Why a Top 10 Friendliest Countries list is nonsense

Smiles of Laos

Smiles of Laos

People seem to love lists. We can package anything into a top 10 most impressive, top 20 underrated, top 100 most awesome, whatever the subject. These are almost always subjective and give us little more than the opinion of the author.

One of the lists that I find the most interesting is the Top 10 Friendliest Countries list. As judged by Lonely Planet, these countries were considered to be the most welcoming to strangers. This post from Tripbase not only lists the countries but also lists a long and often passionate debate about the results. It’s well worth a read to see how fired up people get about their own country’s ranking.

I don’t buy into any of this. Sure, people have been impressed with the welcome they have received in these countries. But does that actually equate to friendliness? Or is it something altogether more superficial that we are measuring here?

Friendly young Tajiks in Bukhara

Friendly young Tajiks in Bukhara

Six months ago we were in Estonia, and a little later in Laos. The contrasts in the demeanour of local people were dramatic. Lao people are renowned for their broad smiles and their dislike of confrontation or argument. If you sit in a bar or restaurant you will receive an almost universal happy and smiling welcome. In Estonia, people appeared to be far more reserved, and less smiley by nature. We were often greeted quite formally, and it often took a while before we saw a smile.

But I would never list people in Estonia as less friendly than those in Laos. Less smiley, yes. Less inclined to be on hand to offer every service we wanted, undoubtedly. But we were greeted with respect, politeness and an increasing warmth as we got talking with people. In turn we heard some great stories about modern life in Estonia and how it was to live there before independence.

So what is the friendliness that is being measured in these surveys? Is it having barmen spin you a story while they pour you a drink? Is it strangers telling you to have a nice day? Is it even people dragging you off the street into their house to show you how they live? Yes, they are friendly acts, but maybe this is only a small part of the picture.

The countries listed have a common theme. They are countries where, within limits, local people are most tolerant of western people behaving in their country as if they were at home. It’s interesting to note that there are no Slavic countries on here. There are subtle differences to building relationships in eastern Europe, Russia and central Asia. Yet once friendships made they are often very strong. It requires adapting our own behaviour to our environment. The same is true to an even greater extent in the Arab world, where hospitality is legendary, but the alcohol driven delights of many of the listed countries are not tolerated.

Friendly people exist in every country, and I would argue in equal proportions. What is being measured in these polls is perhaps not how inherently friendly the local people are, but how little we as visitors have to adapt our behaviour to tap into that friendliness. And while few of us are not enticed by the eternal smiles of Thailand or Laos, there is something far more rewarding about getting under the skin of a stern welcome and coaxing out a big grin and the hospitality that inevitably follows.

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Freelance travel writer

32 Responses to “Why a Top 10 Friendliest Countries list is nonsense”

  1. totally agree. better someone takes the time to get to know me slowly than to just give me an easy superficial smile. that’s just too easy. What can i say.. great article!

    March 21, 2010 at 10:08 am
  2. I totally agree with you, Andy. Lists are certainly a great way to attract readers (and I confess I’ve been making lists myself a few times) but I believe that one should always read them purely as an indication. There’s nothing more subjective as the concepts ‘friendly’, ‘safe’ and lots of other adjectives. Every place had its history and tradition that obviously reflect in people’s behavior. Traveling means being open and respectful, willing to learn and discover and trying to interact taking into account the different traditions.
    I also wonder… Before establishing a ranking involving other countries, why don’t we ask ourselves how ‘friendly’ and ‘welcoming’ is our own country? I can tell you that while everyone loves Italy, I do not consider it ‘friendly’, with the exception of a few places…

    March 21, 2010 at 10:09 am
  3. Insightful point about what this survey is actually measuring. I can’t claim to know if what you’re suggesting is true, but it certainly makes sense. I find it difficult to believe and offensive to suggest that certain countries are less friendly than others. It’s such a huge generalization without, I’m sure, proper data to back it up.

    March 21, 2010 at 8:49 pm
  4. Good point there. What should really matter is how happy people are with their lives – not how big their (often fake) smile. The happier people are, the more welcoming the place.

    March 22, 2010 at 9:10 am
  5. I was thinking about ‘Top Tens’ just yesterday while browsing guardian.co.uk/travel

    Always featured on their ‘Most Read Articles’ are several Top Ten lists, which I guess appeal to the 140-character consumer!

    March 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm
  6. Yes. good point Andy.
    statistics are necessary, of course but you never know you actually visit, meet, experience the place.
    Even staticly best places has down side and the other way around also.
    I was so surpsed Lonely planet pick my city to one of the worst. some comments were saying you just didn’t visit right place tho.
    I always say, people matter. the one you personally met on the road.

    Is there a “worst” place exsist? really?

