If you ask the right questions on your travels, you’ll not only learn much more about the local culture and customs, but maybe even make some good friends along the way.
When I’m traveling somewhere new — although it’s probably because I’m somewhat neurotic and obsessed about exploring new places — I write notes in my diary about what I expect to find and what questions I have. Inevitably, the questions and answers I end up with are far removed from what I contemplated on the train or plane ride in, but I can live with that. I have insatiable curiosity — it’s a “fault” I inherited from my grandmother, apparently — but I really think it’s a benefit when you travel.
Here are my tips on the best eight questions you can ask in every new place.
#1: Where’s a Good Place to Get a Drink Around Here?
And that’s not because we can’t survive a day or two without a beer. Finding a local bar or pub — emphasis on local, not the bar where all the foreigners hang out — is one of the best ways to get in contact with local people, find out more about where you are, and see how the locals wind down.
#2: What’s the Weirdest Food I Can Eat Here?
This is a question I love to ask, but I’m not so good at following through on actually eating what people suggest. I basically just love to hear people describe the unusual objects that have become part of a normal diet in their country.
It doesn’t even have to be exotic – for example, as an Australian, I still have a really hard time dealing with the American habit of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A Korean who’s already dealt with a few foreigners might give you some measured reasoning about the Korean liking for dog meat, and an Italian will get into mind-boggling detail about the cutest names for some niche pasta sorts.
#3: What’s That Big Building Over There?
Get an insider’s info on major landmarks and work out what’s worth visiting. But beware: the insider’s info is often historically inaccurate and filled with urban myths. Just think about what you really know about significant buildings or monuments in your own town. It’s usually distressingly little, because they’re just places you see every day without thinking about them. Nevertheless, the stories you’ll be told about them are a great starting point, and often more interesting than the truth, anyhow.
#4: What’s Your Favorite Time of Year Here?
This is a great question for finding out the seasonal ups and downs of your destination. Someone will answer according to the weather, another will tell you about their favorite festival, and somebody else might describe the time when most people are on holidays. The only problem with this question is you might discover that the time you’d most enjoy being in the country has just passed. That’s okay — there’s always next year.
#5: How Does the School System Work Here?
It sounds like a dull textbook question, but honestly, the answers can be pretty enlightening. From the north-east Asian systems where students might spend ten or more hours a day studying, through the kinds of schools that I consider “normal”, that is with school from around nine until three each day, and then to other countries like in South America or some parts of Europe where students are finished by lunchtime, the variety is endless. It’s a topic that everyone knows something about, having gone to school themselves, and some great debates can arise.
#6: So, What Did You Have for Breakfast Today?
Seriously, you’ll be amazed. I learned in Japan, for example, not to believe what the guide books say about the Japanese all eating rice and fish for breakfast. A bunch of my Japanese friends have already made the (regrettably unhealthy switch) to white bread and sugared cereal. Ironically, I was the one who ate rice for breakfast for the entire two years I lived in Japan. Breakfast traditions are weird habits, and worth knowing about.
#7: What Sports Do Kids Play Here?
Sports cross all kinds of cultural boundaries. They’re a great topic for discussion, and also to learn about how the local people spend their free time. The reason I like to ask about kids and sport is that it takes all the controversy out of it.
For example, if you ask a bunch of Australian men in a pub which is the best sport, you’ll be throwing yourself into the lion’s den. You’ll watch as each man tries to defend his own code of football, depending on where he grew up, and then an argument about the game of cricket will probably ensue. Which means you’d never hear that practically all Australian girls, and a lot of women too, play netball. And the list goes on. Play it safe and talk about the kids.
#8: Why Do You Live Here?
This might be a question for late night pondering, and best saved for philosophical locals, but I’ve had some interesting answers. Many people won’t have thought about it, really, until you ask. But, when they do, their reasons for being there can provide a lot of clues about why you might enjoy being there, too.
I believe there’s no point in traveling if you don’t ask questions. At the very least, be open to questions arising as you travel. If you have the courage to get chatting with some locals — perhaps with a bit of a language barrier — and find the answers to some of your questions, it’s a guarantee that this will enrich your enjoyment and understanding of the culture you’re visiting.
What questions do you ask the locals when you travel? Share your thoughts in the comments below!