Talking to Strangers: 7 Steps to Making Friends On the Road
I was sitting at the airport last Wednesday when a woman approached me and asked about my ukulele, which was next to my backpack. Next thing I knew, we were having an enthusiastic and emotionally charged conversation about traveling. Turns out, she and her husband have been traveling for years together and they were on their way to London to embark on a cruise from Europe to America across the Atlantic. They were the sweetest couple, and before we parted ways she said, “I expect you and that ukulele to be famous one day!” Those words made my day, and I will never forget them.
This is nothing new. Ever since my very first solo trip in 2011, I have made it a point to talk to anyone and everyone who is willing. It’s brought me friends from all over – from the UK to Hong Kong – and given me lifelong memories and countless stories to tell. Usually, the highlights of my trips are the people I met while there. Humanity is a beautiful thing.
When traveling, more often than not, other people want to talk to you. Sometimes it just takes a little leap of faith. And sometimes, you have to initiate that leap of faith. Often times, the best souvenirs while traveling are the friends you make. It’s as simple as that. Material souvenirs are nice, but when you have a meaningful and mentally stimulating conversation with someone, you’ll remember them forever. Learning how to introduce yourself is a magical skill, and one that isn’t too hard to learn. Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet a lifelong friend just by taking the first step. Here are a few pointers that I always follow when talking to people during my travels.
1. Take a deep breath. If someone comes up to you and strikes up a conversation, don’t be afraid. Usually, they just want to talk to you. Alternatively, if you see someone who looks approachable sitting alone in a terminal or next to you on a train, relax and ask them how their day is going. The worst that can happen is that they’ll prefer not to converse with you. Regardless, you’ll know from the get go if the person is someone you will want to talk to.
2. Know how you want to come across to others. What kind of person are you? This step is a little more intrinsic than the others, but it is extremely important to think about before talking to anyone. For example, after just one good conversation, most people figure out that I am an adventurous, chipper young girl who loves travel and photography. Whether you are the same way or completely different know yourself and know how you want to portray yourself.
3. Keep an open mind. Don’t limit yourself to only speaking to a certain group of people or about certain topics. Don’t limit your conversation to only a few minutes. Let your talk go wherever it goes. Sometimes conversations can evolve from one topic to something completely different. I once started a conversation with a professor that shifted from schoolwork to zombies within just a few minutes. With an open mind, these conversations can go virtually anywhere.
4. Listen and ask questions. This is one of the most important rules of conversation in general: listen more than you talk. In the spirit of an old friend, Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People), make the person feel important by asking questions and listening intently. Be engaged in the conversation and be genuinely interested in the person. This will help you forge a stronger connection with that person and will show them that you respect their opinions and their time. Plus, people always have really memorable and unique stories to tell.
5. Smile. The best way to look approachable is simply to smile. I have a rule where I smile at people who I make eye contact with. I smile to myself as I listen to music and as I read books. Basically, I’m always smiling. And it works — when I smile at someone, they almost always smile back or at least acknowledge me. Think about it: you’ll be more likely to strike up a conversation with someone who looks cheerful rather than someone who looks angry or upset. Stick a smile on your face and others will do the same.
6. Ask their name. If you get to the point where you’re talking like old friends, ask the person’s name! This makes the person feel important and gives the impression that you are interested to know more about them. People will be more likely to be open with you if they feel that they are appreciated and respected. By asking a person’s name, you take the next step for forging a stronger and more long-term friendship. If, by the time you part ways, you feel that you’d like to reconnect with that person, offer your email address or Facebook address. Always use your judgment, but don’t be afraid. I am Facebook friends and email contacts with many people I met on the road.
7. Be unique. One thing I have that often helps me strike up conversations with people while traveling is my ukulele. Small but snazzy, this little instrument is an easy conversation starter and an entertainment source. People often approach me and ask, “Is that a GUITAR?!” I always chuckle and reply, “no, actually, it’s a ukulele.” Thus, the conversation begins. The moral here is that having something unique or having characteristics that stand out will make you a more memorable person to talk to. Even if it’s not something tangible, like a passion for wildlife or an amazing knowledge of the stock market, if it’s something you love then it will shine through.
And, as always, trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right or a person doesn’t want to talk to you, don’t push it. Don’t be afraid to stop a conversation if it is starting to make you uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to withhold information about yourself. Also, avoid talking about controversial or inflammatory subjects — you never know what topics people will react unfavorably toward.
The bottom line of conversing with strangers is that it is an amazing way to learn about the world, to hear a different perspective, and to expand your horizons. Through my interactions, I have found that the rewards from these friendships have been invaluable to my travel experiences. I have met people from all walks of life with all kinds of passions. Listening to these quirky, unique, and adventuresome stories while traveling has left me with lifelong friends, solid communication skills, and an uplifting and astounding dose of inspiration.