Don’t Talk to Strangers (and Other Terrible Advice for Travelers)

“Is that Jeff Buckley?”

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The poor girl started, blinking, and then smiled. “Yeah.”

“High-five for Hallelujah,” I said, and met her hesitant hand in mid-air. The rest of the computer lab visibly flinched and loomed closer to their monitors.

Time has not been kind to this sweet memory of mine. Who the hell high-fives anymore? I could have gotten away with it ten years ago, sure, but this was maybe two weeks back, in a distinctly different climate of ‘cool’. Still, I’ve never claimed to be well-versed in the ways of pop culture, if that palm-slap was any indication. I may not have won any popularity points for it, but here’s the kicker: I did get something pretty valuable in exchange.

That girl stationed at the computer lab monitor? She’s a good friend now, someone I can plop down in class with and whine about test scores. Not the expected result, considering the unique way I introduced myself, but it’s a wonderful example of how even the smallest – and dorkiest – of gestures can bridge the massive gap between you and every person you pass on your daily routine.

Let’s call it the Public Dilemma. Let’s also call it a strange product of modern society, and – finally – let’s call it a problem easily solved if you put your travel-honed techniques to use.

Girl Giving Out Free Hugs, Tokyo
Free Hugs for All!, Tokyo © kalandrakas

It’s Not Your Fault, Promise!

Think about how many people you pass on a daily basis. In most cases, it’s a pretty hefty number, a fact which might make the next question just a teensy bit more depressing: how many of those people do you strike up a conversation with? Odds are the number just dwindled dramatically. You can’t be expected to develop a life-long friendship with every face in the crowd, sure, but the difference does raise a few questions about what exactly we’re doing with our daily routines.

To be fair, striking out into the social world and meeting someone new isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Liquid courage helps, but in the absence of alcohol we’re forced to stare down the real culprit: our upbringing, where we’re told from day one to never talk to strangers.

Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to kids, safety comes first. But advice like that, sound it may be, highlights an interesting aspect of (American?) culture: a complete distrust of everyone. In a larger sense, you can call it fear of the unknown, but it’s kind of remarkable no matter how you spin it that we can go so far without wanting to talk to anyone.

It’s also an issue of longevity. Physically, we shoot up and out and in every direction, but mentally we tend to cling to the same cautious ideals imprinted in our heads from birth. We don’t hold mom’s hand when we cross the street, now, so why not take that rebellion just one step further?

Talk to strangers. It’s easier than you think.

Smiling Boy, Oaxaca, Mexico

Try a Smile

July of 2009. ÄŒeský Krumlov, a picturesque town a few hours from Prague. My brother and I blazed a wide path through Eastern Europe, capitalizing on the dwindling days of summer before ‘real life’ called us back to the States.

One problem: dear brother was sick enough to confine him to a hostel bed, leaving me with a few last hours of energy and not a single person I knew. The hostel in question was a small one, which sounded wonderful and accessible until we first ducked through the rustic doorway.

Two problem: every other guest in the hostel had come in a sizable group on the next stop from an Australian tour bus company. They all knew each other. I knew the guy depositing the contents of his stomach in a toilet.

I opted for some light reading. The pamphlets in the lobby, to be exact, feigning interest in over-priced river adventures and wondering how long I could keep it up before people started to point and laugh. I’ve changed a lot since freshman year, but certain situations can still make me feel like an asocial dork, and that night in the hostel seemed destined to be a mysteriously blank page in my travel journal.

That’s when Andrew came around the corner. I heard the footsteps, stuffed a pamphlet back in its drawer, and gave what could have only been a desperate smile as I mumbled “Hey, man.” Again, not my coolest moment. But it worked, and I had a great and genuinely funny friend for the rest of the evening. He taught me how to properly pour a beer from a keg. I taught him about American soap operas, and he was so delighted he introduced me to the rest of his friends – that huge party of Australians banging around the kitchen area.

All it took was a smile. Don’t talk to strangers, right?

Dive In, Barcelona
Just Dive In! © inocuo

Just Do It!

Travel, as others have observed, takes you beyond your normal boundaries. The simple act of leaving home and seeing something new can be scary in itself, a fear often assuaged by the remarkable experiences that follow. For me, trips – even brief – outside the States have served as a direct gate to confidence, a strong belief in my ability to befriend anyone I meet. Immersing yourself in a foreign culture forces you to expand your social skills, to look past your upbringing and realize that talking to strangers is the easiest way to find both fantastic adventures and lifelong friends.

Talk to strangers. High-five them, if you must, but just do something to bridge that gap every chance you get.

