years my pattern has been, work for a year, travel a bit, move to a new country, repeat. Definitely has helped me learn more about different cultures. Plus expat life is just so much fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You are so right! A lot of the time the kind of travel we do is superficial and we never get to engage with the local community in a meaningful way. Greatly written piece!

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  9. I disagree with the point you’re making because I think your equation of “friendly” with “happy” is flawed.
    A smile signals friendliness, not happiness. So I would argue that most people who say “They are so friendly in Cambodia.” don’t insinuate “The people are all so happy.” but rather that they were treated in a nice way.
    I have traveled in SEA for the past three months and will continue through Asia for at least another year. I’ve been to Thailand and Cambodia and arrived in Vietnam 3 weeks ago. And hell yeah, friendliness towards strangers and prospective customers — regardless the color of their skin — is practiced widely and seems to be part of the culture wherever I’ve been so far (tourist area or not).
    Are all people happy all the time? Probably not.
    Smiling and being accommodating might just be manners as they are taught or business sense or it is part of the religion that teaches you that happiness has to come from within (talking mainly about Buddhism). What do I know?

    However, I don’t think your post is a total waste because I do see a different issue with any statement that starts with “People are so…”
    I’d say a better solution to the sweeping “(All) people are so friendly here.” is to acknowledge that any experience is just your little snippet of reality.
    Now, personally, I try to avoid saying “People are so [insert adjective] here.” Instead, I’ll go for “Most/many/half the people have been nothing but friendly to me.” or “The people I met were very distant.”
    See the difference?
    It has nothing to do with how much I “learn about the culture of a country” but with changing the perspective of people as people. I know all of us tend to put people in boxes every day. That has nothing to do with traveling or not. It’s just an easier way of navigating life and the World that is, frankly, darn complicated.
    Acknowledge that people are individual people, and you’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of generalization and a false sense of understanding what’s going on. And it might also prevent you from ranting about “any traveler in Cambodia” like you’ve literally met every single traveler in Cambodia.

    Happy continued travels!
    C

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    1. Hey Carola! Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment and include your own perspective as a traveler in Southeast Asia. To address some of the points in your comment:
      – I equated the smiles with happiness because that is what I often read on various blogs, and I am trying to point out that just because people smile a lot doesn’t mean they are always happy. Sorry if that got muddled in the writing.
      – Love the idea of saying “the people I have met have been so friendly” or something along those lines, I think it is a great solution and better than making sweeping generalizations.
      – And way to call me out, I’m making generalizations about all travelers! It’s true. I should caveat: almost all travelers I have met have talked like this, but I’m certain there are people who do not.

      But at the end of the day, this is just a rant on my blog, something that has been getting under my skin that I wanted to write about.

      Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the rest of your travels in Asia!

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  10. Well, I sometimes say ‘People are kind’ when I travel. I think it is mainly because they were kind to us for that short interaction we had with them… I think it is okay to say that to people, right ? :)…. I agree we don’t often mean it too seriously but it is just an etiquette to be polite whenever we talk about a foreign culture :)…

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  11. Hey some great ideas here and I agree about making sweeping generalisations about people and putting in the effort to learn more about a culture. I love what you say: If we look at other cultures as equals, instead of tourist attractions… but sometimes people *are* nice!

    As a Brit, I feel that tourists aren’t treated well in my home country. People can be really racist about foreigners or simply just disdainful of tourists that get on their nerves. It’s not the majority who treat travellers this way, but it’s still too many. Also, as a Brit I have sometimes been treated with disdain when travelling in Europe. Again, it’s not the norm but it happens – Brits have a bad reputation.

    So, when I first ventured to Asia I was worried how I would be regarded as a Brit, especially when so much of Southeast Asia was colonised by the West. To my surprise, people were really friendly! If I looked lost, people would come up to me and help. Taxi drivers would chat away, asking about where I was from etc. Many of these interactions were just two minutes (again, others weren’t and I have made friends for life), but just two minutes of friendly chat is so different to what I experienced before. I think nearly every SEA country I visited I was struck by the friendliness of the people and I lived in Asia for five years! Of course not everyone is nicer, but I think the rest of the world should know about how welcoming Asian countries can be to travellers and immigrants like us and perhaps take note!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I disagree on a quite a few if your points. We only seeing the countries highlights? Well I guess if you’re on a Contiki style shag & tag tour then yes you do only see the countries highlights. If you want to see the less shiny, happy bits then perhaps you need to spend more time in an area, away from other western tourists and get to know the area.

    I’ve lived and volunteered as a HIV/AIDS educator in developing countries. It takes time to get past the facade and into the reality of life. A few days or even weeks and you aren’t even touching the nipple of the surface of a culture.

    Yes people in Sth East Asia are generally smiley kinda people. Yes a smile is an interaction. It might not be a Margaret Mead style interaction but it still still as a base level an interaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jean, thanks for the comment! I love to question my own assumptions. But, you say you disagree but I’m having trouble, perhaps I’m misreading your comment but it seems like we agree on a lot of things. Of course having smiles with the locals is an interaction and for many travelers its all we have time for/its what we get. Thats why I suggested doing some reading or finding another way to learn more about the country we are visiting.

      But everything else in your comment seems to more or less agree with what I wrote? Just trying to understand!

