Breaking The Ice With Strangers: Line

MikeachimThe Everyday9 Comments


Breaking the ice with strangers as you travel.

We’re midway into my ten ways to break the ice with strangers when you’re travelling – and now it’s time to play the fool.


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


Take hand

4. Invite, Don’t Drag

The best way to start a conversation with someone is to make them think it’s their idea.

When people are on the defensive, they clam up. This is a major problem for stalwart ice-breakers because by necessity, they’re on the attack. Their job is to wade into someone’s personal space, storming the walls of their aloofness and fencing wildly across the drawbridge of their confusion until a connection is made. It’s a siege. It’s brutal.

Think on it. You’re striding along minding your own business, and suddenly some neon-fleeced, backpack-laden Foreigner fires a question at you.  You’re probably unfamiliar with the cadence, tone and speed with which they’ve spoken, especially if they’re inexpertly had a stab at your own language. It’s like being accosted by a Wookie speaking Latin with a Jamaican accent.

(Apologies to these three linguistic groups – you were picked at random, so don’t write in).

You need a few seconds to sort it all out in your head….but you’re flustered, entirely WTF’d out of your predictable day – and your first reaction is to tear a strip off the person who did it. They’re right there, standing patiently as if what they’ve just said made any sense. As if you’re going to reply with anything but a verbal asskicking. Grrrr.

Most of us get over this pugilistic urge very quickly, but emotionally, the damage is done. The body remembers. Shoulders are hunched, perspiration is beading, the voice is tight. Your mind says Friend but your body still says Enemy.

Except this time, you’re the one breaking the ice. You’re the enemy.

Sometimes this is simply unavoidable. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth, charge straight at them (metaphorically speaking, because actually charging at people is really rude) and spend the next ten minutes soothing their ruffled feathers.

But there’s a better way.


Some people look like they could benefit from a little advice.

Let’s say our ex-pat Jamaican Roman Wookie is standing blinking in the street, looking confused. Analysis? He’s no clue where he is. His clothes are outlandish enough to label him out on a limb, but now he’s acting lost – broadcasting it in all directions. Out comes a map (you can’t see what’s on it, so you edge closer) and after a few seconds, he turns it the other way round with a self-disgusted grimace.  Body language: halp. And so…

Excuse me, can I assist?”

By making yourself look confused and vulnerable, you’re inviting conversation. But that’s not the only way. Look for context-specific opportunities. Do they have a dog? “Hello little fella, good doggie – what’s his name? Oh, he’s a she?” Or make friendly eye contact. Or share an unspoken wry moment. (Waiting for a train in Bologna, I heard a tannoy announcer struggling to drown out a drunken singer in the background. All of us on the platform exchanged glances that became giggly – and if I’d spoken a word of Italian at the time, I’d have had my pick of a dozen conversations).

However, it’s entirely possible that all your best efforts will be in vain. It’s possible they just won’t bite. And this is where it gets tricky – because launching yourself at them in the traditional sense is now going to make you look desperate and clingy, amplifying their defensive reaction tenfold.

So it’s your call. Play it carefully.


5. Channel Your Inner Numpty


7. Tickle Them

Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.

Bill Bryson, “I’m A Stranger Here Myself“.

Bill Bryson is one of the world’s foremost travel-writers. His travelogues are witty, insightful, fiercely researched prose slyly arranged to feel like a beery afternoon ramble until, with a blink, you find there are no pages left to read. He’s a gift for readers and writers alike. He’s a pro.

He’s also a buffoon.

Buffoon is a term for someone who provides amusement through inappropriate appearance and/or behavior.

Strictly, a buffoon describes a “ridiculous, but nevertheless amusing person.” In broader terms, a buffoon is a clown-like, publicly amusing person, such as a court jester. In the more modern sense, the term is frequently used in a derogatory sense to describe someone considered a public fool, or someone displaying inappropriately vulgar, bumbling or ridiculous behavior that is a source of general amusement.

The term may originate from the old Italian “buffare”, meaning to puff out one’s cheeks.


Obviously I’m not suggesting that one of the world’s most popular and respected travel writers is “someone considered a public fool”?

Well, yes, I am.

If there’s such a thing as a formula for a Bryson book, it looks something like this.

