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.
Since this is about people coming up to me, I don't decide who it will be. 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) 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.
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!