The Hidden Power of the Confused Look

I’d like to say it’s taken me 62 years to master having a confused look on my face, but in reality, I think it’s the default facial expression I was born with.

And while there may be times when having a confused look may not be a good thing (such as when a student asks me a basic question, or when I am taking a math test, or when I am looking at my monthly bank statement), I’ve learned that my look of utter confusion is usually quite beneficial.

And it’s never been truer than my first week in Singapore. I’ve been finding that the people here are incredibly helpful when they see that befuddled look on my face. Here are some examples:

  • our first day in town, we were walking through the local mall and came across an Auntie Anne’s pretzel stand (I guess they are a global phenomenon). Anyway, we ordered a pretzel, and I took out my credit card and was told they don’t take credit cards. I then took out a $10 bill (U.S.), assuming that U.S. money is good everywhere. Well, not the case. So I stood there dumbfounded, with the pretzel just sitting on the counter, not knowing what to do. Fortunately, a woman was sitting nearby and asked if we needed any help, and we explained the situation. She offered to buy the pretzel for us! I’m convinced it was the look on my face that indicated I could be stuck there all day, trying to figure out what to do. Her offer snapped me out of it, and we thanked her but said we would find a local ATM and get some cash out, which we did. But what a great introduction to the people of Singapore, and the power of the confused look.
  • the second incident happened the next day. We were going to take the subway somewhere, and when we got to the platform, we were not sure which side of the platform we should be on. Looking back and forth between the two tracks must have enhanced my default confused look to the point where a subway employee came over and asked where we were going, and then explained in great detail how to get to where we wanted.
  • There were two separate incidents today. The first happened at a food booth in the mall, coincidentally right near Auntie Anne’s. I picked up a sandwich (for the ridiculously low price of $1.70 ($1.25 U.S.)), and went to pay for it. At this point in our stay, I had accumulated a great deal of change, opting to always pay with a bill since I wasn’t quite comfortable using the change. However, I needed to start using the change, otherwise, I’d come home with several hundred dollars in Singaporean coins. So I just stuck my hand in my pocket, grabbed as many coins as I could, and just offered my open hand to the cashier with a confused look. She did not speak English, but fortunately, I think a look of confusion is universal, and she just nodded and proceeded to count out the necessary amount.
  • the final event just happened a couple of hours ago. We were heading out to a local corner cafe for dinner since I had seen a picture on a sidewalk posterboard of what appeared to be a nice vegan dinner. However, when they sat us down and gave us our menu, I didn’t see it on the menu, and the menu was a little difficult to understand. A perfect storm for my confused look to go into action. As it turned out the owner of the cafe was sitting next to us and asked if we needed any help. I quickly accepted his offer and walked him around to the street sign and pointed at what I wanted. He called the waitress over and spoke in Chinese to her, explaining what I wanted. He then guided us for the next hour through everything; he made suggestions for what my wife and son could eat; he told us how to eat it, he then bought us an after-dinner tea on the house, and then let us take a taste of the garlic bread he had just ordered himself. Not only was it the best meal we have had in Singapore, but it was also one of the best restaurant experiences we have ever had. You can be sure we will be back many more times.

As you can see, at the heart of all of these stories is the hidden power of my look of confusion.

That, and the hospitality of the Singaporean people.

*image from Quick Transfer Moving

57 thoughts on “The Hidden Power of the Confused Look

  1. It is why I have always believed that language is never a barrier to travel. We have communicated through body language, gesture, and facial expression for eons before we ever had the word language. So glad you are enjoying the culture and the refreshingly congenial hospitality of the Singaporean people! Safe travels!


    1. body language an gestures are powerful ways to communicate. my son and I were having a beer at an outdoor food market the other night, sitting next to a group of older locals. I’m not really sure what language they were speaking, but at one point, my eyes met the eyes of one of the guys and he raised his beer and nodded. It certainly made us feel welcome. My wife had a similar experience when she was trying to buy some anti-perspirant. The clerk could not understand what she was asking for, but when my wife mimicked how it is used, she was able to immediately find the product she was asking for.


  2. What I take from your post is that there is a basic human desire to comfort others in distress. It is one of the most beautiful elements of humanity. There are stories that make us question how anyone could be so callousโ€”stealing packages off someone’s front porch, taking advantage of the elderly, or taking credit for someone else’s work. For all of the negativity in the world, there are far more tales of people demonstrating kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity. I’m glad to see that spirit alive in Singapore.


    1. Unfortunately it’s the bad news tales that make the headlines, even though they represent s small fraction of how people treat each other. And yes, that spirit of helping is alive and well in Singapore.


  3. I love the idea of bagfuls of change to avoid trying to count out the right money! That is the sort of thing that happens to me! The nearest I have been to Singapore is the airport sadly. I am not sure working in the business and first class lounge of Singapore Airlines at Heathrow counts, but the airline and people always seemed to be a cut above the rest of us!


    1. Wow – working for Singapore Airlines! I have read that it is usually the top rated airline in the world, and that the airport in Singapore is the best airport in the world (and from what we could see, it certainly deserves such a ranking). And I still have a lot of change to work my way through – there could be worse problems to have! ๐Ÿ™‚


      1. I have to confess that I worked for a catering company sub contracted to Singapore Airlines, but having worked in other lounges I was certain Singapore treated their passengers best.


    1. thanks, Michael. And how did you know I was just talking about dividends in my accounting class yesterday? ๐Ÿ™‚ and speaking of confused looks, the students’ faces said it all…


  4. Ahh! The power of the confused look! I can do that look pretty well, have had plenty of experience! How nice to read about the kindness you are finding in Singapore among the people!


  5. Great share Jim. Goes to show there are more ways to communicate than just with words. I learned long ago before I travel, I always order at least $100 from my bank of the currency of the country I’m going to just to have some native cash there upon landing. ๐Ÿ™‚


  6. Excellent, Jim. I have various versions of the confused look for use in different circumstances. Obviously, I wouldn’t use the same confused look at home with Mrs Britain as I would when out shopping or listening to politicians. Enjoy your travels!!


    1. thanks, Mike. I wonder if guys are just more naturally predisposed to having a confused look; I like the idea of using different ones for different circumstances. We have enjoyed our travels so far!


    1. I don’t know why the coins are so challenging, but you’re better than me. We lived in London for a couple of months, and I never figured out the coins. I just had to trust the cashiers as they took the coins out of my hands!


    1. I’m sure part of it is feeling rushed to get through the checkout as quick as possible. Counting out your coins, even when you know what they are worth, still takes longer than just cash bills or a credit card. But yes, I think people in general want to be helpful (and want to get out fo the store as quickly as possible, so there is an ulterior motive.


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