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  13. Good read and a good perspective to keep in mind. I agree we don’t know much about an entire people after a short tourist experience. I feel like I tend to say…”everyone was very nice to me” which is a bit more specific. It’s also one of first things everybody seems to ask when I come back from a country. “Were the people nice?”. Lol

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  14. I have made the comment about people being nice, but firstly, I have said it not about every place I have visited but only few, and I have something to compare to. Another reason why I feel I still have the right to say that is that in my culture people mostly will not smile, help strangers, be approachable. It’s one of the ways to see that someone is from my side of the world, that their brows are furrowed all the time 🙂 And, I say “nice” or “kind” about the places that I actually have some specific experience from. Such, as numerous people trying to help me to find a pharmacy, and going out of their way to do it (offering to drive in front of me, and I did not have anything SO serious that couldn’t wait until next day etc) and similar stories, where it’s more than just someone smiling at you. So, I beg to differ, I say that it is ok to say someone is nice, and some people are nice, as we all are ambassadors of our countries, and often will create impressions about our entire countries to people we meet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! If its what you want to say, go for it! I’m just trying to point out a new way of thinking. But of course, if your experience has been meeting nice people, by all means, talk about it!

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  15. This is a very interesting post. We just got back from Paris and I’ve been telling my friends that we met a lot of “nice” people because so many people went out of their way to help us out and say sweet things about our little kids. Parisians aren’t known for being “nice” so I wanted to make sure my non-traveler friends knew that we had nothing but good things to say about the people we interacted with there. But, I agree that way too many people take smiling as a sign that people are nice. It’s just a cultural thing.

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    1. That makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re talking about Paris! Parisians are most definitely not known for being kind. I think my post was written quite harshly. If people are kind to you during your travels, of course talk about it! I just wanted to point out the danger of generalizations.

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  16. Interesting article and perspective. When I say I liked a country because the people are kind it is actually because it is easy to connect with them and interact beyond a simple smile. It is because people are helpful and friendly. It is true that in every country you have nice people and less nice people, but i certainly did experience differences between countries if it comes to what i said above. Honestly, i wasn’t impressed with cambodia and laos and didnt fi d it easy to really connect with the people beyond a smile. Quite different from central asia andiran where people are curious and its easy to have long conversatiins about each others countries.

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  17. A really thought provoking blog post! I’ve never considered how comments such as that may be received by locals and non-locals alike. I can appreciate that dismissive statements about an entire country / culture does nobody any favours but I guess I’ve never stopped to think about whether I’m making generalisations when I talk about my travels. Something for me to muse on!

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  18. Great observations. This has troubled me in the past as well, and I couldn’t put words as to why, but you do so quite eloquently. Don’t shy away from commentary like this! You’re very good at it, and people need to hear these things.

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  19. Very nice post. You are right if someone smile that doesn’t mean he or she has no problem in life. It is just that he/she is trying to give you friendly vibes.
    There is no country where “All the people are so kind”……. I totally agree with this.

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  20. I see what you’re saying but I think there’s another element to consider. We hear so many horror stories in the news and second-hand reports of different cultures and it can all get quite negative a lot of the time. To me, the fact that everyone always says ‘the people are so nice’ is an important statement on human nature. Wherever you go, your average person is friendly, hospitable and caring. That’s universal and I think that’s SUCH a poignant and important issue. Obviously that doesn’t mean there lives are all sunshine and roses, it just means that at our core, people aren’t evil – and that’s demonstrated over and over again by travel experiences around the world. I think we have such an inherited fear of difference so when we experience these cultures and find so much empathy and similarity within them then it’s important and positive for our world view as a whole! I totally agree with what you’re saying but just thing it’s another dimension to consider!

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    1. Yes! I didn’t think about this angle when I was writing this, but you’re very right. The media does love to report on the horror, so it is great to remind people that our fellow humans are inherently good (or we hope so, at least). I think my original point stands but this is something equally important to remember.

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  21. I like your suggestion to not romanticize or charicaturize people of foreign lands. People are people everywhere you go; we all eat, sleep and shit the same. I once read an article titled “Staged Authenticity” about paradox of tourists’ frivolous desire to encounter authenticity abroad though their most authentic reality would be at home. Would be interested in your thoughts!

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    1. Colin, thanks for the idea! My mind is already running away. This staged authenticity is rampant here in Southeast Asia, and results in some strange and disturbing human zoo type situations. Will add that to my list of blogs to write!

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  22. Hey, this was a really fresh piece of reading, I enjoyed your honesty! While I think it´s okay to say that people are nice, I think to reduce the local culture to just “being nice” is not as cool when travel writers / bloggers do it. Yeah, I´ll routinely tell my mom on the phone that people are nice and landscape is pretty, but if I am writing about a place (or reading), I want to provide / read something a lot more insightful. Honestly, I´m always relieved when people comment on my country as having nice people because we are rather cold in Slovakia. But yeah, I´m also annoyed with the cliché of happy South East Asian people who are so “spiritual” and “happy” all the time just because they smile. Many people should read rather than travel in my opinion!

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  23. As an American that has been living in Southeast Asia for three years, I LOVE this post. You definitely hit the nail on the head. Go out to the countryside, to the small one-room cafes and sugarcane fields and feel what the local populace is really about. It is always so much deeper than minute-shops and Main Street attractions.

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