There are some things that, as a child, your mother probably told you NOT to do: touch the hot stove, color on the walls, run naked through the house, etcetera. (Actually, I never did that last one. I was a very modest child - hiding in the corner when we had to change clothes for gym class. You know the type.) Well, one thing your mother told you not to do as a youngster 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 are traveling alone for lengthy periods of time, you might want to seek out some form of social contact. And with the holidays coming up, you'll be forced to make chit-chat at parties and get-togethers anyway (unless you're one of the smart ones who escaped on these cheap holidays to the Maldives), 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!
A Traveler's Guide to Making Better Small Talk With Strangers, Both At Home and Abroad
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 your awkwardness (some of us never will - myself included), as it is to just brush right by it and introduce yourself anyway. The first few minutes of a conversation are always the easiest anyway, so step out of the corner, Wendy Wallflower! Here's how:
Talk about something other than work.
This is a uniquely American trait: 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 or she makes their living by jumping off of cliffs wearing only a wingsuit and a smile, their tales of daily drudgery are probably uninteresting to both themselves and you. If you are a traveler meeting other travelers (like at a Couchsurfing meet-up, for example), the easiest thing to do is this: ask where they are from, what they're doing in this country/city/hamlet, 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 them 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. (For example, at a corporate function, you don't want to ask your boss what she's "doing here." But maybe you want to ask what she's doing . . . this weekend. Adjust as necessary.)
The magic of such inquiries is that they're open-ended questions. Here's a trick I learned as a salesperson at a luxury handbag boutique: if you want a customer (or in this case, the stranger 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 to the left, 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 from the bar/buffet table/refrigerator/whatever. 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 the last 25 years, well then forget the drink, my friend. Submit to your destiny of love and eternal happiness. I salute you.
International travel has taught me, amongst other things, that the art of conversation is not lost. (The French are particularly good at it. So are the Danish. Just sayin'.) 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.
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Okay, bye! Have a good weekend! See you Monday!