Sometimes employees in Asia can be a little too helpful for comfort.
There’s a stereotype that in the Southern US, people are more friendly. In most cases that’s true. It’s not unusual to have a conversation with a stranger. It’s acceptable to ask a stranger for directions. It’s not uncommon to have a conversation with your server and, depending on where you go, it doesn’t take long to become a “regular”.
Now, take that hospitality and re-imagine it as something aggressive and unwanted and that’s what you get from many sales clerks in Asia. Add being a white foreigner to that and you wind up being harassed almost nonstop when in a shopping area.
It’s not particular to any one country either. I’ve experienced it in every country I’ve visited in Asia so far.
The first time I took a trip to the Philippines we stopped by a mall. Which mall it was slips my mind now, but we were in a big department store. I think we were looking for some new socks.
Distributed throughout the area were dozens of sales people. They looked like vultures. As soon as I stepped off the laminated walkway and onto the carpeting and showed the slightest interest in something on the shelf it was like watching cats descend on a bowl of fresh fish.
“May I help you sir?” “Would you be interested in this sir?” “How about this?” “We have a special right now on…”
All this before I’d even finished looking at the first package of socks I’d picked up. How am I supposed to know what I want before I’ve had a chance to properly browse? And what makes this horde of sales people think I’m incapable of picking out a package of socks on my own? I don’t have to be a local to successfully complete that mission!
Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
This one was kind of expected, since it was, after all, a tourist area. But it’s still unnerving to walk down a row of stalls and have people constantly calling, “Sir! Good deal sir! Hello! Hello! Hello!” As if I didn’t hear them when they first started talking, and I’ll stop just because they say hello? I don’t think so.
Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Again, this is somewhat expected because it’s a tourist area, but some of them were seriously aggressive. They would step out in front of you and try to block you from moving on as they waved flyers and menus in your face. One of them even tried to grab my arm. That’s definitely not cool.
You don’t see that sort of thing happening in Singapore quite as much. Well, it’s not as aggressive anyway. If you enter a store and start handling the clothes one person may stop by and ask if you need assistance, but if you decline, they leave you alone. My only issue is that they approach you as soon as you start browsing. Then, when you do need assistance they’re elsewhere, behind the register or in the stock room. It would make more sense for them to approach you after a few minutes of being in the store.
Where it is a bit bothersome is at the hawker centers and food courts. People will call out to you and try to draw your attention. Some of them are more subtle. They try to be friendly, or try to guilt you into buying. There’s a particular woman that sells fish soup at the nearby hawker that tries to win people over with a charming smile. So, like I said, not so bad, but still more than what I’m used to.
It Just Doesn’t Work!
I suppose you could say this adds to the excitement and experience of visiting these places, but I’d rather relax and not have to worry about being hounded by people every time I get near a store, restaurant or bar. Rather than draw me into a sale, what this type of behavior does is push me away. I don’t want to feel like I’m being forced into making a purchase and I definitely don’t want to be hassled on a vacation. Well, Singapore doesn’t really count as a vacation, since I live there, but I thought it was worth adding for comparison.
Oh, and one other thing I noticed is that there seem to be more salespeople in Asian stores than in the US, where you sometimes spend 10 minutes trying to find a single employee to help you with something.