    March 23, 2010 at 3:26 am
    • Actually my friends went to Seoul recently and they had fun so far. According to them Koreans are friendly too. Well, I love Koreans! #prokoreans 😀

      February 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm
  7. Thanks for all the great comments. There is a tendency to make top 10s of everything and while they are entertaining, they should be taken with a pinch of salt.
    And Juno, I can’t believe Seoul is so badly rated! I haven’t been yet but have heard so many wonderful things about it. Oh well, there you go, proof again that the survey is not to be trusted 🙂

    March 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm
  8. I totally agree, especially with “They are countries where, within limits, local people are most tolerant of western people behaving in their country as if they were at home.” If people would be willing to open their minds to new cultures, they would find a lot more friendliness in the world.

    Some of the most friendly and welcoming people I’ve ever met were in Syria. As Americans planning to travel in the middle east, we did not quite know what to expect. Despite what some people might say about “extreme” arab countries, we actually became the charity case for all of the local people. They welcomed us with open arms, gave us free food at restaurants, free rides, and generally made sure that we were treated like royalty. And all this even with an exchange rate that meant most things would have been very cheap for us, anyway! It’s hard to measure friendliness or happiness, but I know it when I see it.

    May 7, 2010 at 11:17 pm
  9. Farflungistan #

    There are friendly people in every country as long as you are a respectful traveler. If someone shows distain for you in a foreign country then it’s up to you to figure out why. For example, many places in the world find offense in things like having your bottom of your shoe face someone or the act of a male sitting next to a single female on the packed bus or van. We as visitors can prevent others from being unfriendly. It’s a two way street. I always begin by putting on my best smile and I hope to get one back. It usually works. 🙂
    I agree with Brian on Syria…it’s probably one of the best places I’ve visited. Food, people and sites are all amazing…or was I just lucky?

    June 6, 2010 at 4:40 pm
  10. Excellent post. I’ve talked to people who travel who seem to think any country that tolerates stereotypical abnoxious American or British behavior (yes stereotype–but I’ve seen other Americans act this way with my own eyes while traveling) is a “friendly” place. Views on what is friendly or even a deeper matter, friendship, is skewed and distorted beyond measure, especially in the age of social media.

    Again, thanks for this insight and wake up call to travelers, especially in the States.

    June 10, 2010 at 11:33 pm
  11. Thanks for the comment Trudy. You’re right, there’s room to take this topic down a much deeper route (what is friendship? how does SM change/fake the measures of friendship? As far as travel goes, respect on the part of visitors to a country is not too much to ask, surely?

    June 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm
  12. Trudy #

    It’s definitely not too much to ask. I think some travelers aren’t as open minded as they appear and approach travel with American superiority, for example. They think customs should bend to them abroad instead of them adapting and appreciating another culture.

    June 22, 2010 at 9:07 pm
  13. a.laheji #

    I think these days friendly behaviour depends on political situation between two countries.People do behave according to what media tells them to.

    July 6, 2010 at 5:26 am
  14. TJ #

    I began traveling internationally at the age of 17. I am now 60 and I have made so many friends in other countries that my children have all traveled and stayed with our friends in other countries and we have grandchildren that are close to doing the same. We have had numerous friends and their children stay with us in the States. My travels have created a huge extended family worldwide. I could have never achieved this if I read, listened too, or bought into “lists”. I was sent away from home with the message …”when in Rome”…. I’ve always lived by that concept. I’ve never met a stranger in a strange land!

    July 25, 2010 at 11:45 am
  15. TJ #

    I did not read the list before posting.
    Interestingly enough, I have only been to 2 of the friendliest but, 9 of the happiest!

    July 25, 2010 at 11:50 am
  16. TJ, I reckon I meet more strangers in my own land 🙂 When in Rome is good advice wherever we are. Your extended circle of friends is evidence that you’ve followed that rule well. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    July 30, 2010 at 8:51 am
  17. I went to Estonia in 95 and 96 and had a lot of personal interaction with people that were from there. So I have some insight on why they are that way.

    A lot of the communist countries grew up in an era where you watched what you said, kept to yourself, and just lived your life without sharing too many personal thoughts or opinions. It wasn’t so much a fear as it was being careful not to get too personal..

    After the USSR broke up, Estonians experienced freedom for the first time. The greatest freedom for them wasn’t just economic but the personal freedom to explore their thoughts and feelings and be able to express them. And for them, that took some getting used to.

    In talking to people that I knew there, it wasn’t that they were unfriendly but reserved. They were cautious in their interactions with others because that is what they knew. Many Estonians thought carefully before they spoke, weren’t openly warm and welcoming, but once you got to know them, they were genuine, hospitable, and fun people. You may not have seen that when you visited but you could see that behind closed doors.

