Author Bill Bryson talks about being on a train and thinking about fellow travel writer Paul Theroux writing about the fascinating conversations he has with strangers. This seemed to perplex Bryson because he found it difficult to strike up conversations with traveling Brits.
That got me thinking about a short conversation with an enthusiastic traveler who confessed that he found it difficult to talk to strangers and wondered how I did it.
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 seatmate is inclined toward solitude and I stop there.
Whether you’re standing in line at the post office or waiting for a train, here are a few ideas to help you uncover the fascinating folks around you.
° Make it a game. Decide ahead of time that you want to find an interesting story or inspiring stranger. I have 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 of contemporary travel.
° Don’t wait. Instigate. Be willing to be the one who takes the first step. 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 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, and that 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 and his reply was, “Be a kid.” 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.
Those are the moments that keep me talking to strangers who unknowingly enrich my life. And like everything else, it gets easier with practice.