The fear of talking to strangers

Henry Moore Hatfield

Today I completed an email interview for another site. One of the questions required me to give a piece of advice to new inexperienced travellers. Instinctively I wrote that we shouldn’t be shy in talking to strangers; the encounters that result will almost always provide us with our most cherished travel memories. I absolutely believe this to be true; yet talking to strangers is something I really struggle with.

I gather from talking to others (not strangers obviously) that I’m not alone in my social unease. With this in mind I thought I would share a few suggestions for those who are keen but anxious to ignore their parents and teachers and start talking to strangers (taking sweets from strangers is another matter entirely).

Some places are better than others for sparking those random introductions. Hotel or guest house breakfasts, notoriously quiet affairs at the best of times, often involve us sitting next to strange people and munching away in silence. A simple opening gambit of ‘Are you planning anything nice today?’ can break the tension and start a lengthy conversation that may even provide some valuable tourist tips. This question does not work so well with someone travelling on business who is about to spend 10 hours in an office, so choose your target with care.

Another excellent place to talk to strangers is in a park. Sit on a bench and sooner or later someone will plonk themselves next to you. Depending on where you are in the world and the age/sex/appearance of your newly acquired bench-mate, a conversation about the weather, sport or teenage fashion may be appropriate. The big advantage of this location for meeting strangers is that you are most likely to encounter local people who can provide a precious insight into life in Tirana/Lima/Middlesborough. Be careful though: depending on the age gap, your choice of overcoat and the proximity of the nearest public toilets, your attempts at engaging with your new local friend might be mistaken for something different.

There are places where speaking to strangers is never a good idea. Nowhere is this more clear cut than on the London Underground. Eye contact alone will mark you out as something of a loose cannon; if you dare to speak to a stranger the suspicions of all around you will be instantly confirmed. Expect many awkward shuffles away from you and heads buried deep inside quickly opened newspapers.

I suspect opening a conversation with a stranger is much like sky-diving (I find neither activity comfortable but have successfully managed to avoid at least one). As with leaping out of a plane, you need to just let go of your inhibitions. Start a conversation with a mild, neutral opening and the chances are that the other person will happily join in. After all, they are probably just as shy and only too happy that you came forward to break the ice.


Author Information

Freelance travel writer

7 Responses to “The fear of talking to strangers”

  1. My issue is knowing what to chat about. My top tip is to talk about travel. Amazing how many people start to feel more at ease when you start chatting about where they’ve been or where they’re going. Of course you have to be arsed talking to them in the first place. Listening helps with chats too….

    November 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm
  2. I was in souther Spain last winter, and had an amazing conversation with a homeless guy.
    I was sitting on a bench in a square in Cadiz when this giant of a Dutchman strolled over and in several languages asked for some change.
    He was extremely articulate and intelligent and I had an absolutely fascinating conversation with one of the most charming people I’ve ever met.
    Appearances can be very deceiving.

    November 16, 2011 at 5:35 pm
  3. I think it’s hard to speak to strangers in most public transport modes around the world.

    I really like the park idea! I remember sitting by the waterside once, writing, and some teenagers wanted to find out what I was doing. Great way to start a conversation as well! Ask someone for writing input or something lol.

    Anyway, thanks for this article!

    November 17, 2011 at 8:06 am
  4. Andy,

    I’m a talker and love to talk to people I don’t know. Just start by saying hello, how are you doing? Oftentimes, the person is just as scared to say hello. What’s even more powerful, is to do a random act of kindness for them :-).

    I’ve spoken to people on the Underground, but you are right, people don’t talk much on public transportation, but I’ve done it :-).

    I recall one morning I was on my way to Heathrow and this drunk girl was on the train and she got us all to converse; it was brilliant!

    I’m always curious as to where people are going and what brought them to out meeting point. So I’m eager to say hello, without being creepy. Sitting in a park waiting for a stranger to talk to is kind of creepy :-).

    November 17, 2011 at 7:45 pm
  5. Jim #

    Heartily agree. As a solo traveller, some of my best travel experiences have been when I have taken the time to speak to complete strangers. Last year in New York City I attended a concert at B.B. Kings Bar and Grill and shared a table with a couple of locals who invited me to their apartment later the following week for drinks, and then took me out for dinner. Neil and Pat shared a fascinating history together and I was delighted to make their acquaintance.

    Other examples: sharing a nine hour cruise up the Hudson River with a young woman from Queens; and another cruise on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia with a German who could not speak a word of English. Somehow we managed to communicate for several hours despite his non-English and my *very* limited German.

    November 18, 2011 at 1:45 am
  6. Thanks to all for the valuable comments. It’s great to hear of these random encounters – encouragement indeed for those who are shy or nervous about starting that conversation. I remember a long conversation we had in China with a man on a train where our only common language was French, which neither of us spoke well. The whole carriage were passing questions through him to us after a while.. very entertaining.

    November 21, 2011 at 8:19 am
  7. Yen #

    I find it always easier to speak to the person next to you on a long-haul train or plane ride. Majority of the time they are willing to talk to you happily, because they have nothing else to do. However, with more planes having Personal TVs in front of every seat, it is sad that everyone just stares at the monitor and does not engage in any conversations. For those situations, I find it is easiest to engage the conversation during meal times, when people take off their headphones to tell the flight attendant what they want (Chicken or Beef?).

    The most important part is just to smile wherever you are. Guys, don’t try to play it cool and act like you’re a special agent or something. I find too many young men do that nowadays.

    Thank you for the great article Andy.

    January 9, 2012 at 4:36 am