It’s easy to chat with other travelers when you’re staying at hostels, but how do you start conversations with the locals? It’s time to turn off the iPod, close the Lonely Planet, and go meet some people. Here are some tricks I use for striking up conversations while on the road:
If there’s a counter, sit at it. Tables are for people who want to be left alone while they eat. Counters are for people who want to interact. Simple as that.
Become a regular. Have lunch at a place one day and have dinner there the next. In Yellowstone there are “geyser gazers” who come every summer to watch the geysers. They hang out with each other, and some are a bit stand-offish with the tourists … They’re probably tired of explaining the same thing over and over. It took some patience, but after two weeks the most aloof of them turned to me and said “I’ve been seeing you around a lot lately.” It was, of course, the day before I left, but was still it was a fun conversation with one of the local geyser experts.
Find groups who meet up to do the things you like to do. Libraries and independent bookstores are a good place to find notices about meetings. I like to find craft groups and join them while I’m in town. In the US, meetup.com is an excellent website for this as well: there are meet-up groups for everything from hiking to photography to real estate investing. Sign up, specify a location, and search for keywords, or just browse through the groups.
Ask questions. Sure you could search the internet to find a laundromat, but you could also ask the clerk at the grocery store. Which do you think will be more interesting? I like to ask about places to eat, saying, “I’m traveling through. Do you have a favorite restaurant in town? Where’s the best place for a piece of pie/pizza/homemade biscuits?”
Take advantage of the visitors’ centers. Yeah, I know, it’s sort of a manufactured interaction since the whole reason they’re there is to tell you about the place, but wait … that’s perfect. The whole reason they’re there is to tell you about the place! Instant conversation and information. (Plus there’s often coffee and sometimes wifi.).
Take a tour. Sure, paying money for day trips isn’t very indie, but many museums and national parks give free or cheap tours. Not only do you get to learn cool stuff, but you also have an hour or two of opportunities to chat to the people on the tour.
Get a dog, sprain your wrist or learn to make lace. My favorite way to start a conversation with a stranger is to get them to start it for me. Dogs are an instant conversation starter. As one traveler put it, “I’ve traveled with my dog and I’ve traveled with my wife. I meet a lot more people when I’m traveling with my dog.”
I sprained my wrist a couple of months ago and I was amazed at how many people started a conversation by seeing my brace and asking me what happened. Luckily (?) what happened was not something boring like carpal tunnel, but a bike accident while cruising down a mountain in Colorado. It left me with a bunch of other scars to show off and a cool story to tell. While I don’t recommend crashing your bike at 25mph, if you DO have carpal tunnel it might be a good idea to invent a cool story about biking the Rockies. You can steal mine if you want. I don’t mind. I’ve got photographic proof that it happened to me.
My number one conversation starter? Tatting. I’ve written about this a couple of times on my website. Tatting is a way of making lace which, I confess, I’m addicted to. It fits in my pocket and I can work on it no matter where I am. People ALWAYS ask about it. Knitting and crocheting are great for this too, and you don’t even need to speak the same language. I’ve shown tatting to North African men in Italy and Armenian women in Los Angeles. No matter where in the world you are, there are people who do crafts and want to talk about them.
As a final tip, I recommend keeping a blog. This won’t actually help you to meet people, but it’s nice to tell them about a website if you want to keep in contact. Email works as well, but reading your website and leaving a comment is much less intimidating to someone you’ve just met who doesn’t necessarily have anything in particular to say, but wants to follow your travels.
That’s what works for me. How do you meet the locals?