Breaking The Ice With Strangers: Hook

MikeachimThe Everyday27 Comments


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


4. Invite, Don’t Drag

5. Channel Your Inner Numpty

6. Assume Nothing Except Your Own Ignorance

7. Tickle Them


8. Represent Your Country

9. It’s Not About You

10. It’s Not About What We Do


Padlock1. 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?”

Handshake2. 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.

Geoff Dyer

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.

Images: chuckp, Susanica, VictoriaPeckham and mythic moonlight.

(Line and Sinker to follow soon).
  • Well done! Luckily, I’m one of those people who will talk to anyone, but you have some wonderful advice, especially for folks who tend to feel out of place or ill at ease when they are out of their home comfort zone.

    • Thanks! (The other two parts to follow soon).

      I reckon we all feel out of place and ill at east when we travel. That’s the strange, semi-masochistic thrill of it, the weirdness of not recognizing things and not knowing the way things are done. At best, it’s disconcerting – at worst, terrifying. But it’s possible to grow to love that feeling, and get addicted to it. I know I am – even though I’m too often a hapless wuss when I’m on my travels. ;)

  • Leilah

    Some really great advice you have here. As an American gearing up for some solo travel, I can’t wait to test out your theory. Hopefully I’m one of those with charm haha. In any case, I will definitely be using these tools. Oh and thanks for posting the link to that Roger Sanchez video. I had never seen it before. Definitely fits (and it’s a cute vid too). :)

    • Thanks for reading. :) (And you’ve got no worries on the charm front, I reckon).

      Yes, that music vid has haunted me ever since I saw it. Because we’ve all done that. We’ve made a connection with someone and allowed ourselves to hope, and then the next day…yeah.

      Aye. Whoever made the video is a gifted people-watcher.

  • Well at least someone has something nice to say about Americans for a change :-) Being I’m only half, I often fall back into shy British-ness but I think your advice is spot on. I can’t think of a single time on the road when I’ve let loose my inner friendly American and been sorry about it. Lovely article.

    • Thank you, Celeste. Means a lot. :)

      It’s an attitude I wish Brits shared – but all too often (not always by any means, but certainly too often) we’re either reticent or cliquey. If we go in groups, we stay in groups. You can see this particularly in British campsites. Family units might as well have moats around them filled with alligators – it’s that hard to connect with them. I can understand why (you’re there with your family – you don’t need new friends) but it’s sad to see so many people with nary a word for each other…

      I have no idea what American campsites are like. And now I’m powerfully curious. ;)

  • I was having a conversation about this very thing with some of my students the other night. One of them is a vivacious, funny woman who will chat to anyone. Her English language level is reasonable, but she has an awful lot of gaps. However, she’s the absolute example of someone who could happily get by in any situation, just with charm and a smile, even if her language skills failed her. The other student’s English is pretty damn good. However, she’s much shyer and, conversely, would probably be the one who would fall down in a real-life situation, as she would become reticent and tongue-tied, despite knowing the right thing to say. Me, I’m a hybrid of the two. If it’s just me and I have to get by, I can be the smiley, happy, confident stranger who’ll talk to anyone. Put me in a situation where i could be judged by my peers and I fall back, becoming awkward and uncomfortable. I may teach the maxim ‘better to try and fail than not try at all’ to my students, but I’m not always that good at following it myself. Ahem.

    • If I had to pick a phrase that describes you, it’s “Geronimo.”

      Not because you have Native American ancestry, or are in the new season of Doctor Who (that’s his new catchphrase, apparently). But because you just go and do it. Even if you’re quailing inside (and, ooo, let’s say, changing your career and moving to Italy, to pick something out of the air at random – well, if you’re not quailing at that, there’s something a bit loose and whimsical in your brainpan).

      I think we’re all shy and scared and reticent and a wee bit insecure, deep down. Particularly the aggressively confident and brash ones.

      Perhaps the trick is to fake it – and then later, not forget that you’re still faking it. ;)

  • This was wonderful to read.

    I’m not American and have partaken in my share of Yankee-bashing, but it’s impossible to deny that uniquely American pioneering spirit, the ability to look at a vast alien expanse and see possibility, not despair. It’s certainly an admirable quality, and the reason America became as mighty as it has.

    Being from Brazil, a fast-growing and trendy country, simply uttering my nationality wins me friends. It’s unfair and I fear it might make me too lazy to actually employ this fantastic advice.

    • :) Thanks, Roberto.

      You’re right – Brazil has the market cornered on charm, as you’ve just demonstrated.

      Yes, pioneering. Confident. Striding boldly forward, saying “okay, let me have a try!”. This self-confidence can get a little out of hand at times (see: Twitter, social media gurus, average tagline of) but it’s still exciting and inspiring.

      And not at all the British way at all. Here, we don’t like to blow our own trumpets, and are left waiting for someone else to come along and do it for us. Maybe we’re just lazy trumpet-players. ;)

  • Entertaining and probably useful. So what do you think of Australians?!