The hardest part is recognition – the realization that the same techniques you employ overseas work just as well in your home town. Even then, it’s no easy thing to put yourself out there and try to chat up the unknown, but look at it like this: you’ve already done it before. You do it every time you travel, so why not approach your day-to-day routine the same way? That’s a simple step in overcoming the Public Dilemma, or whatever you want you to call that invisible gap between you and the person sitting next to you on the bus.

Working? Slack off and strike up a conversation with the cubicle next door (unless, uh, your boss is nearby). Schooling? Take out the headphones and chat with that guy or girl standing next to you at the bus stop. I love my iPod as much as the next geek, I assure you, but even my magical music box is just the next wall of defense between me and the social world outside.

Most importantly, talk to strangers. High-five them, if you must, but just do something to bridge that gap every chance you get. Simple advice, to be sure, but it’s worth remembering no matter what part of the world you’re kicking around in.

  1. Great advice – life is much more fun when you talk to strangers and take an interest in what they’re doing! Hate the mistrust everyone has of everyone else in the world today – maybe you should start a high-five movement Matt?!

  2. Consider it done, Honor. The high-five movement starts *here*. :)

    Thanks for reading! And thanks to both jessiev and mdnomad too. I hope you three liked the article and will stick around for whatever I try to get on here next.

  3. Great advice – and I love the way you brought it back from travel to home. Also reminds me of when my 5-year-old came home and said, “At school today, they told us not to talk to strangers.” “Oh,” I said, mind racing with what additional “stranger danger” wisdom to impart. “I thought it was so funny!” she added, bringing my thoughts to a screeching halt. “Why?” I asked. “Because if you don’t talk to strangers, how are you ever going to meet anybody?” Indeed.

  4. Nobody told me the high-five was uncool! :-) I love your message though – it’s so true when your traveling, you’re not really out there and experiencing until you find a way to make even the most tenuous connection with the people along the way! The best people I met on my trip were times when I oh-so-casually eavesdropped on other conversations and wormed my way in! :-)

  5. Great post… although I’m guilty of not talking to strangers most of the times. But hey, it’s not my fault, promise!:-)

    High-five and keep them coming.

  6. Hive Fives all around, baby! I’m in.
    Whatever you need to do to break the ice…there’s always a way into a conversation – you just gotta find it. That’s part of the fun of travel: finding those little moments that lead into life-long memories.

  7. Thanks for reading, everyone!

    @ennasnosrap: What a perfect example of how a child’s logic often outshines our own. :)

    @Honor: Great article! Fun read, and helps poke a lot of holes into the bad advice floating around all over the place.

  8. so, when I was on my way home from India, I was at the Delhi airport, I had 1o hours till my flight. 1st off, 10 hours is along time to avoid strangers 2) its almost impossible to travel alone and not make friends at the airport, when you have bags that def won’t fit in the stall with you! After chating it up with some American boy and Austrailan girl, I asked them to watch my bag and proceeded to use the rest room. On my way, a gentleman stopped me and asked if I had to pay for sitting in the waiting area. I told him no, he thanked me and told the airport security guy to basicly screw off. after I used the rest room and returned to my seat I asked the American kid if he knew what it cost to sit there. it was 30 rupees if you had to wait more than 8 hours. once I found this out, I approched the young man that had asked me… we started chatting and turns out we were on the same flight that night to Bangkok. we talked for hours! then, we checked in and turns out we were in the same row! we spent a total of 11 hours talking! we parted ways in Bangkok, but not before exchaning contact info and we’ve been writing ever since…

    tell me, everything doesn’t happen for a reason?

    becuase I totally believe that it does.

    and my simple act of kindness mixed with courage, resulted in a new travel buddy and good friend! :)

    Thanks for such a good article! I compleatly agree with you, there is def a need for this sort of bravery in our modern, texting society.

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  10. Fresh from Colombia, I had an interesting experience when I was walking down the street and a woman suddenly grabs my arm to ask what my tattoo meant (a compass compass with some intricate design)…I hesitated to talk to her at first, but 20 minutes later it became a conversation about everything philosophical, cultural and the meaning of life. I was a little concerned at some point this was a setup (there are a lot of sneaky pick pockets on the streets of Cartagena), but in the end I was amazed how strangers will just stop to talk to you like that…As a defensive traveler, you have to be cautious about these type of things but it’s all part of the experience…be cautious but just go for it!

  11. I was walking down the street in Bangkok when a random Thai woman just struck up a conversation with me. I don’t even remember what the first bit was about, but we kept talking and she eventually invited me on a boat tour of the Bangkok Noi area. We had a great time checking out the sights, feeding the magical fish and just talking about Thai culture and the like. She was from Krabi in the southern part of the country and was just visiting Bangkok too, so it was neat experiencing it both as a foreign tourist/traveler along with a bit of perspective from someone from that country who was also experiencing it for the first time. One of the best parts of my time in Bangkok.

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