This writer has been talking to strangers his whole life. He has told stories, heard stories and immortalized stories in his mind as mementos of his travels. Step outside your comfort zone and you, too, can reap the benefits of global conversation.
The preteen boy paused outside the closed door to the six-seat compartment on the express train to Ljubljana, Slovenia. I was the only one inside, and I motioned him in. He greeted me in Slovenian, and I responded in English. “I can speak English,” he said proudly. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, I learned a lot about him, including how he came to speak English so well: “I ride my bike to the video store in the next village — 10 kilometers,” he explained. “I really like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
That chance encounter happened 21 years ago, but my ability to recall it speaks to the power of talking to strangers — what I’ve long abbreviated as T-t-S — as a huge benefit of travel. After nearly a half-century of flying, I still talk to seatmates. Mind you, years of experience come in handy; assuming I’ve got time to chat, I can quickly assess if the person in seat 20A seems to have time as well. And if I start a conversation I want to end, earphones quickly come to my rescue.
I’ve had countless animated talks in the sky, including a recent visit with an Oklahoma City pediatrician named Mary Anne that was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had, anywhere, covering health-care policies, pride of place and a whole lot more.
Why do I talk to strangers? I’ve always thought of travel as more than seeing the sights or joining an event. Sights are great — I just spent a day in Paris, returning after many years to the Musée d’Orsay and ambling around the Arc de Triomphe — but they are, by definition, from the past. Many of us travel because we want to experience what the place is like today and to feel connected to daily life in the destination. It’s hard to be invited into a kitchen or a living room, but T-t-S can give you a feel for how people live.
That engagement with locals might be familiar to the older boomers who hitchhiked in the 1960s and ’70s, when openness and curiosity went with the territory. But you don’t have to be 60 or older to talk to strangers.
When in another country, T-t-S makes me feel like an ambassador for the United States. Those of you who travel overseas know that national identity can often get reduced to stereotypes or headline news. When I talk to strangers overseas, I like to think I’m helping them understand that we also feel connected to the wider world. I remember last December how appreciative a German couple around my age were after I hefted the woman’s suitcase into the overhead rack on the train to Berlin. A wonderful conversation then transpired about how much change we’ve seen in that city in 50 years.
You can be an ambassador within the U.S. too. We lived in Texas for 25 years, and I was proud of my adopted home, so when people in New England or California remarked, “You don’t sound like a Texan,” I pointed out that it is a state of enormous diversity. What does a Texan sound like, anyway?
If you travel by yourself, T-t-S can be a simple way to feel less lonely. I’ve been traveling extensively for decades, and although it’s familiar, it is occasionally isolating. A short conversation with a stranger can be a perfect way to feel more connected to your surroundings. My dad traveled for several decades, 30 or more weeks per year, and I know that his willingness to be outgoing — part of his salesman personality, perhaps — got him through many a lonely time.
But, truthfully, you don’t need a reason to engage in T-t-S. It’s just plain fun and never fails to bring a smile to my face.
You may be convinced that talking to strangers is a good idea, but you also might not know where to start. Getting a good conversation underway isn’t difficult. First, look for small ways to help. For decades, I’ve offered to snap a photo so the person holding the camera can be in the picture; most of the time, people appreciate the offer, which is a good T-t-S opening. Last fall, an elderly American couple sat next to me at dinner in Appenzell, Switzerland. They were having trouble with the menu, so I quietly offered some help and in turn launched a delightful chat. Strangers can be locals or they can be from your hometown (as the elderly couple was). Either way, a conversation will undoubtedly broaden your horizon.
Another T-t-S tip is finding conversation starters in what people wear and carry — logos and names say something about who we are or what we value: a university, a sports team, a little icon of a pet. Last month, I was eating dinner at a restaurant in Florida; the family at the next table was chatting animatedly, and I certainly didn’t want to interrupt. When they got up to leave, however, I spotted their sweatshirt, which read “Georgetown University.” When I mentioned that I teach there part time, we began a nice chat about the school, its history and its strong values.
The conversation-hook approach works the other way too. Last October in a coffee shop in Madison, Wis., Frank, nearly 80, spotted my T-shirt that said “Umeå University,” where I guest lecture in Sweden. He approached me and launched an enlightening T-t-S about his Swedish teaching experience, his long career and how good his life had turned out after a bumpy start.
If all else fails, project openness with a smile and body language, and attempt to learn a few words of the local language if you’re in a place where English is not primarily spoken. Practice a few phrases or try to pronounce a word you see on a sign, which can be a good way to start a conversation. Indeed, commenting out loud about something you see or hear can engage others.
Of course, even with these helpful hints in mind, I’m always prepared for failure. It’s not personal. Sometimes people are in a hurry, they’re not confident with their English or they just don’t want to talk. T-t-S is like anything else we learn: Practice makes perfect. At first, it might seem awkward or unnatural. Then positive reinforcement kicks in after a nice visit, and the next time it’s easier. Soon, you’ll be fluent.
If lifelong learning is what you’re after, talking to strangers will get you there.
Rob Britton, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., has worked in travel since 1969. He now teaches at Georgetown University and at business schools worldwide. He still travels a lot, and he always talks to strangers.