Breaking The Ice With Strangers: Sinker

MikeachimThe Everyday35 Comments


Into the last part of Breaking The Ice we go – and on the menu we have a rich dessert of prejudice, xenophobia, narcissism and self-importance.



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



8. Represent Your Country

Heaven is where the police are British , the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organised by the Italians.

– Anonymous

Sometimes I think I’m living in the wrong country. My passport says I’m English, but maybe it’s a misprint, because…

  • I hate football. Not dislike – *hate*. Ditto cricket. In fact, ditto most sports.
  • I can cook.
  • I’m allergic to beer.
  • It’s been at least 15 years since I headbutted someone. And that was accidental.
  • I don’t own a pinstripe suit, and I’ve never worn a bowler hat.
  • I don’t sound like Dick Van Dyke. (This is because nobody does, in particular the English).
  • I have a full set of teeth – and in the hopefully unlikely event that I lose any, I’ll go for porcelain replacements rather than wooden pegs.
  • I can speak a smattering of other languages – and by that I don’t mean my chosen method of linguistic bridge-building is to shove my face 4 inches away from a non-English person’s, hold my breath until my entire head is vein-bulgingly scarlet and then scream “NO SPEAKO FORRIN! THREE BEEROS, GRASSY-ARSE!”.
  • I’ve never quaffed anything. (I admit, this haunts me).
  • I never say “spiffing” or “jolly good show”.
  • I don’t understand the offside rule.

That last one is a dead giveaway. No speako footy? English? You’re ‘avin a larf, incha? But no, it’s true, I haven’t the foggiest – and in terms of national identity that doesn’t matter a jot, because I’m more than the sum of my cultural stereotypes, like everyone else in the world. And this is glaringly obvious to all of us. Everyone knows this kind of assumptive pigeonoling is twaddle.

Problem is – stereotypes persist.

They’re all out there in the world, dug in, sunk deep into our cultural consciousnesses. It’s a disgrace, but it’s also a fact. And so if you want to make friends with strangers outside your country of origin, you’d be wise to remember how people will involuntarily prejudge you (maybe just a little – but always enough to matter) based on where you’re from. Remember it – and use it.


Here’s a few suggestions:

The English: you’re fighting preconceptions of football hooliganism, sleazy dance culture and stuffy aloofness. Luckily, you’re also readily equipped with the reputation of being one of the most gentlemanly / ladylike nations in the world. Daub the respectful courtesy on with a trowel, keep your voice down and stay sober, and strangers will become friends at the drop of a hat.

Canadians: you’re notoriously famous for being polite. So err on the side of sass.

Kazakhstan folk: Borat. Look, I know. You’re the ninth largest country in the world and you have a staggeringly wealthy culture-history to share with everyone. You’re independent, progressive and remarkably culturally diverse. You rock. And since 2006, you’ve been lumbered with the fictional Eurasian equivalent of Mr Bean cross-fertilized with Larry David – a character built entirely of negative stereotypes. Absolutely appalling. I share your horror. But – it’s out there. Your challenge is to keep your temper for the first 60 seconds after you saw them think “Borat”. Hang in there. And hey, if after a minute they’re quoting lines from Borat to you, you could always pretend you’re English by headbutting them.

Welsh: don’t start singing. At least, not immediately. Give it some time.

The quicker you can disprove a stereotype, the quicker your would-be friend will discard it – and be so mortified at having thought it in the first place that they’ll do anything to make amends. They’ll break the ice for you. And all you did was be yourself. How’s that for a result?


9. It’s Not About You

He’s the kind of person where if you ask him how he is – he’ll tell you.

– Anonymous.

“Hi there. How are things? Good, good, so anyway….”

Hands up if you’ve done the following:


  • listened to someone without hearing them?
  • listened to someone without hearing them because you’re working out the next fantastically witty retort you’re going to slay them with?
  • listened to someone impatiently because you want to get back to the good stuff, ie. You?
  • worked hard to make the other person the focus of your conversation?

That show of hands got real patchy around point 4, didn’t it? That’ll be because you’re human. From the mistiest dawn of time when we ran around walloping each other with thigh bones, we have excelled at putting ourselves first in line. That’s evolution for you: me me ME. It’s our most tried, most tested formula and we’d be daft to fiddle with it.

Or would we?


“And I had just three days to see it all! All of Egypt! Luckily there’s bits you can skip, you know, the modern stuff,, and anywhere there’s not a pyramid. And the Nile is just a river, you know? So I cut it down to two days and that gave me an extra day in Dubai which is totally worth it, there’s this air-conditioned beach? I don’t do well in heat, I have a condition where I sweat. So anyway…”

The problems start when we allow ourselves to believe the rest of the world finds us as fascinating as we do.

