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Solo travel hacking: How to make new friends using a stethoscope and 200 ear plugs

| 48 comments | Category: travel

Ever since I started travelling over nine years ago, I have arrived at each location by myself, many times not having a single contact or friend waiting for me in my destination.

This has been essential for my language missions, since I need to immerse myself in the local language. Bringing someone with me to speak English or some other language with would make that much harder. The smartest decision I’ve made has been to stop speaking English and forcing myself to make new friends has been a major part of my success in learning languages quickly.

However, as you can imagine, this can lead to some major social problems. If I don’t make new friends quickly, then I could theoretically spend all of my time alone or stuck with just superficial means of practising a language. Even forgetting the language mission, that could be a really lonely way to live.

Getting out of the catch-22 of being too shy to approach strangers

One major issue I had as I was initially embarking on my solo travels was this impossible idea of making new friends when you had no good reason to talk to people who don’t know you, and when you are too shy to simply walk up to them and say hi.

There are lots of ways to meet people whether you are travelling or not thanks to the Internet, and you can set this up in advance. But sometimes that’s not good enough and you have to simply make new friends the old-fashioned-way: a face-to-face first encounter.

Meeting new people can seem scary at first, but it isn’t that bad once you try it. With time, I’ve gotten over my previous shyness and don’t have a problem getting into conversations with someone I have just met. But I still can’t simply walk into a group of strangers and say “hi!” I’m still working on getting over that initial barrier.

And therein lies the catch-22. What do you do if you are good with people, but can’t start talking to them? Luckily I found an extremely effective solution: interesting accessories.

Essential travel items: two leprechaun hats, a disco laser pointer…

While I continue to work on my confidence in being able to walk up to strangers and talk to them, the way out of the vicious circle is of course to have them come up to you. This is easier than it sounds – all you need is something unique that invites people to ask you a question.

I recently posted a video introducing some items I travel with. This includes (among many other things, since I can travel with as much as I want) a (real) stethoscope, a small leprechaun hat (see photo above), a large leprechaun hat (see my about page), about 200 ear plugs, a very powerful laser pointer with a disco filter, some interesting t-shirts and much more.

To say that I’m not a minimalist traveller is a gross understatement, although all of these items are small and weigh very little.

All I do is pick an item or two appropriate to the social situation and go out with it. I use it or wear it on me, with a smile, and people come up to me and talk to me. Simple as that.

This has been effective in many places, but what you bring with you depends entirely on the social situation. Here are some examples of how they have worked:

  • Stethoscope: I wore this around my neck regularly in Thailand when out on beaches. It was such a random thing to be wearing when you clearly don’t look like a doctor (nor would I pretend to be one) that people would come up and ask me “Dude, why do you have a stethoscope??” I would very honestly tell them that it was so that they would ask me that question (maybe with a dramatic story about how I got the stethoscope included). Obviously from there I would change the subject and try to make friends. I would do this is such a way that it would almost always lead to hanging out for some time.
  • Leprechaun hats: Simply being Irish is enough for people to want to talk with me, since many like the country from visiting it or having a great great granduncle twice-removed from Ireland. Once someone hears I’m Irish they open up these stories to me, but unfortunately a stranger can’t possibly know this just by looking at me. Going out with my hat on changes this. Effectiveness depends on the social situation. If it isn’t too hot and if the situation means it wouldn’t be too weird, I’ll wear the big one (hence why I have two). Although the little one did come in handy on St. Patrick’s day to help another Éireannach abroad to show her pride.
  • Ear plugs: These have been effective specifically for concert situations. Basically, I stuff a bunch of them into my pockets (hygienically wrapped) and when I see someone covering their ears (happens a lot) I offer it to them free of charge. If you buy them in bulk they aren’t so expensive. In this case, I’m the one to speak first, but they are always open to the interruption since I’m being helpful and it’s something they wouldn’t usually expect. This was extremely useful during my week at Burning Man (sleeping at night time there is very hard because of the music) and I used up hundreds during the week, giving them to people that looked tired, continuing in the spirit of the event of just being nice to strangers, and usually getting niceness sent back my way because of it.
  • Laser pointer: When on Kao San road in Thailand, you will see people shining disco lights on the floor. I got one of these and use them myself in the right situation. I made a tonne of friends in Berlin thanks to this – just shine it where you are dancing and more people will come dance with you since it’s quite a cool effect. Without the filter it has an amazing range and seems to reach the stars.
  • Apps on my smartphone: Most apps on iPhones (and some on Android) are quite silly and pointless, but I have found a few that have genuinely had strangers come up to me to start conversations. These include a basic LED-esque display app that scrolls a message across the screen. I use it to find Couchsurfers when at meetings at crowded locations (message “Couchsurfing” on screen and I hold it up) and usually people who didn’t even know about the meeting start talking to me because of that app. Then there are lots of other cool apps too. Before I had a smartphone I did the same with an LED fan.