  • Bill undertakes an expedition into the great unknown or the invisibly familar, embarking on an epic foray around/through some geographical challenge – and in the first chapter he makes clear that he’s probably not the man for the job and may even die before the end. (You’re allowed to giggle here).
  • Bill illustrates how fundamentally ill-fitted he is to the life of a gregarious globetrotter by expanding on a personal habit that makes him dreadful to be around, such as falling asleep in a way that suggests death (In a Sunburned Country). Threaded around this protracted self-assassination is a lot of keenly-observed travel writing and a lots of statistics, but the core of the book is Bill himself, seemingly to his own chagrin.
  • Occasionally you shoot what you’re drinking out through your nostrils. This is a sure sign that you’re reading a Bill Bryson book. Or that novel by Martine McCutcheon.

But it makes no sense. Why go out of your way to make yourself look foolish? Why spending pages and pages wallowing in it, telling people how you drool as you snooze or spray food when you eat? Does the man not understand the modern self-marketing method? You big yourself up until you’re smacked out of your head on your own ego. This is how to impress people with your personality. I mean, 100,000 Personal Development gurus on Twitter can’t be wrong, can they?

The bottom line is: sound like a buffoon, and you engineer your own failure. Nobody will remember you except as a cautionary tale.

You’re finished.

You know, just like the multi-award-winning and internationally renowned bestselling author Bill Bryson.


I’ve learned so much from my mistakes that I’m thinking of making some more.

– Anon

Two things are infinite: the Universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the Universe.

– Albert Einstein

It’s a fact that has marketing divisions tearing their hair out in frustration – buffoonery has charisma, and failure is a winner. It explains a little of Bryson’s universal appeal. Failure is why Eric Newby’s Short Walk In The Hindu Kush is a joyous, poignant classic. It explains the unstoppable rise of Despair Inc. It’s the only possible reason for Jedward, period. Again and again we’re drawn to the mishappers, klutzes and fools. As cringeworthy as they are to watch, we’re transfixed by them.


…(those of a nervous disposition should look away now)…

they’re us.

(It’s safe to look again).


But a prime requirement of true buffoonery (voluntary or otherwise) is that it has to be funny.

There’s two ways to manage this: you can either have people laugh with you, or have people laugh at you. The former requires wit: the latter requires a dizzying mixture of incompetencies that become more than the dreadful sum of their parts. (It’s without a shred of modesty that I put myself firmly in the second category. I attract misadventure. I’m sure some of my past travelling companions  – the ones who survived – will be quick to bless us with suitable anecdotes in the comments below).

Either way, if there’s laughter, you’ve connected. Words aren’t important here. Laughter is the only true universal human language. You’ve just taken the quickest route between two different human beings. More than any other method in this list, that’s the way to break the ice.


6. Assume Nothing Except Your Own Ignorance

Come with me on a short thought-exercise.

I’m going to ask some questions, to which I’ll add my answers – but if you’re willing, try covering them up and answering the questions yourself.

Q: Why do you want to talk to strangers when you’re abroad?


A: To learn about the rest of the world and the people in it, and my place in it, and therefore myself.


Q: When you’re travelling, you’re in search of what you don’t know?

A: What, is there an echo in here? That’s what I just said.


Q: How do you find out stuff you don’t know?


A: Google it. Oh, right, more basic. Well…I ask questions.


Q: When you meet someone for the first time, how do you impress them?


A: With my sensuous and godlike mad dancing skillz. You know, like Matt.


Q: I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.


A: You know, for a Socratic dialogue component your sense of humour really sucks. Fine, whatever. I would…hmm. I would probably show off.


Q: How?


A: By showing how knowledgeable and worldly I was……ahhh. Okay. I think I see a paradox.


Q: Quack – quack.


A: Oh so now you develop a sense of humour.


So your natural instinct when meeting someone new is to impress them with your worldliness. (Double that if you’re a travel writer). And since that involves introducing what you already know into the conversation…you’re getting in the way of learning something new. But it’s difficult to fight. Every time your newfound friend says something you know a little bit about, your Inner Child has their hand up, “oooh oooh I know the answer pick me pick ME”.

The easiest way to fight this is to ask questions all the time.

I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.

Bill Bryson

Questions are how you learn things about people, but they’re also how to get those people in the right frame of mind to help. Questions make equal conversation-partners. They say “OK, your turn”. Without questions, conversations wilt. It’s a nice coincidence that without questions, knowledge wilts as well.

Assume you know nothing, ask questions and listen to the answers, and you’ll make friends quicker than you’d believe.

Images: victoriapeckham, Elphi Pelephi, Whistling In The Dark, Gregory Bastien, amanky, e-magic.

(Sinker to follow soon).