My favourite travel lesson? A useful sense of inadequacy. (Yes, I know, dear doting fans – moi!). The best place to maintain your own personal Copernicus-busting view of the world is somewhere that is empty of others. Any kind of contact with the rest of humanity is sufficient to pinpoint some gap in your upbringing, some character flaw, some illustration of how you generally fall short. This is a gift of humility – it’s like Christmas Day for the soul.

In short, you suddenly see how unworldly you are. Time to learn stuff, then. And here we are, back at point 6 (Assume Nothing Except Your Own Ignorance).

But when you make the conversation revolve entirely around you, your enduring ignorance is guaranteed.

“…and there were like all these tribesmen, am I allowed to say tribesmen? Anyway, they’re all lined up outside their huts (and I allowed to say huts?) and I get them all singing Bohemian Rhapsody, but, you know, ethnically. There’s this anthro-something boffin dude and he’s sitting with his head in his hands, but there’s no stopping us! I’ve always been into my singing. Oooh, ask me if I’ve ever met Simon Cowell. Go on, ask me. Ask me!”


The clincher is pure cynicism. Ready?

Since it’s a fact that we’re all hard-wired to be completely into ourselves, a great way to break the ice with a stranger is to encourage them to fall victim to it. Withdraw yourself as a topic from the conversation, and the other person will probably step forward to make themselves the focus. So stoke the flames of their self-interest. Make it Them Them Them. You’ll bond, I guarantee.

And hey, they’ll love you for it.


10. It’s Not About What We Do

“A teacher?”

“Yes”, I lie. Already a new identity is unfurling: a teacher with a taste for history, and a family back home. I want to go unquestioned.

– Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road

If you’re lucky enough to bump into veteran travel-writer and novelist Colin Thubron on your travels, you might not be aware of it until much later. He’s made a career of being an affably approachable “nobody” (as if there’s such a thing) to prevent his observations becoming muddied by the celebrity status of his craft. The result is a carefully maintained anonymity that lets him get on with his job in peace – and what a job. Not only is his work gorgeously lyrical, it’s keenly immersed in the sights, sounds and rhythms of wherever Thubron is exploring. He works hard to truly know the places he visits. Go read: you’ll see.

Here’s why he keeps his job hidden.

Let’s say we’ve just met on the street – you’ve just approached me because I’m looking lost (that’ll be point 5 at work, there) and we’ve just exchanged a few pleasantries. Now you’re asking me what I do, and I say “I’m a criminal psychologist”.

A few things immediately spring to mind.

1) [“Criminal psychologist”. Oh hell’s bells. So you’re going to psychologize me? I’d better watch what I say].


2) Note how I didn’t say “I’m trying to be a criminal psychologist” or “I’m toying with the idea of marrying my twin passions of crime and psychology” to you. I said “I am one. I’m Cracker. (Be scared)”. There’s a lofty self-confidence in that statement. I am apparently saying I’m a professional. So either I am a professional, or I’m brimming with misplaced self-belief. I’m a VIP or I’m a jerk. Either way, your desire for idle chit-chat has fled.

The problem behind 2) is that there’s no relaxed way of saying what you do for a living. You’re either the formidably wise pro (I am…) or the earnest, slightly bumbling amateur (I’m trying to be…) – but either way, there’s a new layer of awkwardness laid down.

But we’re not done yet.

3a) [So – what do I say next? Um. Don’t want to say anything incriminating. So – what do you talk to a criminal psychologist about? Criminals? Freud?  ‘So, that Freud – did he ever break the law?’ Dear god. Metaphorical head in metaphorical oven. Hey, maybe I can pretend I’m reading Freud or Jung, or that bloke who wrote about Men from Mars and Women from Venus. That’ll do. No, wait, what if he asks me questions? Um…]


3b) [Aha! Well, that psychology stuff is all rubbish. And it’s time someone explained it to you, buddy]. “Well, that is interesting. Criminal psychology, you say? Do you know that I’ve guessed the ending of every murder-mystery I’ve ever watched? All the CSIs. Murder She Wrote. All of them. Now I don’t want to sound disparaging, but your so-called job seems pathetically easy. Yet if our roles were reversed, could you tile a bathroom? I’m thinking not.”

When you tell a stranger what you do for a living, you’re probably going to end up talking shop – the last thing you want to be thinking about when you’re travelling – or unwillingly participate in something best described as a pissing competition. It’s a death-blow to any hope of a naturally flowing ice-breaking conversation. In fact, it’s a new layer of ice to break.

Frankly, it’s much easier being a nobody.

Images: ancawonka, malias, Merlijn Hoek, Loving Earth, lacie babenco, The Pack, Tom Rydquist and Okko Pyykko.