Don’t be scared to meet new people

9b02What’s the worst that could happen?

If you plan on learning a foreign language, and especially if you plan on travelling, you have to meet new people. You can’t avoid this! It’s kind of the whole point of learning a language (unless you are only interested in literature) and travelling (unless you travel only to take photos). Even if you don’t travel or learn languages, meeting new people is fun! :)

One reason that I’m not a fan of audio courses and pure-input methods of learning a language is that they encourage people to embrace their shyness. It just seems “easier” to stay at home or have to do nothing more than turn on your TV or iPod.

While these methods do have advantages for learning the basics of a language, they are absolutely useless when it comes to actually practising it. Language involves communication – sorry to point out the obvious… but you kind of need another person for that :P

The self-fulfilling prophecy of being too shy

The main retort I get when I suggest this to people is that they are too shy or introvert. They say it as if it was an incurable illness or handicap. Sorry, but it’s nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today I have to be frank! GET OVER IT!

It would be crazy to suggest that a blind man could just “will” his way into being able to see, but shyness only exists because you tell yourself it does. When you remind yourself how shy you are, you are actually just reinforcing this invisible psychological barrier.

There’s no such thing as a “natural” extrovert/introvert. Babies aren’t extroverts – we learn to act this way, and some people learn it quicker than others. We shouldn’t use this as an excuse to not even try. Human beings are naturally social.

Despite the extrovert persona I imply in these blog posts, I could argue that I’m more “naturally” introvert; I was a socially awkward nerd as a teenager and currently am quite happy to enjoy my bachelor lifestyle of living by myself and travelling solo. Despite this, in recent years I have learned to be much more social and it has been a crucial part of being able to learn languages quicker, and generally enjoying life more!

Speaking often is important for cultural as well as linguistic reasons

The biggest regret I have in both this mission to perfect my Brazilian Portuguese and in the previous one of learning Czech, is not that I didn’t study enough grammar, or read more newspapers etc., but that I didn’t practise enough. Even living in the country is not enough; you have to try hard to make sure that you are speaking with natives (or at least, with other learners if you can’t travel) as often as possible.

As well as this, I’ve noticed that I could “cheat” in Prague and just not say anything and people would presume that I was Czech most of the time! In some northern/eastern European and North American cultures, this is the norm. You have to give strangers their space and speak only when spoken to or if you have something important to say…

That is not the case in Brazil and other Latin cultures. Not speaking shows them immediately that I’m a foreigner; not because of my outward appearance, but because Brazilians are very social and if you are in almost any situation where you are near someone for more than a few seconds, a conversation naturally starts, where us foreigners would presume that it’s rude to impose yourself.

I’ve noticed that when a friend meets someone they know in the street, if I keep quiet for several seconds (because, back home, I would not interrupt out of “politeness”), the third person will ask my friend where I’m from (not just presuming that I’m a foreigner, but presuming that I don’t even understand Portuguese). When I’m in lifts or even in waiting in a queue, complete strangers start up conversations with me! If I only nod politely I can feel immediately that it was the wrong response. This means that to become Brazilian I have to become more active in all conversations!

Even forgetting about Latin cultures being more social, life is way more interesting when you know more people and especially if you get over shyness.

Case study: conversing with everyone you meet

To implement this idea, I decided to carry out an experiment! Since I had been working quite hard recently, I decided to treat myself to a weekend on Ilha Grande to the west of Rio. Most people go there to soak up some sun or to hike through the vast unspoilt wilderness of the island, but I was there simply to talk to as many people as I possibly could.

I could see that I wasn’t making as much progress in my current mission as I had hoped, so I needed to force myself to be more social and going somewhere where I knew absolutely nobody was a good place to start. Despite the fact that the weather was pretty miserable all weekend, I had a fantastic time! This was simply by following the rule of chatting to as many people as possible. This may be a bit easier to apply in Brazil, but is applicable anywhere in the world.

I started a conversation with almost everyone who crossed my path for longer than 5 seconds. The person who sat next to me on the bus, the group of American tourists on the boat, almost everyone at the hostel I stayed at (including the nice looking receptionist… although I would have chatted her up anyway :P ), the waiters at the restaurant, the guy who sat on the bench next to me; I had an interesting conversation with all of them. Since it’s a touristy island, over half the conversations weren’t even with Brazilians.

