Approaching people I don’t know has admittedly never really been hard for me. I am extroverted and pretty bold, so when I need directions I look for the most trustworthy-looking stranger in the area. But actually engaging and talking with strangers is a different story.
In hostels, I have started up many conversations with strangers, about why they travel and where they had been. This was the way that I made friends along the road and found people to explore with me. Talking to locals can be more intimidating, but also more valuable. Speaking to strangers plays into the oldest form of gathering and sharing information, with those who come from a different perspective than yourself.
It can be very difficult to start a real conversation with someone you know nothing about. They could be weird or dangerous or just rude. You could look like a crazy person…or you could make a new friend, learn more about the places to which you are traveling, or gain better insight into the lives of others.
There’s nothing really to lose by just talking to someone, especially when you are lonely or traveling solo, but the vulnerability of approaching the unknown is scary. So…
Choose the right type of person.
One of the fears of talking to a stranger is that you’ll annoy them or that they will reject your friendship. This can usually be avoided. Simply choose someone who doesn’t look like they are in a rush or in a bad mood. If you are unsure if someone will talk to you or is in a good frame of mind, make eye contact and smile. If they smile back they are probably open to a conversation!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
A large part of talking to a stranger is listening. The goal is not to tell them all about your life, but to hear a small portion of theirs. Go beyond just introductions by diving for more important questions: Where are you going? What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this week? Who do you miss the most right now? What are you currently working to achieve?
These questions may seem like too much for a stranger, but that’s why they’re perfect. One may not feel comfortable asking these of an acquaintance or colleague, but with someone you don’t know is much more reasonable, plus it is way more interesting than small talk.
Remember that, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” (Dr. Seuss)
And no matter how big. It is essential to remember when meeting someone that they may be very different than you, but surely you have plenty in common. Even if you are a university student from Britain meeting a grandma in Asia, you may share emotions, values, and life experiences.
Recently I did a group activity where a line was read such as, “Step into the circle if you lost a loved one in the past year,” or “…if you grew up in a house with more than fifty books.” It went on and on, people stepping in and out of the circle. By the end, everyone had stepped in for something and for a few of the directions, either everyone or no one stepped in. This was an amazing way that I was able to see that the acquaintances around me had been through so much good and bad. Many of them shared personal experiences with me, even though our personalities or upbringings many have been completely different. So take this with you whenever you are around strangers, or even those you know.
Last fall, I was eating ice cream for dinner in the upscale town of Saint-Tropez in the South of France. I had been exploring with the other volunteers until we bought ice cream and sat down in a park. The town was empty in comparison with our last visit, when it was still summer and the moorings anchored many sailboats and even more yachts. Despite the quiet streets, the music of a nearby wedding spilled into the park. As I was watching the groomsmen play bocce ball, called boule in France, I noticed another figure looking on. He had a hiking backpack and there was a cardboard sign sticking out of the front. Now my curiosity was piqued and soon I was telling my friends that I would be back in a second.
I went to talk to the man, named Mikhel, who I soon saw was not too much older than me, under a mass of unkempt facial hair. He was so nice and happy to have someone to talk to. He was Estonian, but had simply decided one day that he would travel. Mikhel did not have a lot of money, so he began to walk. When I met him he had walked thousands of miles and planned to keep going all through Europe. (I wrote more about him here.) He shared story after story about the kindness of the people he had met along the way, and his techniques for surviving. I took in the stories, the tips, and the way his eyes shone speaking of a life on the road. When we decided it was time to go home, and we parted ways with the man who dreamt of walking across Europe, I was left with a conversation that lingered in my mind for months to come.
So when you are alone in the park and someone sits next to you, consider sharing a conversation. You may meet someone interesting. But you will never know that unless you ask.