There are some things that, as a child, your mother probably told you NOT to do: touch a hot stove, color on the walls, run naked through the house, et cetera. Well, one thing your mother told you not to do is sort of inescapable as an adult: talking to strangers. As a traveler, conversation with people you don’t know is particularly unavoidable, and especially if you’re traveling alone for lengthy periods of time, you might want to seek out some form of social contact. So why not do it better if you have to do it at all? And you know what? You might even make a new friend. Hooray!
Stop being embarrassed.
Fact: 98.3% of the world populace admits to being uncomfortable when meeting someone for the first time.* (*I just made that up. But it could be true. It’s truthy.) The trick here isn’t so much to completely let go of the awkwardness, as it is to just brush right by it and introduce yourself anyway. Besides, the first few minutes of a conversation are always the easiest, so step out of the corner, Wendy Wallflower!
Talk about something other than work.
When meeting someone for the first time, people often open a conversation by asking the other person what they do for a living. Now, unless he makes his living by jumping off of cliffs wearing only a wingsuit and a smile, tales of daily drudgery are probably uninteresting to both themselves and you. If you are a traveler meeting other travelers the easiest thing to do is this: ask where they are from, what they’re doing in this country/city/hamlet/igloo, and where they’re going next. Once they’ve replied, they’ll probably turn right around and ask you the same questions. Boom! That’s 10 minutes of conversation right there.
Not wayfaring at the moment? No problem! Ask where they’re from, what they’re doing here, and where they’re going next. You see what I’m saying? These three questions can be modified to work for any and every situation you will find yourself in: industry conferences, your best friend’s birthday party, your neighbor’s annual BBQ.
The magic of such inquiries is that they’re open-ended questions. Here’s a trick I learned: if you want the person you’re chatting with to actually open up and have a real conversation with you, you have to ask questions to which the answer is never a simple yes or no. It sounds easy, but it’s a real skill that takes time to master. Consider the difference:
You: “So, you came in with Johnny, right?”
The conversation is over before it even began. Tsk tsk.
You: “So I saw you came in with Johnny. How do you guys know each other?”
Stranger: “Oh, we’ve been friends for years. We know each other from college.”
You: “Nice – where did you guys go to college?”
Stranger: “Notre Dame. Graduated in 2005.”
You: “Get out of town! My brother went there and graduated the same year – do you know him? His name is . . . ” Blah blah blah.
Notice how both questions begin with a similar thought: you know Johnny and this other person does, too. With a closed question, you get no further details – just a confirmation of what you already knew. With an open question, you not only get more information about this person, but you’ve made a personal connection as well. Soon they will tell you all their secrets, which you can sell on the black market.
Do not fear the 11-minute lull.
In sixth grade I had a teacher who had a unique social theory: that no matter what the situation, discussion would lag around the 11-minute mark. THIS THEORY IS COMPLETELY UNPROVABLE AND MAKES ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. What does makes sense, however, is that any dialogue between two people who do not previously know each other may, at some juncture, slow down to the point where one finds oneself just smiling at the other, then looking down, then back at the person, then smiling again . . . and this is where it can get tricky. This is why I . . .
Always have a drink in hand.
That’s not to say you need to have a bottle of 80-proof Polish vodka stuck to your paw. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be more alcoholic than a glass of seltzer. The purpose of having a drink in hand is that, at some point, it will be done and you’ll have to go get another. This is the perfect time to excuse yourself if the person has turned out to be a complete bore, regaling you for the last half-hour with adventures in collecting Troll dolls. If the person is super cool and could possibly be the soul mate you’ve been searching for, well then forget the drink, my friend. Submit to your destiny of love and eternal happiness. I salute you.
International travel has taught me that the art of conversation is not lost. Travel is rife with opportunities to exercise communication skills of all kinds, and since you’re a stranger in a strange land, it’s a bit easier to let go of the inhibitions that, uh, inhibit us. Now go off and make small talk like you’ve never made small talk before. Because you haven’t. Not like this.
This was a guest post by Jessica Kulick, a freelance travel writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in such outlets as Literary Traveler, Matador Network, and Spotted By Locals. Her personal website is http://ofrevolt.com, where she blogs about offbeat tourism with a humorous and lighthearted spin.