What’s the best way to meet people while travelling?
Perhaps you dream of striking up conversations while travelling on a train across Asia. Maybe you’d love to ride a motocicleta down Latin America, meeting all kinds of characters on your way. Perhaps you’d like to while away an afternoon in an Italian cafe, saying ciao to everyone who sits on a table near you. Or maybe you’d just like to join in the general conversation while waiting in line at a French bakery.
Meeting people while you’re travelling can be a hugely rewarding experience. So what makes it so damn scary?
Some language learners are perfectly ok not being a social butterfly, but I was not. Neither are most of the shy travellers I speak to (many over email, because, well, the shyness thing). They wish like crazy that they could be more outgoing, especially when travelling.
Some of them even decided to start travelling in the first place because they hoped that they’d magically get over their shyness once they arrived in another country, and would finally get out there and meet people.
Does that sound like you?
The reality is that for some people it gets harder!
You have all the same conditions that made you shy in your home country, but now you’re throwing a foreign language into the mix. It turns out that you’re talking to just as few people on the road as you did back home. Travelling didn’t miraculously give you that confidence boost you had hoped for. You’re missing out on all the cultural experiences you envisioned yourself having, all the unforgettable adventures you had mentally planned. So you feel lonely and depressed, and just think, “If only there were some way I could just get over it and talk to people!”
Well I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that it basically does just come down to “getting over it and talking to people”.
The good news, I can tell you from extensive personal experience, is that it’s never as bad as it sounds. You can mentally prepare yourself so that you’ll be less fearful before approaching people to talk, and feel less awkward when you actually start chatting.
What Holds You Back from Talking to People When You’re Travelling?
Start by asking yourself why you’re afraid to say hi in the first place. Do you feel like everyone else is smarter or more confident than you and that you’ll have nothing intelligent to talk about after introductions?
Do you imagine that those people you see chatting effortlessly at a party or café are naturally confident? Maybe they were born with the gift of gab. There may not be a language gene, but maybe there’s a “discourse gene”!
This is nonsense, of course. The truth is, most people are just like you. They don’t think they have natural confidence. In fact, they’re probably worried that you’ll outsmart them in the art of conversation.
Meanwhile, all that you (and they) are looking for is a casual chat about any old subject on your mind. Not some debate about the validity of Dostoyevsky’s 19th century political views as applied to contemporary socialist states. So relax!
Most people would prefer a discussion about which Disney movie is the best, what their home town is like, or where to get the best cup of coffee in the neighbourhood. So don’t let this fear stop you from approaching people.
Meeting people while travelling, however, can add an extra layer of complication.
Maybe the reason you’re too nervous to say hi to others is because you hate the fact that you can’t express yourself as well in your target language as you can in your native language. You might make an embarrassing mistake in your target language and get laughed at. You think you’ll sound dumb, and that people will look at you weird, or even laugh.
In reality, most native speakers of your target language will be thrilled to meet someone that wants to learn their language. They’ll be encouraging and want to help you any way they can.
If your level really is too limited to say much more than hello, then get some speaking practice in your target language before you leave home (or after! It’s never too late!)
What these reasons boil down to is that you’re afraid to be judged, to look stupid. But I can tell you from personal experience that this fear is completely unfounded.
The more I meet people, the more I realise how few judgemental jerks there are out there.
Even if you do meet one, just brush it off as their problem and move on. You’re never going to like every single person you meet, but who says you have to, anyway?
The great thing about meeting a lot of people is that you can let go of the ones you don’t click with, and still have lots of fantastic friends left.
Social Skydiving: Taking the Plunge and Meet People
This is the hard part. You can talk yourself out of the fear of saying hi, but if you want to meet people you still have to take the step (some say leap) of actually saying hi. Here are a few ways to just do it that always work for me.
Don’t feel ready to attend a party full of strangers and chat with them in a foreign language? Then how about a conversation in your own home, with a person of your choosing, that you can end at any time?
You can do this by having a Skype call with a conversation partner in your target language. This way, you’ll feel safe knowing that if you really do freak out, you can always make an excuse to hang up from the call, and then block the other person!
But you know what? In all my travels, I’ve never met someone who actually decided to do that once the call began. Instead, they were absolutely thrilled that they took the plunge and did the Skype call, and wondered what they were so nervous about to begin with! It’s a fantastic feeling that you’ll never forget.
Once you take this first step, it will be that much easier to approach someone in real life at a party or event and just say hi.
When you’re at a party or a Meetup event, and you see someone you want to talk to, don’t think about whether that person will feel like chatting. Don’t think about whether they’ll find you weird, or boring. Don’t even think about what sort of topics you’ll talk about.
Think about nothing.
Why? Because the more you think, the more easily you’ll end up making excuses and talking yourself out of it, until suddenly you’ve missed your chance and will end up regretting it for the rest of the night.
Even if you don’t feel it, just acting confident will make you be more confident when approaching people to say hi. It might feel forced and unnatural at first, but after a few minutes, you’ll get the hang of it and feel perfectly comfortable chatting like a social pro.
People in social settings often take their cues from others in the room. If you act confident and energetic, other people will respond in kind. They’ll become more outgoing themselves and you’ll end up having lively conversations together with hardly any effort at all.
Get Others to Approach You Instead
Still not convinced you can approach a stranger to say hi? Then get others to approach you instead! Carry around an interesting object in your hand that’ll be a good conversation starter.
When someone walks up and asks why you’re carrying it, tell them it’s because you were hoping someone would ask you just that! Sound crazy? Maybe so, but I bet that you and that other person will soon be chatting with ease about some other interesting topic, and before you know it, you’ll have made a new friend! And you just know that some of the most lasting friendships start with the weirdest meeting stories.
“So how did you two meet?”
“Well, it started when he saw me walking around with a microscope at the beach…”
After the Hello
Suppose you take this advice and summon the courage to approach someone to say hi in your target language. Now what? What should you talk about?
Usually, conversation just flows with the other person and you don’t need to work at all to come up with things to say to each other. Sometimes, however, it can be a bit harder. Instead of giving up right away, try having a few things prepared in advance to fill the lull that might come after immediately introducing yourself. Here are a few tips:
Learn Vocabulary You’ll Need
Don’t get stuck talking about the weather in your target language. Practise basic small-talk such as occupations and nationalities, as well as vocabulary related to at least one other subject of interest to you (films, sports, current events, whatever you want). Practise these words at home, with a Skype conversation on italki or an intro conversation course.
Learn Some Jokes in Your Target Language
A (clean!) joke in your target language, told with the right delivery – dramatic pauses and all – can be a huge ice breaker when meeting new people.
There are tons of online resources for jokes in every language imaginable. Learn a few by heart, and if you experience a lull in a conversation with a native speaker, you can fill the void and get the conversation rolling again.
Strangers are no More (or Less!) Scary than You
Take it from someone who spent years feeling exactly like you. Meeting people, even in a foreign language, is really, truly, never as bad as you imagine it to be. Think of it this way: do you consider yourself to be cold and unapproachable? Probably not (I hope)! So why worry that it’s true about others? Most people on this earth are just as friendly as you. Give them a chance to prove it!
There’s no magic pill that’ll give you the confidence to walk up and say hi to strangers. That has to come from you.
But once you realise that we’re all basically after the same thing – meaningful connections with others – I hope that you’ll take that first step and reach out to others, especially while travelling.
There’s a world of people out there, and a lot of great conversations to be had.