Breaking the ice with strangers as you travel.
The road is a lonely place.
Everyone’s a stranger. You long to connect with someone, anyone, but the odds are stacked against you. You’re in too much of a hurry to engage in social bonding rituals like feasting and hanging out. There’s the natural coolness in the air. And hey, you’re not your normal self right now – flung outside your comfort zone, living on your nerves and at the mercy of thoughts and whims born of sleep deprivation, addled body chemistry and sensory overload. Capping all that – you’re the outsider, with everything to prove.
The common reaction (if you’re like me) is to give up. To hide yourself away. Stiff upper lip, a sledgehammer air of authority you don’t feel and the kind of fixed expression you normally only see on Terminators and the acutely constipated. Lonely traveller, coming through.
But there are ways to improve your chances – and some of those vulnerabilities weighing heavy on your confidence are just the tools you need to make new friends.
Here’s how I reckon it works.
1. Let Them In
2. Act American
3. Best Foot Forward
1. Let Them In
Thanks to our astonishing ability to thin-slice the world around us, first impressions count for a lot – so it’s unfortunate that as a traveller, you have a limited opportunity to show you’re worth talking to. No dilly-dallying. You need some trust, and you need it quick. There’s so many things you have to quickly convey – you’re not unapproachably eccentric, you’re not deranged, you’re not a globe-trotting serial killer, you’re not selling encyclopedias. (Top tip – don’t lug encyclopedias around on your travels. Sends the wrong message).
The most efficient way you can bridge this trust gap is to expose yourself to them.
Remember the painfully poignant Roger Sanchez video with the girl lugging her heart around the city streets? You’re that girl. There’s nothing more powerful than opening up to strangers because socially, there’s nothing more dangerous. You’re allowing the other person to see past the multitude of masks that protect you in the modern world – and you’re entrusting them with a tiny piece of you, up front. What if they take advantage? There’s the risk.
But honesty pays off. If you’re being yourself, it manifests physically in hundreds of ways. Your body language alters. Your expressions speak volumes. Your voice loses the constricted tone than comes with guarded nervousness and gains a very appealing hint of wry panic. You’re clearly not faking it because you’re not faking it. And when that’s evident to strangers, their heart goes out to you. You’ve earned your chance to know them.
“I’ll be honest, I’m always a bit embarassed when I’m here in Athens and speaking English, because my Greek is…kinda terrible. Nai? *grin* And your English is great, if you don’t mind me saying so. And, well, that’s not exactly fair on you, is it? Tell you what, if I ever bump into you in London, we’re not allowed to speak English, okay? It’ll all be in Greek. Do we have a deal?”
“So, let’s share. I’ll go first! Well, you should proably know that I’ve always had a really terrible flatulence problem. It’s driven everyone away. Even my dog ran away – chewed through the wall in the end. What with that and the fact that I’m incredibly unlucky, jeez, I’m cursed. “Evil Eye” they call me. Especially after what happened to that bus I was in, in Crete – you hear about that? I was that guy, yes. Still not allowed back to Crete. So frankly I’m desperate to make friends,any friends. No offence, just being honest. And the crazy thing is, here I am with all my inheritance money too, you’d think I’d be inundated with offers! Say, what is there to do round here?”
2. Act American
Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm.
America is a large friendly dog in a small room. Every time it wags its tail it knocks over a chair.
– Arnold Toynbee
I live in a country where American-bashing is a way of life.
It’s not malicious. It’s usually undertaken with a grin – the same way us Brits are fabulously rude about the French whenever we can get away with it (because that’s always funny). It’s a thin, acceptable veneer on a reservoir of pompous distrust of anything not done the British way. And it’s ingrained. Of course, we have a Special Relationship with the Americans – they’re the loudmouthed tearaways who ran away from home and then had the affrontery to become the Superpower we should be by now (were it not for a few, ah, understandable foreign policy blunders). The Americans have more money than they know what to do with, and maybe this is why they’re always so damned happy. They should try standing in a queue at Tesco for a few hours, or watching a repeat of Oh Doctor Beeching. That’ll wipe the grin from their faces.
And on and on, in that sort of vein. Tedious but inevitable – and yes, some of it is jealousy. Particularly when it comes to Americans abroad.
Generalisms are generally nonsense. (Except that one, of course). And stereotypes always fall short of reality with even a cursory glance. But in my experience, when I’m abroad, it’s the American tourists who are the first to break the ice. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I’ve even begun to develop a little cultural insecurity about it. What’s wrong with my attitude? Why did the hot Greek girl talk to Brad from Long Beach instead of me, dammit? (Brad – one day, I’m coming for you. “Dude”).
The Americans I’ve had the good fortune to hang around with have been blessed with an easygoing geniality towards the world in general that I’ve both admired and aspired towards. They were the first to spark up conversation for the sheer hell of it, the first to ask the obvious questions (while I hung back, worried about sounding clueless) and seemed inbued with an inexhaustible ability to see the bright side in every situation, which us Brits sometimes interpret as an inability to fully comprehend it.
It’s not just Americans who are like this. But they’re most famous for it.
A positive outlook oozes charisma. Approach strangers with a smile, and you’ve a better chance of being rewarded with their time.
3. Best Foot Forward
It’s either Alan Whicker or David Attenborough. I can’t narrow it down any further at present. But one of these world-class adventurers told a story of stepping off a train in a remote corner of Africa and being faced with a line of terrifying-looking warriors rushing down a hill towards him, waving a variety of traveller-puncturing tools.
David (or Alan) was convinced that his time had come. This was it. End of the innings.
So he set his jaw, stuck out his hand and strode to meet them with a loud “Good morning!”.
Since both of these gentlemen are still with us, you’ll know how this story ends. And it demonstrates magnificently the power of rushing in where angels fear to tread, with a handshake at the ready. If you’re acting without guile and you’ve got a friendly twinkle in your eye, you’ve leeway for a lot of cheek. Whether wangling a good deal on a hotel room, haggling the price of a taxi ride or charming your way through bureacratic red tape, it’s a fact that good-natured confidence triumphs where domineering arrogance fails miserably. (It’s easy to see how if you plonk yourself in their shoes for a moment).
To break the ice, you have to apply a little force.