It was a fantastic weekend! I made friends with almost the entire hostel (I could have stayed in a cheaper “pousada”, but hostels have more socialising options), got invited to dinner and out for drinks, made some friends with others also living in Rio etc.

I went to the island alone, but I left with dozens of new contacts. I also met some fascinating people; including, for example, a hilarious Austrian who sells air conditioners back home during the summer and travels the southern hemisphere for several months during the winter… every year! Making all of these new friends would not have been possible if I had stayed in my shell and used the excuse that I’m “not extrovert enough” to talk to strangers without a really good reason to.

Give it a try! A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet

Don’t start with a formal introduction. Start the conversation from the middle!

I never introduce myself with “Hello. My name is Benny. I’m a translator from Ireland” (or its equivalent in the foreign language). Sorry, but this is dull and is a slow way to have a more natural informal conversation. It’s better to treat the stranger as a friend already and be more natural.

The first thing I said to the Austrian was “You walked all the way up the hill with that huge backpack??” and I immediately started swapping stories of working in a hostel with the receptionist. I overheard one guest say she was from Valencia so I started singing the anthem “Amunt Valencia”. Joining the conversation each time as if we had already gotten past the dull introduction part. I’ve done this in Europe and North America and I have never gotten a weird response as long as what I said wasn’t inappropriate. You make friends quicker this way!

Don’t be scared – what’s the worst that could happen?

See the picture I’ve included in this article? Perhaps the worst that could happen is that the stranger will explode in rage and eat you alive for invading their personal space. I don’t think this is very likely (it’s only actually happened to me once – it was the Hulk himself, what are the chances?!)

At worst, someone closed minded will look at you weirdly and think you’re crazy, or even if they are rude with you, it’s their problem for living in such a boring world, not yours. It’s their loss, just go on to the next person.

This Wikihow article gives some other good advice and a friend of mine goes into even further detail on what he calls Social Skydiving. Have a read of both of these articles for some good ideas to remind you that it’s not all that bad talking to strangers, especially if you are holding yourself back with the excuse of being “too shy”. If you’ve tried this, or have any thoughts on the article, please do leave a comment :)



I'll send you the first lesson right away.
Click here to see the comments!
  • Corcaighist

    I can guarantee that this strategy would NOT work in Estonia and Finland. Even making eye contact is considered to invade personal space. Conversation is kept to a bare minimum.
    ~ Irish in Tallinn.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Maybe it wouldn't work so well with strangers in the street in Finland, but this article is equally relevant for people in a party who don't approach others in the party. No matter what country you are in, people can approach other unknown people in party and festival environments, and even making small-talk with your neighbours can't be that unheard of ;)

  • Elthyra

    Thanks for the blog post, since I've already mentioned my issues with meeting people a few times. I think people are very welcoming and friendly in the US as well, I'm always amazed by how quickly I make friends anytime I go there.
    We know how unfriendly Parisians are, but I'm not giving up yet :D

  • Daniel

    Thanks for this advice! I'm currently spending a year in Italy and I find all of this to be true here! What bothers me sometimes is that if I talk to strangers, they will immediately know I'm a foreigner, although I haven't met many people that treated me badly because of that…

  • Dani

    Exactly what I need to hear. I spent the past week or so brooding because I wasn't meeting people, and all the while I wasn't taking steps to ameliorate my problem. You are completely rught.

  • Joop Kiefte

    Oi Benny cara,

    Agora sabe como eu consegui aprender tão rápido o português do Brasil acho ;) Muita sorte rapaz, vai conseguir mesmo assim :P Sempre consegue achar coisas importantes, isso é qualidade que gosto em você.

