I wanted to write a post on how to travel like a local and get the best out of your next journey, but the very first step in that process usually involves making friends on the road, and I realized – most of us kind of suck at that.
I was (and still sometimes am) terrible at that kind of thing. Before solo travel forced me to get over my self-conscious shit and interact with people.
If you are that rare social butterfly born with the confidence to waltz into every conversation with ease and grace, feel free to skip this article and go back to your blessed life.
For the people who desperately glance around the room to find anyone we vaguely know at a party; the people who fluctuate between awkward babbling and the complete inability to start a conversation; and the people who spend much of their time pretend-checking smartphones – this one is for us.
I am supremely qualified to discuss this subject, as I spent my “awkward years” – a solid decade or so – so scared of human interaction or saying something wrong that I literally didn’t respond to people sometimes.
Now, as you can tell by this extensive intro, I
never rarely shut up.
So here is Part 1 of an 8-part series on How to Make Friends on the Road! Subscribe to the rest of the posts by entering your e-mail on that box you see riiiight over there —–>
This is absolutely necessary info to learn if you’re going to get into some local-style travel, so let’s get started on what we need to get over, accept, and understand to strike up some great travel friendships!
You Will Murder the Language BUT It’s a Great Icebreaker
It’s always good to learn a few phrases before visiting a new country, both as a sign of politeness to the people you are about to meet, and just cause it’s fun to pick up new things when you travel.
But even if you took six years of Spanish in school, it is inevitable that on your trip through Bogota, you will screw up the grammar, pronounce something horribly, or accidentally proposition someone (most language screw-ups come out as sexual inappropriateness – I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.)
And it’s alright! Don’t let the fear of having someone laugh at your mistake keep you from approaching new people and trying your best. It may be a cliche, but people really do appreciate the effort. People aren’t laughing at you personally – whatever you said just sounds funny, much like if a visitor at a US restaurant asked for the “Ka-e-zar” salad (I’ve seen it happen).
Look at it another way: you made someone laugh, and if you can laugh at yourself as well, that’s as good an icebreaker as any. And it’s likely your new friend will try some mangled sentences in your native language as well before asking to learn a few words from you.
*Plus, Part 4 of this series will deal with Language Tips, so stay tuned.
You Will Feel Lost BUT It’s A Good Conversation Starter
You don’t know how the hell you’re supposed to eat udon, all these charming, winding European alleys have completely messed with your sense of direction, and the train timetable is only in Arabic. After all this damn frustration leaves you feeling like a four-year old without mommy to guide you, now you’re supposed to cheerily strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Yes, travel can be confusing and disorienting sometimes. On the plus side, not only is it easier to reach out to locals after getting a little lost, but you actually kind of have to if you want to get back on track.
Asking “how much longer do you usually wait for the bus
before giving up and screaming into the void” can lead to great discussions and recommendations about where to go and what to see. If you notice the person next to you eyeing your shockingly uncoordinated chopstick skills, asking how to correctly use them can lead to an hourlong conversation about their life and work.
Not Everyone Will Want to Talk BUT It’s OK (and Rare)
Generally you should use some common sense when approaching people. Years of seeing and experiencing clueless come-ons by guys in bars have shown me the surprisingly wide range of inappropriate situations people will butt into, as well as the general lack of awareness people have about when to back away. So what I’m saying is, if you see a couple breaking up at the next table and one of them crying inconsolably into their dish, don’t interrupt to ask if there’s a cool bar nearby.
But sometimes you’ll read all the social cues correctly, do everything right, approach very politely, and still get politely dismissed, ignored, or at worst, harshly rebuffed.
This is more likely to happen to Americans than anyone else, because as a nation, we have much lower social boundaries in terms of approaching people we don’t know – something that isn’t the norm in most other countries.
However, I’d like to stress that someone being outright rude to you if you politely approach him/her is EXTREMELY RARE. I’ve always been surprised by how willing most people are to open up to travelers just passing through – so take a chance! Don’t let one bad interaction shut down your confidence for the rest of your trip. That person won’t remember your face five minutes later, so there’s no reason for you to care much about them either.
Example Time: Lost in Kyoto
I arrived in Kyoto at midnight, much too late to check in, because
I’m an idiot I missed my first shinkansen (bullet train) to the city. I had almost no money, a phone with 3% battery – which I used to assure my mom I was alive and un-kidnapped before it shut off – and I was carrying a 20 kg suitcase through dark, unfamiliar streets. Yes, I suck at planning, thanks for asking.
I approached a man standing outside a restaurant to ask if I could use the Google Maps on his phone, and found out my hostel was not two blocks from the station, as my printout read, but instead 20 minutes away by cab, which I could not afford.
The man very generously spent a good 20 minutes trying to help me, even though between my minimal Japanese skills and his very little English we weren’t really getting anywhere. He flagged down a server that had just come out of the restaurant to start shutting the place down and she took me inside. Izumi – as I later found out her name was – promptly asked the cook to lend me his iPhone charger, sat me down, and told me to rest and put my suitcase against the wall. As I waited for my phone to charge, she brought me something to drink and warm up from the chilly night.
Things turned out OK as my phone turned on and I was able to look up ATMs and the hostel’s exact location. Izumi and I got to talking about things to do in Kyoto and what the city is like, while four Japanese businessmen close by chimed in with their suggestions and offers of free sake (which I obviously accepted). She asked me about my life in LA, telling me how much she wanted to go there.
Not only did I get some great advice about my Kyoto trip, but Izumi e-mailed me after I left, and we keep up on FB to this day. If she ever takes that trip to LA, I have no doubt we’ll catch up for hours – and I can repay her kindness by giving a tour of LA to a cool travel friend who took the time to help me out.