It’s something that’s drilled into us from early childhood. One of the golden rules of safe, successful living: don’t talk to strangers.
It makes perfect sense when we’re young and vulnerable, of course, but once we reach our 30s and 40s, it’s high time to recalibrate our radars. Because when travelling solo, the ability to speak to strangers safely and successfully is a skill that can spark some of our most gratifying, intriguing and treasured travel moments.
As a travel writer, I often find myself in foreign countries alone but the best tips and advice I’ve ever received have come directly from the mouths of strangers.
A chat with a stranger could make all the difference to your trip
There was the gregarious Bostonian I met on the north shore of Barbados, for example. After sharing a bottle of hot sauce in a café, he directed me to an unassuming family-run restaurant a few miles down the coast, where I enjoyed one of the best seafood dinners of my life.
Then there was the Greek photographer I sat next to on a flight to Athens, who tipped me off in hushed tones about a mind-bogglingly beautiful secret beach on the isle of Spetses (it more than lived up to expectations). Not to mention the German jet-skier I met off the coast of the Florida Keys, who put me onto one of the most raucously fun bars I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking in.
Years later, I’m still friends with all three of those strangers, via the global glue of social media – and I have the memories, photos and published stories to prove that those haphazard interactions were worth their weight in inhibition.
So, why don’t we all do this kind of thing more often when travelling solo? Why settle for an obvious restaurant, a crammed tourist beach or a banal hotel bar when a quick chat with a passing stranger could make all the difference to our trip?
Most people remain pessimistic about talking to strangers
Dr Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, asked that self-same question last year in a ground-breaking study – and her results were fascinating.
According to Sandstrom, most people remain “remarkably pessimistic” about talking to strangers, despite overwhelming evidence linking frequent social interactions with happiness. She found that almost all of us exaggerate the potential for negative outcomes in random encounters – and therefore simply avoid them.
However, when Sandstrom’s case studies challenged that response by initiating conversations with strangers over the course of a week, they found that, on average, those interactions were far more pleasant than expected. The moral of the story? Most strangers really are just friends – or at least acquaintances – that you simply haven’t met yet.
We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanour
In his fascinating book Talking to Strangers, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that trust and transparency are the magic ingredients when approaching a new face.
“To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society,” he writes. “If you don’t begin in a state of trust, you can’t have meaningful social encounters.”
Of course, Gladwell accepts that not every stranger is going to be chatty, or even friendly. But there is a subtle art to identifying the ones that will be. In a safe, public place like a café, restaurant or bar, you simply need to observe the way they interact with the people around them, before approaching them yourself.
“We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanour,” explains Gladwell. “Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people… aren’t.”
Establish a daily routine, even if you’re only there a short time
So, how do we apply this intel to improving our next solo trip? Travel expert Samantha Brown, the Emmy Award-winning host of TV show Places to Love, is a big believer in random chats when travelling. Not just for sourcing local hotspots, but also for feeling more comfortable and engaged with wherever she’s visiting.
“Talking to locals goes far deeper than just receiving ‘in the know’ advice,” she tells me. “It gives us the opportunity to relate to others even in the briefest of encounters. We totally underestimate the benefit of these spontaneous interactions which, even for a short amount of time, give us that sense of belonging.”
Brown’s biggest tip? To establish a daily routine, even if you’re only in a destination for a short time. “One way I like to talk to locals when I travel is to create a ritual, by going to the same local coffee shop or cafe every morning,” she says. “The familiarity helps me gain confidence, which makes it easier for me to open up to others.”
You’re there to explore and find out about the places you’re visiting
When it comes to actually starting a conversation, a compliment about what that person is wearing or carrying is always a strong opening gambit, as is that age old British classic – an observation about the weather. After this, it’s all about mastering the art of the follow-up question: the why, where and how of where you are and what you’re doing – and hoping to do – there.
Globetrotting biologist and BBC wildlife presenter Patrick Ayree is another ardent stranger ranger, who enjoys engaging with outsiders when travelling.
“As a bearded black man rocking up, I try to put myself in the locals’ shoes, seeing this new face,” he says. “I tend to go in with easy conversation starters: talk about the beauty of the location, ask them about themselves and what’s going on in their world. You’re there to explore and find out about the places you’re visiting – what better way to do this than to talk to the people who live there?”
Connections will lead to a more rewarding experience
“Once you take the time to talk to people, barriers come down,” he adds. “They see you’re just a human being, like them, with stories to share. A lot of prejudice is based on fear of the unknown. Approaching these encounters with a spirit of compassion and willingness to learn other people’s stories, goes a long way.”
Award-winning writer, Mitch Albom, author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, famously wrote: “The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we’re alone.” That’s particularly true when we’re abroad. Connections with locals or fellow travellers will almost always lead to a deeper, more rewarding experience. And isn’t that the ultimate point of travelling in the first place?
Jonathan Thompson is an award-winning journalist, regular SOLO columnist and presenter of Adventure Cities on the Discovery Channel.
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