    Até mais! (infelizmente não em JES, que já já depois vou pro Brasil…)

  • Alex Unleash Reality

    Benny you LEGEND!!

    first off: your site is smoldouring. undiluted explosive glory dipped in the tears of a thousand virgins. slick design and slicker content. glorious.

    and then to the subject of the post – it's something i feel really really strongly about. i embarked on a quest to learn how to become socially adept (much like your language adventures) and become a social ninja. yeah, did the whole pickup scene and learnt to talk to girls in particular (to the point of dating a miss teen south africa ;) )

    …but beyond all that, i can honestly say that it's been the one thing that has made me grow more than all else.

    not only the adventures. the glorious adventures…

    but also the fact that i really find social interactions to be one of the best barometers of self i've ever seen. it's an immediate reflection of where you're at. i write about personal developmentsy type spirituality remixed stuff (though i dislike the term personal development)… and in that regard, the way you feel when you meet a new person – the subtle micromanagements and feelings of discomfort – it teaches you a lot about yourself.

    and the adventures :)

    “Get over it!!” :) haha. reminds me of something i read at a mate's site yesterday where he was lamenting the fact that people use the expression “Just be yourself”. And yeah, to some extent, it is difficult to implement advice like “Get over it” but hearing it from somebody like you makes it clear how stupid and trivial your hangups around socialising are. there are practical ways to get over it but GET OVER IT :)

    shyness. man. more and more i'm seeing the way you interact with others as a reflection of where you are in your life overall. yeah, fully relate to the way people say they're introverted or shy as some insurmountable “problem” when really it's just the situation they're in and the persona they've built up.

    it's def a learned thing. not enough hugs growing up. too many maybe. def learned though. mostly just a result of not being comfortable with who you are.

    but at the same time, it's a learned thing to be social. unlearn the shyness and practice being social.

    the whole “social dynamics” ala “The Game” and all that can get way too screwed up. being social is simple, as you say. just say hello and ride out those tingly feelings of inadequacy to the point when you realise they're stupid and self created and useless.

    realise the triviality of the yuck and realise your perfect undiluted bliss beneath it.
    the real you.


    really glad to have found your site :)

    keep well and in touch mate.
    alex – unleash reality

  • Andrew Playford

    I love this post. The interesting thing is the techniques you offer would also be valid for someone in their own language who just needs to get out and meet people – period. Let alone for the acquisition of a new language.

    We all have that opportunity to become someone new when we try out our new language on others… almost like being an actor and playing the part of a very outgoing person who is simply not self conscious and always ready to laugh! :)

  • Kat

    Makes total sense!
    It's so true if you stop calling yourself a shy person and actually get out there and experience the culture and people, leaving the shy label behind you, it's much easier. I like the idea of starting off with a middle of the conversation, always makes it more interesting anyway, and actually less wierd than just introducing yourself, yeah that's a bit odd.
    I've had the concern of being an “introvert”, holding me back from deciding on moving to another country alone, but I did it and went on an exchange with my University in Malta. They do speak English there, but it was still a completely new and exciting atmosphere. It was AMAZING, and I can't wait to travel again. If you relax and just open up to people, but also use common sense, you actually become surprised at how easy it is to meet people. A lot of the time it happens unexpectedly too. :) When travelling around, it's good to remember that others are looking for new people too, and sometimes travelling alone is not really travelling solo, since you meet other solo travellers who might be taking a similar path as you. Hostels are great for that. I'm hoping to set out again soon to another country, with an open mind, forgetting that shy label again.

    Gotta say I love the Irish!! Some of the most amazing and entertaining people I've met yet! :)

    Canadian student feeling the bite from the travel bug.

  • Dani Ohohoh

    Hmm, I wonder if I try this if my success rate with the men will go up as well.

  • Davy

    It's technically incorrect to say that babies aren't born shy: studies of shy adopted people have shown that when there is a 25% and a 50% chance of a fraternal twin and an identical twin, respectively, also being shy. Since the twins were adopted into different families, controlling for environmental factors, this conclusively shows a hereditary basis for shyness.

    So, although it's true that no-one is born that way, babies do indeed possess an innate capacity—or an innate lack thereof—for shyness, given the “right” envirnoment.

    Additionally, many psychological disorders with genetic bases cause social withdrawal (autism, for instance).

  • Minimythbusters

    Exactly. I have autism (pdd-nos) and I AM born shy. Of course I can learn how to get better at social situations too but some things will never go away. And I'm sure I can't ever learn to start talking to a random stranger and then actually ask for their number or something too (and then call them :S). I'm sorry, I know this is a pretty old post.. but I really wanted to say this, it's kinda frustrating to read you want me to get over my shyness.. but I really am born with it ^^ I don't think that means I can't learn a language and go to a country and speak it though! :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    People with autism have a genuine medical reason for being shy, and I'm sorry if this article offends you because of that.