    • Sadly I know precious few Australians to make any generalisations, so I have to stick with Bill Bryson on this one: they’re warm, hearty, welcoming, intrepid, laconic and ever so slightly insane. ;)

  • You know, my fiance and I are always the first ones to spark up a conversation with strangers. Life’s too short to be so negative all the time towards people you know nothing about.

    • That’s it – when your default response is distrust, you might as well give up making friends. Innocent until proven guilty – *especially* the ones who look a big dodgy and shady to you. ;)

  • Kim

    A friendly face and a smile work wonders when trying to break the ice. I have found meeting people while traveling easier than in “normal” life. It is because you already have a number of things in common to start the conversation (and there is lots more to learn). You’re traveling – generally as is the other person – in the same country / area and going to / come from the same places so you can compare notes or offer advice. There is a whole lot to learn about the other person – why they are traveling, where they are from, what they do etc. They are in a similar situation – away from their social circle and need to get out and meet other people just as much as I do.

    • Nicely put. Yes, the “clean slate” aspect of it, with the novelty of the situation mixed in.

      And it’s fun to reinvent yourself too – to try to make yourself more interesting to yourself. And someone who feels newly confident in themselves (not taken to the extreme of arrogance) oozes charisma and no doubt makes new friends much quicker and easier.

  • You haven’t left me much room to comment, since I am American, but you know I will anyway. Americans are like that.
    You call it charm, I think it is generosity. Inclusiveness. Brits often create an atmosphere of clubblishness that excludes others, and I don’t think it is shyness. I think there is probably the same percentage of shy people in Britain as in other cultures.
    What I see here as an expat surrounded with many more British expats than Americans, by at least 20 times as many in fact, is that few Brits offer up anything in way of a place to attach. Are they afraid you are an undesirable camouflaged as a normal person? They come to parties given by non-Brits, but they do not invite us back. They started an amateur dramatics club but only Brits are welcome in it. Etc., etc. I am in hopes that it is only this older generation that feels so exclusive, although I don’t suppose I shall be around for the next generation.
    That said, I think British travel in more adventurous and exotic places than either typical Americans or Italians. Maybe geography is taught better in the UK?
    the large dog in a small room

  • Love it, Mike! I wrote a post a few months ago about why I love American tourists, too. I think we get a bad rap!

  • Acting American…that surprised me because I tend to think Brits are far more charming and interesting (with almost universal, from what I can tell, dry senses of humor). Anyway, as an American, I thank you. The only time I have noticed being American working in my favor (when abroad) was in Ireland, though, where being American suddenly made me immensely popular with young men. But that was a loooong time ago.

    I have a British cousin who has this habit of always saying things are terrible when I ask her a question–e.g., “How are your kids?” “Oh, Elizabeth, they are beastly and dreadful!”

    What’s that about? Is it a trying-not-to-jinx-self thing? That’s one Britishism I don’t quite get, though I suppose it is far preferable to showing off (the American way–e.g., “Well, Jane got accepted to Harvard and Billy is making six figures…”).

    Love the blog–

    Best wishes,


  • Sharon Miro

    I don’t care what anyone else says about you–especially that stuff I read on the wall—I like this–can’t wait for the rest.

    Another American gearing up for solo travels… and since there are several of "us" responding does that reinforce the idea that we have more money than we know what to do with?

  • Great post. I completely agree on the Act American advice! We met loads of friendly, confident Americans on our travels and want to be more like that ourselves. One thing an American pointed out to us was that Brits never introduce themselves- they’ll talk for hours before sharing their name, whereas Americans happily come over and introduce themselves straight off. It’s so true!

  • Great post, Mike, as always. I’m with Elizabeth, I always thought the Brits had the market cornered on charm. You yourself are quite charming indeed. :)

  • @ccziv

    I have to say as an American (and a frequent American basher!) it is very hard to generalize about us because we are such a multi-cultural population. Getting along with all kinds of people is a survival skill for us. What’s more, the people you meet traveling (international travel) are a small minority who may very well behave with confidence because, generally, they have known a life of privilege (only a small minority of Americans ever have the opportunity to travel abroad).

    In any case, everybody craves connection. A warm smile and an open heart (not to mention being a good listener!) just opens the doors…

  • i loved this post.

  • Well the Irish will just jump into any conversation! I am guilty of landing into a bunch of strangers in hostels and breaking my way into the conversation instead of sitting on my own.. I like commenting on blogs because…

    1:I read blogs and like to give my opinion
    2: It gets a tiny bit of link juice for my new travel blog
    3:It may encourage people to interact on my own blog…

  • “A positive outlook oozes charisma. Approach strangers with a smile, and you’ve a better chance of being rewarded with their time.”

    I second this. It seems like pure logic, but I feel more people need to embrace this. The more, the merrier ;-)

  • Sofie Couwenbergh

    Not a place in the world where I met so many people as in Los Angeles. Everyone seemed so open, so friendly and, yes, so AMERICAN there. Their attitude made me open up a lot more than I had on any previous trip.