Gut Feeling — Your Biggest Travel Safety Enemy?

Article from the series: Staying Safe and Healthy in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

What if “gut feeling” is merely personal experience accumulated over the years? Yes, people like to talk about instincts as something almost supernatural — or too natural for human brains to adequately process — but these “patterns of behaviour” are not necessarily innate.

Take the example of smiling. As we grow up we may learn that a smile means that somebody cares about us, likes us, wishes us no harm. If we find ourselves in a group of guys who do not smile, something in us will raise an alarm, and our retreat will be an automatic reaction. But a grinning person could as well be wearing a smile as a mask to encourage us to tip more or maximise other professional or private benefits, right?

Careful with Smiling People

It gets infinitely more complex in a different cultural environment. Whenever we are in contact with humans who have been socialised in a different way, all bets are off. For example, around the volcanoes at the centre of the Gorilla Highlands region, there certainly are ethnic groups who do not smile excessively. When travellers meet individuals who come across as more friendly and outgoing, their “gut feeling” might be doing them a tricky disservice. Just like an underpaid waitress in an American joint, the locals might be wielding smiles as a business weapon.

No joking — you should be careful with smiling people, or basically anyone who is too eager to help. They could be genuine, or they might have mastered your culture enough to use it to their advantage.

The most innocent example are sellers of different stuff (including fake personal tragedies) who know you are too polite to turn them away. A trickier test is a self-declared friend who will steer you away from genuinely good but reserved people, in favour of more profitable relationships.

Leave Your Prejudice Home

The other side of the coin is problematic as well. In many cultures white/fair is good and black/dark is bad, from fairytale characters onwards. Additionally, humans with darker skin often come from challenging economic circumstances and are disproportionately represented in criminal activities around the world.

Because of these subconscious signals and practical experiences you may be inclined to unknowingly racially profile whole populations. In other words, your “gut feeling” might tell you to trust those who are lighter of skin.

Rest assured that in Africa you will be among amazingly hospitable and genuinely nice people, so do not allow yourself to become cynical or automatically turn down people who really mean well. Do not trust too much, but also do not distrust for no sensible reason.

In many ways, behave as you would at home: be friendly, but not gullible.

Use Your Eyes

Instead of relying on your “inner eye”, activate your actual eyeballs. Just observe. How does the woman or man you are attempting to figure out behave when less guarded? How does he or she treat others around you?

Not only do actions speak louder than words, relying on your ears instead of your eyes can be deeply problematic. There is the silver tongue factor, and there are real life language barriers. For instance, our Batwa “Pygmy” partners often find themselves taken advantage of because they cannot directly communicate to international visitors. English-speaking guides can tell you any Batwa tale and mislead you dramatically, so pay attention to how they interact with the “Pygmies”.

This is not only a journey in a different culture, it can be a journey in your mind too. Who knows, maybe it shows you how to do better as a human at home as well?

photo by Marcus Westberg


  1. What I always find tricky is that some people are just generously nice and with some others you don’t know which intentions they might have or asking for money “a tip” for their help. Came across both! The majority of being generously nice people 🙂

Comments are closed.