Each of these are effective in their own ways and in different places. I actually measured how effective some of them are when I was on Kho Phi Phi and I found that more people approached me when I had the little leprechaun hat, but I got better quality conversations when I had the stethoscope. When I tried both at the same time it was actually less effective than either one separately!

Isn’t that too cheesy?

I know what you’re thinking – perhaps this is all actually part of some elaborate chat-up line. Maybe I use the stethoscope to actually check hearts of cute girls, as suggested by my sneaky smirk in the photo? Not quite. While I’m always interested in meeting pretty girls, I find these techniques work for people in general, and just as many guys as girls will come up to me.

Since this is about people coming up to me, I don’t decide who it will be. It could be the supermodel female polyglot of my dreams (so far no luck there) or it could be a group of drunk British tourists on their stag night. Whoever it is, I’ll strike up a conversation because you never know where it might lead and who you might meet if they become your friend and invite you to join them.

Most of the above items are more appropriate in party environments and not on the street at day time. Drunk people tend to be more inquisitive and social (they could just as easily be that friendly during the day, but I’m not there to judge) so these have been very effective for me at night time. Usually we’ll exchange phone numbers and meet up when they are lucid so I can start to make some friends in a less superficial environment.

If you look interesting (for whatever reason) people will tend to introduce themselves and ask about that one quirk. This is true even in supposed “shy” cultures once you are in a social situation.

Being helpful to strangers makes you friends quicker

I actually have different items on me that help to meet people during the day, but in that case it’s about being more helpful than looking silly or unique.

For example, I hate to say this (because I have asthma, and hate smoking, find it disgusting and a huge turn-off in girls) but I always have a lighter in my pocket. For those of you in northern Europe and the Americas who think this is hypocritical (since I have never and nor do I ever plan to smoke in my entire life, and would hate to be promoting it in any way), the fact of the matter is that many places in the world still have smoking present in the same way it was in our countries several decades ago. This is unfortunate, but until you accept it, it’s hard to be social in many places.

What this means is that you may be asked frequently if you have a light. I got sick of saying “no” to so many interesting-looking people and now I offer it to them when they ask. The “price” they pay is that I will strike up a conversation and ask them what’s going on this weekend. Hopefully the friends they’ll introduce me to have more respect for their lungs…

Since I tend to live in touristy cities, I also get asked directions a lot. I always make sure the person gets an answer. I’ll look up their destination on my smartphone, or ask a local and translate for them. Usually after doing them a favour, I’ll offer to show them some of the city if they like (and if I have time). Believe it or not, most people who asked me directions in Berlin were actually Germans from other parts of the country!

In trying to be friendly when someone approaches me, I widen my social circle immensely. Even if that person wasn’t so interesting or couldn’t help me with my language mission, I’d still be nice because many times this leads to other interesting encounters by entering a new social circle of friends.

