Strangers in a Strange Land: What Happens When Two Foreigners Cross Paths?

White man on a train in Tokyo

If you’ve ever lived in a foreign place where the people are fairly homogeneous and your skin color and/or other physical characteristics differ significantly from those of the locals, you probably know what it’s like to receive a few curious stares.

Humans are nothing if not curious, and it’s only natural for people to spend extra time gazing at people, places, and things that are novel or unique. Having spent quite some time in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan myself, I too have lots of experience with being stared at. From experience, I know that nearly all of these stares are the product of simple curiosity rather than of any bad intentions, though despite this the stray glace can still grow wearisome at times.

That said, the situation definitely is improving all over Asia. I spent three years in one South Korean city, and I definitely felt fewer eyeballs trained on me at the end of those three years than at the beginning.

In any case, the above phenomena is well documented elsewhere. It’s also not what I’ve come here to discuss today.

Instead, I’d like to talk about interactions between foreigners — people living in a society that is not their own — and, in particular, about situations in which two strangers who are both visibly outsiders cross paths in public.

Believe it or not, there are many ways that a foreigner can react to this situation, and during my years abroad I have spent much time analyzing and pondering how different individuals react.

Now, after years of painstaking research, it’s with immense pride that today I introduce to you the five major Foreigner-on-Foreigner Interaction Style Types, or FFISTs.

Before I continue, I’d just like to note that people are by no means limited to one FFIST. Though most people have a preferred FFIST that they rely on most often, it’s not unusual for foreigners to employ many FFISTs over the course of a week or even a day, depending on location, mood, and a variety of other factors.

So without further ado, here are the five primary Foreigner-on-Foreigner Interaction Style Types:

1. Cordial

Happy Kim Il-SungYou see another foreigner approaching you on the street. You make eye contact while still at a comfortable distance. As you pass each other, you both acknowledge the other’s presence with a smile, a nod, or a simple “Hello,” and then you go your separate ways. Meanwhile, the earth continues to spin on its axis, the post office keeps delivering mail come sun, rain, or snow, and Cher releases another album of timeless pop.

 2. Avoidant

At the outset of a foreigner-foreigner encounter this FFIST manifests itself much like the one above.  However, soon the opposing party makes eye contact much too early, glancing at you so briefly that you’re unsure of whether they were looking at you or at something else in your vicinity. As you draw closer you notice them become antsy and fidgety, as though they can’t decide whether to acknowledge you in a friendly manner or ignore your presence completely. Finally, as the two of you cross paths, they look straight ahead and avoid any further interaction, rebuffing any friendly gestures you may make. They then go home and sit in a darkened room to watch season 5 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in its entirety, leaving their chair only to microwave the occasional batch of instant ramen noodles.

3. Frenzied

Of the five FFISTs, this is the one most easily recognized from a distance. As soon as the fellow foreign resident notices you, their eyes light up and their pace quickens as they bolt in your direction. Even when they’re still half a block away, they shout, “Hey! Hey! Wait up!”

You try to escape, but it’s to no avail. The frenzied foreigner catches you. The conversation that ensues goes something like this.

Frenzied“Hey, how’s it going? I’m new here! It’s really nice to meet you,” they frantically blurt out. “My name is George.”

“Hey George,” you say as you continue to walk. “I’m heading to work.”

“Oh, that’s great! Do you think I could join you?” George replies, spraying saliva in your general direction.

You give George a curious stare. “I said I’m going to work.”

“Oh, wooooooork! Well, maybe we could meet for dinner later tonight?” George asks, nodding his head violently as though his life depends on your affirmative answer.

“Sure. Give me your number and I’ll call you.”

George gives you his number. You forget to call George. Two months later, you see George, disheveled and unshaven, lying unconscious in the local park, tightly clutching an empty bottle of powerful spirits.

4. Curious

This is a unique case. You see, foreigner populations are not homogeneous, meaning that some foreigners stand out more than others. For example, a t-shirt and jeans wearing male Caucasian walking through the streets of Seoul, South Korea is less conspicuous than a hijab wearing female walking along the same street.

In these instances, oftentimes the less conspicuous foreigner adopts a level of curiosity equal to (or perhaps even greater than!) that of the average local resident. Their wonderment gets the better of them, and they succumb to engaging in exact same kind of staring that they’re subjected to on a daily basis.

Some foreigners who display this FFIST never recognize the folly of their ways, remaining ignorant of the fact that they’re engaging in the very behavior that they themselves disdain. Others spend countless hours thinking about this very phenomenon and write about it on their obscure, little-known incredibly popular blogs.

5. Indifferent

These sunglasses are awesomeIt could be because they don’t notice you, because they’re in a bad mood, or because they’ve been living abroad so long that foreigner-on-foreigner interaction no longer phases them, but in any case, a person employing this FFIST does not acknowledge your presence whatsoever. They don’t look your direction, they don’t smile (although if already smiling, they may continue to do so), and they continue walk past you just as they’d bypass a local member of the population. Sometimes not even a person employing the Frenzied FFIST can break them out of their indifference. However, if you do manage to get your attention, they can potentially segue into any of the FFISTs listed above, the most likely choice being the Cordial FFIST.

(Note that this FFIST is often characterized by awesome sunglasses.)

Research Into FFISTs Is Ongoing

And there you have it: the five primary Foreigner-on-Foreigner Interaction Style Types!

Before I sign out, I should note that research into the taxonomy and manifestations of the FFISTs continues. Because this is a chronically underfunded area of psychology, progress is slow, and any personal contributions you could make would be much appreciated.

So if you have a FFIST of your own you’d like to deliver to my body of work, don’t be shy!

Photo credits: Parisa, John PavelkaOrin ZebestWendy

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.