Author Bill Bryson talks about being on a train and thinking about fellow travel writer Paul Theroux who wrote about fascinating conversations he has with strangers. This perplexes Bryson because he finds it difficult to strike up conversations with traveling Brits.
That got me thinking about a conversation I had with an enthusiastic traveler who wondered how I managed to open a dialogue with someone I’d just met.
Since my Do Talk To Strangers Policy is a vital component of traveling—and being entrepreneurial—I started to consider how I actually go about it. I realized that some of it is purely intuitive.
For instance, when a stranger plunks down next to me on an airplane, I take a breath, take a look and see if I’m moved to start a conversation. Most of the time I get it right. Once in a while, I know from my opening question that my seat mate is inclined toward solitude and I stop there.
Whether you’re standing in line at the post office (a place where I’ve met some fascinating folks) or waiting for a train, here are a few ideas to help you uncovering the interesting people around you.
° Make it a game. Decide ahead of time that you want to find an interesting story or inspiring stranger. I’ve been on long flights that seemed to pass in a moment because I had landed next to a great storyteller.
I consider that a fine compensation for the annoyances that are now part of contemporary travel.
° Don’t wait. Instigate. Be willing to be the one who makes the first move. A friendly smile is a good way to test the water. If it’s not reciprocated, move on.
° Look for common ground. I often open a conversation with a compliment or observation about something the stranger is wearing or carrying or something that’s happening around us.
When I hopped into a London taxi that was covered in promotional material for the Rolling Stones, I suspected that I had a fascinating chat ahead of me. And I did. I learned that my driver was the only cab in the city promoting the Stones, that he earned an extra £750 a year by putting advertising on his cab.
He also told me he’d once advertised for the South African Tourist Board and got a free trip to that country as a bonus. He was hoping he might get tickets to a Stones concert this time around.
° Be politely curious. Our reluctance to talk to strangers may be caused by thinking it’s about us. Wrong. It’s about them. Yes, you might be subjected to a tedious story now and then, but it’s worth the risk.
One of my most memorable conversations was with a young man who was a linguistic professor who spoke seven languages. when I learned that, I asked him the best way to learn a language. “Be a kid,” he said. I laughed and asked, “What’s the second best?”
The answer to that question—and many more—kept us chatting from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. I learned a lot and enjoyed his willingness to share his linguistic passion.
° Anticipate the best. Remember that it’s true that everyone knows something that you don’t. Discovering what that unknown fact or idea or passion may be can enrich your life. Sometimes a stranger leads you to a missing piece of your own puzzle.
Knowing that keeps me talking to strangers who unknowingly enrich my life.
And like everything else, it gets easier with practice.