    Sometimes evaluating how friendly a country is means understanding where they come from. Estonians are fabulous people but live in a culture and environment much different than other people in the world. It doesn’t make them unfriendly. It just takes the time to understand where they are coming from in order to know them.

    If we evaluate people just on how friendly they seem when we meet them, that’s very selfish. We may miss out on some truly wonderful people in the world because they didn’t meet expectations of how welcoming someone should be. How friendly a country is may be more about us than them..

    August 6, 2010 at 11:39 pm
  18. It’s interesting to read your account from Estonia, and to see that much of what you experienced in 95 was similar to what we found 14 years later. I wander how much of that reserved nature is linked to the occupation by USSR (must have had an impact) and how much is a permanent part of the Estonian psyche. I can imagine that even in 100 years the people there will still have that cool and serious exterior – like you suggest, it bears no reflection on the warmth and kindness that you can experience when you take the time to get to know people. It’s about us and how we react, as you suggest.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jeremy.

    August 8, 2010 at 7:01 pm
  19. Great post. And true. For example, France is often cited as being one of the most ‘rude/unfriendly’ places to visit. Yet we have never had any problem in France, including Paris – people have almost universally been what I would regard as friendly, or at the least, not rude. As you say, depends on what your definition of friendly is – but I don’t need people fawning all over me for me to feel they are being friendly!

    February 8, 2011 at 1:34 pm
  20. This is fantastic. I have nothing to add because you so eloquently summed it up and no comment is needed. Great post.

    March 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm
  21. Amy #

    I totally agree. Sometimes, how the ‘invader’ acts, looks or thinks changes how the locals treat them. If a sloppy American tourist walks into a class restaurant in France and tried to order a Miller Light, it would not be received well. But I sat in several parks two summers ago in France and while enjoying my picnic, the view and the sun, I constantly had people saying ‘bon appetit’ to me. I found the French very nice (outside of Paris- sorry, Parisians!), but it’s not the case for everyone. It totally depends on how you approach a country. 🙂

    April 29, 2011 at 7:55 am
  22. Friendly is in the eye of the beholder. You might have just had a long flight, met one rude person in one of these top 10 countries, and have that all-important first impression ruined. Or it might go the opposite way.

    Friendliness is so subjective in both interpretation (personal cultural bias being the most influential) and in presentation (depending on so many factors within a culture, gender, race, economic status and so many other things) that boiling it down to a top 10 list appears to me to be almost the opposite of any reason for travel. Would anyone really not go to a place if it didn’t appear on a top 10 friendly places list?

    It is an interesting observation you made about the friendliest countries being most accepting of Euro-centric behaviour.

    In general, I’m sick of the top advice for bloggers being “make a list”. Personally, I find it goes against the other top rule of any writing genre: “write what you know”. In my profession, I have to do a lot of research & writing – so when I blog, I write a lot (hey, look at this comment as an example). If that puts readers off, so be it. I blog to keep my travel in a central place where anyone can read it if they want. I love seeing the little counters going up, knowing that people are reading what I write, but that isn’t motivation enough for me.

    May 6, 2011 at 11:35 am
  23. So true Andy. Such a subjective/contextual thing isn’t it? It’s become a gratingly prevalent cliche of some travel writing/pr bumpf too. ‘The best thing about [Insert destination name] is the wonderfully warm and generous people.’ etc…

    October 23, 2011 at 7:15 pm
  24. measuring soft values like friendliness is just silly to begin with. But as long as people keep stumbling, likeing and sharing blogs that make these kinds of lists, they will continue to be out there.

    Objectively listing subjective values….not possible.

    November 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm
  25. Huw #

    Good article. This one is definately in my top 10 of favourite blogs!

    February 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm
  26. Agree, agree, AGREE! I was in central Europe (Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania) very recently, so I get what you’re saying when you bring up Slavic countries. Your average person on the street may not appear to be the most welcoming person in the world. However, I used CouchSurfing, and my hosts were nothing short of super friendly and hospitable – they made me feel right at home, and were full of great conversation.

    I think there are different expectations in customer service around the world – I found the customer service in central Europe to actually be pretty bad (I found many of the staff to be just downright rude and dismissive). However, in South Korea (where I live), people will go out of their way to help you (and it’s not even a major tourist destination).

    You’ve brought up some great points here. Thanks for sharing!

    February 13, 2012 at 4:02 pm
  27. Great post! Friendliest list!!?? I guess part of the science in such a list would have to include how friendly the writer is, at all times, when they are travelling! Surely a key variable! I mean, no one could possibly be the friendliest traveller, always, so this impact in the environment is very important data….ha!

    I think List posts are interesting, from an enjoyment perspective, and sometimes gives you new travel ideas, but again, sample size is a crucial issue here! Unless you have been to EVERY bar in SE Asia, how can you possibly list the best ones!!

    February 20, 2012 at 11:45 am


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