Obviously you scope each situation and use the right wording to make sure that you don’t come across as weird. Usually being very honest always does the trick – I simply tell them that I’d like to meet people as I’m new here. Your parents may have told you not to talk to strangers, but in Ireland we say that a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet, and I always look forward to meeting new friends during my travels.

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While this post outlines the actual reasons I travel with these items, I ran a competition to see why you think I might travel with them. Some of the answers were hilarious so read the comments on this post to see some quite ridiculous reasons why I would need to travel with these items!

I took about half of the answers (the best ones) and randomly selected the winner of a free copy of the Language Hacking Guide. Sales almost stopped entirely during this competition so I doubt I’ll do this again for quite some time if I want to still be able to afford to feed my Orange Juice addiction! Some of the answers were actually quite accurate, but I was just as interested in funny ones. The lucky winner was Sam and you can see his answer here. Thanks to everyone for taking part!

Do you think random items like these can help you make friends? Has anyone else tried such an approach to meet new people when they travel and when they want to learn a new language? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to share this post on Facebook with your friends to help them make new friends!

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  • http://twindie.net NielDLR

    Oh man that’s just genius. Guess you have a live in writing how to pick up chicks if you get tired of learning languages. Brilliant! Haha.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      The post isn’t about talking to girls specifically, although that topic will be brought up again next week! ;)

  • WC

    You know what? I’ve lived with my social anxiety for years and always been able to say ‘I actually like being alone’, but after this post… I’m rethinking that.

  • WC

    You know what? I’ve lived with my social anxiety for years and always been able to say ‘I actually like being alone’, but after this post… I’m rethinking that.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Despite what is conveyed in posts like this, I also enjoy time to myself (if I didn’t, then maintaining a complex website like this wouldn’t be possible). But life is so much more enjoyable when you share it with others. I hope ideas like this get more people out of their shell. Give it a try :)

  • Jostefani

    DUDE you are now officially my idol! I’ve always been a social creature, but I have always thought that there are limits and boundaries and you should be silent at certain scenarios … but you changed all that! I’m probably never going to be as bold as you are, but I guess it’s true that not everybody out there is a monster and capable of biting your head off! Great article!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Some walls and boundaries are there to be torn down ;)
      Looking at this post you’ll see that it’s not about being bold – it only takes a second to put that stethoscope around your neck before you even leave the house. The boldness comes from taking the invitation from the other person to speak with you and going with it. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/internaciulo sentaugulo

    Hi Benny,You discover alone what the seduction community has called the “Peacock thoery”http://www.pualingo.com/pua-definitions/peacocking-peacock-theory/

  • http://twitter.com/internaciulo sentaugulo

    Hi Benny,

    You discover alone what the seduction community have called the “Peacock thoery”

    http://www.pualingo.com/pua-definitions/peacocking-peacock-theory/

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, I have actually read some PUA material, but only a few years ago after I had already been using these techniques in my own way. I don’t use them to meet girls, but I have to admit that I have adapted several of those suggestions for being a more socially comfortable person generally.

      Because of that, one technique that I definitely learned about from PUAs will be the subject of a post next week, but relevant to language learners ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, I have actually read some PUA material, but only a few years ago after I had already been using these techniques in my own way. I don’t use them to meet girls, but I have to admit that I have adapted several of those suggestions for being a more socially comfortable person generally.

      Because of that, one technique that I definitely learned about from PUAs will be the subject of a post next week, but relevant to language learners ;)

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant! I’ve found that when I wear a University of Vermont sweatshirt when I travel, all sorts of Vermont fans approach me. BTW, that lighter can also come in handy for reading menus in dark restaurants–just make sure you don’t accidentally set the menu on fire. ;-)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I actually use an app on my phone that turns the screen white. It’s way more effective :)
      Clothing is great too. As I said, I have lots of t-shirts that have helped me to meet people :D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I actually use an app on my phone that turns the screen white. It’s way more effective :)
      Clothing is great too. As I said, I have lots of t-shirts that have helped me to meet people :D

  • Stealthanugrah

    Man it sucks, no one knows where Indonesia is. All I can do is say, you remember the tsunami? Or, have you heard about Bali? But then again I’m American so that’ll do, but people are starting to dislike Americans more and more I hear. But no one wants to see someone walking around with a Yankee Doodle Hat.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Then don’t walk around with a yankee doodle hat ;) My Leprechaun hat is one of many many things I use, none of which have anything to do with nationality.

