In my experience, one of the most common complaints that travelers tend to have about other places is that the people who live in those places are rude, snobby, or otherwise unapproachable. I’ve mentioned before that one of the most common search queries that brings people to my blog is, “Why are Saudis so rude?” In that same post, I also mentioned that I was warned that French people are rude, as well, and for me, that was proven incorrect. Even so, I admit that I’m totally not above thinking that people in a certain place are largely unpleasant.
For example, a few years ago, when Mr. Mostafa and I were road tripping through southern California, I got it into my head that people in Los Angeles are rude. I had basically one experience that led to this conclusion. We were stopped at an intersection near the beach; I could smell the salty sea air in the wind blowing through the windows. A BMW convertible pulled up next to us in the right lane, driven by a middle-aged man wearing Ray-Bans. A woman sat next to him in the passenger seat; she was cute, with short dark hair, maybe in her early 30s. After the initial glance to my right, I looked forward again and waited for the light to turn green. When that happened, the man gunned the engine of the BMW and peeled away from us, tires screaming, as the woman threw her head back, looked at me, and laughed uproariously, with a tinge of cruelty.
And that was it—I decided I wouldn’t ever want to live in southern California. People there are snobby.
I’ve gone over that moment many times in my head, and after the initial inexplicable sting wore off, I started to break it down in a more forgiving light. Maybe the man had just told a really great joke. Maybe she had read something really funny on her phone. Maybe the woman really was laughing at us for some reason—but the thing is, even if that were true, it had nothing to do with me. I’m totally fine, even if she did find me worthy of being laughed at, scorned, or belittled. Why in the world did I let that one jarring experience cloud my entire experience in California? Why would anyone let a single bad experience cloud their entire experience anywhere?
The truth is, on that trip, we met plenty of really nice people in California. I remember Mr. Mostafa having a long conversation with the friendly concierge who welcomed us when we stayed on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. I can’t really remember what they talked about. I also remember that we had a very nice waiter at the restaurant in Malibu where we ate dinner on the beach. But those memories aren’t nearly as clear as the color of the hair of that woman who threw her head back and laughed while looking at me as the BMW she was in left tire tracks on the asphalt next to us. I don’t get why, especially since I know that people in California are, on the whole, not any more rude than people in the Ozarks. But knowing that didn’t keep me from bracing myself for the unfriendliness I stubbornly expected to encounter once I crossed the state line on my road trip to California with my mom and Lavender.
I didn’t find it. I mean, sure, there were some people who weren’t super chatty with us, especially not at first. But who is super chatty all the time? No one, that’s who. And on our road trip, we encountered very few people who remained standoffish even after we did our best to engage with them in a pleasant way. Lavender was a bit of an icebreaker, as well; I mean, how can you resist this face?
But I’m happy to report that when it comes to interactions with strangers on this road trip, my memories will be almost entirely happy ones. When we smiled, people smiled back. Everywhere. The lady who maintained the breakfast area in the hotel where we stayed in Kingman, Arizona was so sweet and helpful. At the Hoover Dam, we had a wonderful time chatting about horses with a small, adorable family from the Bronx. Everyone in the San Francisco Zoo was nice. One of the clearest memories I will take away from our cross-country road trip is all the smiles—both from me, my mom, and Lavender as well as from all the people we met along the way.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in life so far, it’s that there are really very few people in life who are honestly, truly mean to their core. There are misunderstandings. There are ideological differences that people allow to cloud their interactions with others. Sometimes people are just having a bad day. But even when people aren’t kind or friendly, as long as I am, I’ve done my job. Whatever happens after that has nothing to do with me.
It’s so tremendously liberating to finally understand that. I can only control myself. What others do, how they react to me and interact with me, is entirely up to them. And I’m happy that so far, no matter where in the world I am or what culture in which I find myself enmeshed, it seems like there is always warmth to be found, as long as I am willing to reach out for it and accept it when it comes…and ignore the rest.