What'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 😛
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 had about my mission to perfect my Brazilian Portuguese and in a previous mission 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 had 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! While in Brazil, 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 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 😛 ), 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 – and 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”.