  • Roderick

    I think this is great!
    I’ve experienced this partly, when going out during a rugby tour… Although then it’s an entire group, it does attract reactions from quite a number of people.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/radiokbhr Chris Stevens

    Great trick to know new people! I’ll have to look for my own “complement” to gather attention :).

    I think that it is the same when you go out disguised in carnival or halloween, you just talk to strangers about their disguises. Brilliant idea, though I’m not sure if it suits shy people.

  • http://manuela-esperanto.blogspot.com Manuchan

    Ĉi-jare oni donacis al mi du kaprompilojn (mi ege ŝatas tiajn ludojn), kaj ĉi somere, multe vojaĝante trajne aŭ aŭtobuse, mi malkovris ke per ili oni povas facile amikiĝi kun fremduloj… Vidante ilin, homoj tuj demandas pri kio temas, kaj ĉu ili rajtas provi solvi ilin, aŭ ĉu vi povas montri al ili la solvon. Post momenteto, vi kutime estas ĉirkaŭita de scivolemaj homoj, tio estas tre amuze!

    This year I received as a gift two puzzles (I love this kind of games) and this summer, traveling a lot by train or bus, I discovered that thanks to them it’s easy to make friends with strangers. Just see them, everybody ask what it is and if they can try to solve them, or if you can show them the solution. In a moment you are surrounded by curious, very funny!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      There are many random items that help us make friends! While I was travelling by train in India, a simple Rubix cube did it for me!

  • Sean

    You left out my favorite accessories: The glowing thumbs!

    Man those things were awesome…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I know!! I actually have way more than that – I couldn’t possibly list them all in this article, but the thumbs are many people’s favourites :D Haven’t found as good an accomplice as you yet though ;)

  • Anonymous

    I tried this tactics and was bringing all kinds of weird things with me to parties… but my hair works better than anything else! %)

  • Anonymous

    Cool stuff Benny :) I love the idea of having a bit of strategy for meeting new people.

  • Mark Webster

    Benny,

    I told you I would comment ;). Going up and saying “hi” to people is much more effective in my opinion. Every time I’ve been travelling, thats how I’ve met people. It’s very easy with the right mindset and far more predictable – I don’t expect you can control who/how many people come up to you with the laser pen (i still love the laser pen tho!!). You can control how many people you go up to and say hello. Of course, what you say after hello is important too. If your up for it, I’d be more than happy to show you what I mean someday.

    Mark

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Of course it’s way more effective and it’s what I’m working towards. But this is a good in-between. Saying hi with no particular topic to talk about can make it a very tricky first meeting without relying on lines. But it is definitely the most effective as you choose who you get to meet.
      Having said that I find that meeting “less interesting” looking people usually leads to interesting encounters when I meet their friends. Sometimes you have to leave it up to serendipity a bit – otherwise I’d go up and say “hi” only to cute girls :P
      When we’re out next in Budapest you can show me your hi skills in action ;)

  • Carl Joseph

    Great ideas Benny! When I was in Prague recently I went around with one of their most popular books, Švejk. The illustrations are quite iconic and very recognisable. I would place myself on a barstool at the bar and read for a little. It wouldn’t take long until someone (usually the barmaid) to recognise what I was reading. And then it went on from there.

    The Irish hat is a great idea too. I must find a decent Aussie version to take on my next trip. I figure you don’t even need one from your own country, one from a recognisable country would be enough. You can always respond with … “Yeah, I’m wanting to travel there next. Wanna join me?”

