Talking to Strangers

In Canada, we’re taught “stranger danger” from a very young age.  It’s deeply ingrained in our consciousness that talking to strangers is not what one does.  People look at you funny if you do.

Travelling alone can be an isolating experience.  In the “here to there”, we’re left without roots, structure, or responsibility.  There’s just the hope of where we’re going and the grief of where we’ve left.  It’s relaxing — but also lonely, especially if you don’t have a friend.

I started talking to strangers because it felt healthy.  Most people when they get on a plane look straight ahead and don’t introduce themselves to the people they’re sitting with.  Headphones go on or eyes close and nothing gets said for 12 hours of being together.  It’s actually weird and awkward if you think about it.

I disciplined myself to make a habit of introducing myself to people around me.  Handshake, smile, and name — it’s easy, and not awkward at all!  Sometimes it opens the door for more conversation, sometimes not.  Either way, you’ve broken the ice and the awkwardness is gone.  There’s more small talk that can be made travelling than just about anywhere else.  “Where are you going?  Why did you come?  Do you travel much?” are a few questions to get you started.

You meet interesting people and sometimes even make a friend.  Musicians, business people, journalists, high and low class — all with stories to tell.  I’ve had invitations to people’s homes in places where I’ve gone, just from being friendly.  People like friendly people — stranger danger is the exception, not the rule.  There’s no better way to get to know a new city than to meet some new friends who show you around!

Try it!  It’ll make your travel experience far richer — guaranteed.

8 thoughts on “Talking to Strangers

  1. I like the ideas you want to promote because I view humans as naturally friendly and cooperative. That puts me in the tradition of Locke and not of Hobbes. Whether or not it works cross culturally or not, however, gives me pause. I just finished the anthropologist Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English. Her research suggests that the English are highly adverse to conversation with strangers. That reluctance has little to do with the parent to child injunction about stranger danger, but to a national shyness and social awkwardness that manifests itself everywhere in English culture. Of course, she is specifically talking about the English, not other Brits. Americans and Canadians are generally less reserved and more open, but those traits can be regarded as pushing and brashness by some cultures.

    There are standards of social etiquette in every culture, and one has to work within them. You know that having spent your youth in South Asia. In Morocco, all kinds of ritual govern who says what to whom and how depending on your social class, age, sex, and religion. Not knowing it doesn’t usually result in horrible gaffes, but it does identify you as much as anything.

    So I guess I would say myself, be as friendly and open as you can, within the confines of the culture. I have taken trains across Canada a couple of times and some long ship journeys. They would have been even longer had they occurred in silence!

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    1. You’re right, it doesn’t work in every culture, particularly across genders. Generally I have found though that the places I’ve gone have a much bigger public space where it is acceptable to talk to people that you don’t know than Canada does. Although that could just be because I’m a foreigner 🙂

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      1. Yes, being a foreigner has privileges and its liabilities. I’d like to be a citizen of the world, if only there were such a thing. In the meantime, I’ll just work on not being too annoying.

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  2. It is an interesting idea. The actor Danny Kaye while on a plane had a conversation with a passenger next to him who happened to be a UNICEF executive which lead to a life long involvement with the charity. By the same token one airline got in trouble when it tried to encourage people via messages on napkins to leave their number with other passengers to try and help facilitate connections.

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  3. Airline conversations are often surprising. The Peace Corps volunteer I shared a house with in Sefrou, returned home for a month before doing a fourth year. On the way back to Casablanca from New York he asked the man in the seat next to him why he was visiting Morocco. The fellow replied that he was going to Casablanca for a sex change operation. Who would have guessed that? Certainly not us nor any of our Moroccan friends in our little provincial city in the mountains!

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