    However, most people who do not have medical reasons are just lazy and can easily change their situation if they really tried. The fact that these people tell me they are “born” that way when they are not, really annoys me because it belittles people with a real issue on their hands like yourself.

    Medical conditions are different and most people reading my blog will not be in that situation. They will invent reasons and blame genetics with no medical proof. It's all in their heads. That's not your situation.

    Best of luck in your language learning – I hope you meet natives and get lots of practise :) You don't have to ask for their numbers, but if you find social situations and attend then maybe they'll come to you and say hi ;)

  • Davy

    Perhaps the author should limit himself to talking about language acquisition – he certainly has no business discussing Psychology (clearly shown by the absurd comment that “it's all in their heads” – as if any part of a person's psyche could reside elsewhere?!?)

    As an introvert (i.e., “shy” person), I find the empty banter of the overly social to be utterly boring and unengaging, and their habit of claiming psychological superiority despite a complete lack of introspection to be utterly laughable. This has not stopped me from forming strong friendships, traveling the world, and learning three additional languages to the two I grew up with.

    How does the author explain the many published and peer-reviewd (and as far as I know completely uncontroversial) studies that have proven mathematically that shyness is 50% genetic – the same as sexual preference, risk taking, and the like?

    Seriously, if you must spout opinions that fly in the face of science, try to limit yourself to ones that don't belittle people who happen not to be the same as you.

    • Guest

      “Perhaps the author should limit himself to talking about language acquisition – he certainly has no business discussing Psychology”

      This is his blog, he talks about whatever he wants to talk. Perhaps you should not be reading.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    You are just proving my point Davy :P I say being shy is in people's head and you claim to be shy and yet you have a very outward way of expressing yourself, which I think is great! Channel that to social situations rather than in online comments and you'll be fine, no matter how many “studies” say otherwise.

    I find it interesting when people say “many studies” without linking to them or referring to the precise conditions they were carried out in. The study could have simply asked people “are you shy” for example rather than properly test the assumption. This is NOT the same as asking “are you gay”. To be frank, I don't trust people's own opinions of how shy they are. It means nothing. I'd argue that the vast majority of people in such studies would simply claim to be shy without anything more than just a feeling, or could become more social with just a little pressure. Lack of pressure keeps them shy, not genetics, even if genetics contribute to their likeliness of veering towards shyness, it's not a life sentence.

    The author can be so confident about this because I was also very introverted before I travelled and learned the error of my ways. There's nothing scientific about your retort. I'm not talking about autism, I'm talking about people that invent excuses and use “genetics” to back up their reasoning to stay indoors.

    • Dave

      Well Unlike that other Davy I find your article to be very encouraging and inspiring. I have been very shy for many years, often trying to avoid situations with people in my teen years instead of taking them on head first. Now in my 20’s I’m finding that life is shorter then we expect and you should live every second of it with as much life as possible because when you’re dead, you’re dead. it’s unfortunate for those with real medical issues that have a real excuse but for people who convince themselves of so much fear and anxiety when meeting someone new but have the ability to jump into a discussion and articulately state their opinion are just well practiced at being shy and can turn it around. Every new person met is a new possible adventure.

      -A better Davy

  • Benny the language hacker

    And I was really glad to meet you too! :) We were impressed by your Jenga skills and your obvious talent to pick up languages. Your Hungarian progressed way faster than me and I have the pressure of a public blog behind me :P
    Hope to see you again at future Esperanto events!

  • Benny the language hacker

    “mouth raped”?? Um, don’t you mean “eaten”? :)

  • Anonymous

    After reading this, I’m thinking of traveling to Latin America to learn Spanish instead of to Spain as I originally wanted to. This way I think it’s easier to overcome the natural shyness of speaking to strangers in foreign countries. Do you know if there are major differences between Iberian Spanish and Latin American Spanish? I’m currently learning the former.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, there are lots of differences. A Google search will give you lots of examples!