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Of course – recognisable countries that you aren’t from are just as effective! I have t-shirts from Brazil (not the typical football shirt, but something you’d only know if you had been there) and that has helped me meet a bunch of Brazilians and Brazil lovers. Always a great ice-breaker!

  • Rafal

    Why Stu Jay Ray’s post is gone?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      There was an error in one of my site’s plugins so that was showing instead of the main page even though it was a private post. We were still editing it. You’ll see it on Tuesday and can comment on it then ;)

  • Margaret

    I did something similar by accident earlier this year while photographing a small toy meerkat at a local beauty spot. (For a Flickr group.) Unfortunately the conversation that arose was in English but the technique definitely works — even for a middle-aged woman like me! I just need to pluck up the courage to do it again on purpose. :)

    Also, having a dog really gets you talking to locals. I don’t have a dog, but I’m trying to find one to borrow to take for walks.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      A dog!! I forgot to mention that! It’s the best way to have people come up to you :D I did actually offer to walk dogs before and it was quite effective for meeting people. Everyone loves dogs!

  • Anonymous

    This is a brilliant post. I can’t say I go as far as you, but I try to stay open as much as possible, and try to be as helpful as possible. I really resonated with you talking about helping people lost on the street and such. I think really making a connection with people is one of the hardest parts about being new in a country, and there has to be some sort of segue.

    I remember when I first went to Germany and went to a discothek my first night, I walked around with a beer just toasting random people and shouting “Prost!” It lead to some great conversations.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, I use that idea too! Even though I usually just have a Coke I say “Prost” :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Agreed – people may look at this post as off topic, but it has been an essential part of my language learning strategy. As you say it’s way more than a vocab & grammar issue!
    I like the idea of everyday adventures!
    I’ll mention the calculator in the Saturday post, coming right up! ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I enjoyed that, thanks! :)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    And this, ladies and germs, is known as “peacocking” :)

    Also, funny t-shirts are great for getting people to initiate conversations with you (go to bustedtees.com, they’re my favorite supplier)–one that I have especially good luck with says “Prose before hos” on the front and has a picture of Shakespeare’s head :D

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      You’re really going to like the next post on Tuesday ;)
      I was doing this long before I heard about PUA terminology, but those tricks have actually improved my travel experience in helping me make more friends.
      Nice t-shirt idea!!

  • http://www.kimberlygill.com Kimberly Gill

    Benny, I am so glad to see you meeting people by wearing crazy accessories. I have never worn entirely random items such as your stethoscope, but I do love shopping at vintage stores and often wear clothing from different eras in history depending on where I am going (and the weather). So at Dan Schawbel’s 30 Under 30 event in Boston a couple weeks ago, I met several people just because of my green and blue tailored polyester architect dress from the 50’s, which was a huge contrast to all the sleek black dresses and white collared shirts. Keep on being wild. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yeah – if *I* had seen you wearing that, I would have struck up a conversation! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I can see a top hat being just as effective. It give strangers an excuse to talk to you – this is why I always have something on me :)

  • Anonymous

    I just did this by accident. I had to go to an office here in China to discuss something and along the way I bought a bag of little-known-outside-of-these-parts fruit. When I got to the office everyone wanted to ask questions about whether I liked the fruit, did I know what it was, why would I buy it, etc. It was a great 20 minutes of free-for-all conversation.

    PS: for those who are curious the “fruits” were Cape gooseberries that grow, among other places such as Peru, in the NE of China but not so much in other parts of the country.

  • Ricktravelhacker

    I love that stethoscope thing lol. Very creative! A really odd idea but very effective. That makes you a genius travel hacker.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      The best ideas are also the oddest… and the most effective ;)

  • Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com

    Hmm…I can imagine you look weird, but I guess that’s the idea eh? Will try some of these strategies sometime. Prob not the leprechaun hat though. I’m under 5 feet tall, I may just look the part LOL