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, there are lots of differences. A Google search will give you lots of examples!

  • Jeff Winchell

    Benny, since you were an EE, I’m sure you had enough science to recognize that when people do FMRIs on the brain, they can in fact prove that introverts have different ways of processing information than extroverts do. The brain chemistry is different in introverts. This isn’t just people lying on self-surveys, but instruments measuring the differences in the brain.  Introvert brains cannot tolerate so much stimulation. (Or conversely, extrovert brains need more stimulation).

    Read the Introvert Advantage if you want a more elaborate but not PhD thesis-like explanation of this.

    Getting down on introverts by telling them they are shy is an example of the negative thinking which you know is not useful. That’s like saying some language is hard.

    Introverts just use different methods to master languages.

    Its not surprising to me that the overwhelming majority of world-class slam poets I’ve met are actually shy (i.e. Introverts). With introversion comes the potential for a different type of language acquisition. I also didn’t feel these slam poets were any less multilingual than your typical extrovert.

    Instead their passion for languages was the key, not their introversion or extroversion.

    Introverts learn differently.

    Benny, perhaps you could find someone who has achieved what you have, who is an introvert and then you two can figure out what the different approaches are when you are an introvert or an extrovert.

  • Ankush Sharma

    i think i like this article. definitely gave me a boost-up to try and at least just try!! maybe you’re right .. its just an invisible physchological barrier. most of the times that holds us up is what the other person would think.

  • Benny Lewis

    Your long rant is immediately invalidated when you think for a moment and stop ignoring the time dimension. Right now I’m your typical extrovert, but the 21 year old Benny would not dream of approaching strangers without an excellent excuse, and was always hiding away in the corner in social events playing with his phone even though it only had snakes on it.

    I wouldn’t have dreamt of singing karaoke in front of strangers back then. Remember that the whole premise of my argument is that people can CHANGE. Change requires a time dimension by definition – don’t ignore this when presuming that I’m contradicting myself. There is no contradiction between my articles, only different points in my psychological development over time.

    I am indeed not shy, but I am COMPLETELY aware of the fact that I did consider myself shy and acted like it for many years in my life.

    To further your final analogy, me telling people to “get over it” is actually like a skinny person telling a fat person to stop eating so much, when that skinny person himself was also fat a few years before. Then he knows VERY well how it is.

  • Diego Canale

    very refreshing concepts and eye openers!

  • Naomi Gabriel

    This is amazing Benny! You are inspiring me to follow in your footsteps :)

  • Rochella

    When I was in HS, I considered myself a loner. I didn’t think I was shy or introverted, just a loner, since I wasn’t approached by people and people I knew just didn’t seem to spark conversation with me unless I sparked it with them. So one day I finally asked some people why. The result? “You always looking like you’re mad or unapproachable, or deep in thought or something…” Basically i was appearing as if I didn’t want conversation! Now, I naturally have a mean look to my face when I’m thinking about something, and well, I’m always thinking about things, so as you can see, I was sorta being the reason by not simply looking available. Rather than scream how unfair that was, I started to purposefully smile while thinking, rather than furrowed brows and frowns, I was smiling and lifting my eyebrows. People talked to me a lot more, and wasn’t a “loner” anymore. I could see how someone in my position may mislabel themselves as shy or introverted especially, but that’s just not the case at all. So that also means, people can’t just assume because someone ‘looks mad/mean’ that they’re being a mean/mad person who doesn’t want to converse. They might just be there sitting and wondering about quantum mechanics or what they had for lunch on Tuesday.

  • Gregory Kuhn

    I have enjoyed this article and the many others on your site. I am very excited to go traveling next year and have some time in the interim to prepare. Your site has been an inspiration for me!

  • Owen

    i think the whole point of his comments were that just because you have a psychological condition and/or are shy, doesn’t mean you can’t work past it and become less shy. This would be especially true if it’s something (and i hate to use the following phrase, especially because it’s not even a condition) “minor” like introversion. some types of autism are obviously more difficult to work around than others, and the same applies to other conditions. but, this isn’t to say that you can’t become better in social situations by practising.

    tl;dnr: Benny may have been overly blunt in his phrasing, but the general idea was right.