I’ve been on the road for 4 months now. Travelling for this length of time is great – what an adventure! – but it can come with some fatigue. I find myself having the same conversations over and over again and it’s tiresome. We travel to gain valuable life experience and see strange, wonderful things but sometimes we sound like a boring bunch when we talk. So here are the top tips for starting, having and maintaining great conversations with other nomads, whilst on the road!
- Where are you from?
This cliche question is the most common conversation starter from backpackers. And it gets a little boring after you’ve answered it for the hundredth time this trip.
Try guessing where someone is from, instead of asking. That way you can make it into a game for yourself and it forces you to listen closely to the other person talking, which will help you actively listen. If you simply cannot think of any other way to start the conversation, without asking where someone is from, then it is important that you follow up the question to avoid conversational boredom.
“Oh, you are from Austria. Nice. I have never been but I think my mother used to visit there when she was a ski instructor…”.
If you simply ask where someone is from, get your answer and just nod, that is not a conversation, it is an inquisition and it is very boring for the person answering you.
2. How long have you been travelling?
This question is conversation junk food. It is filler and is of no value to either person, unless it is relevant to previous parts of the conversation.
For example, I might say that I’ve been having a great time backpacking but now I am ready to go home. And the other person might legitimately say something like…
“Oh really, have you been travelling for quite a long time then?”.
Try instead to ask a person what style of travel they like? Such an open question could have many different responses. For me personally…
“I like to slow travel, read a lot, do some writing, not too much sightseeing. But I really want to get a flavour for a place. Hang out in some cafes and bars. Chat to a few locals. Try the food and listen to the music. Some people are surprised that I don’t try very hard to see the sights or go on many tours but if you’ve seen one night market, you’ve seen them all, right?”
3. Where have you been?
Do you want me to tell you a long and boring list of places? It would be very easy to turn this into an interesting question.
Try instead: Where are the best places you’ve been? or: Where do you recommend that I go? This differently phrased question allows the person answering to apply the creative side of their brain, adding their own thoughts and opinions to the question, rather than just listing off places they’ve been from the memory side of their brain.
4. What do you do for a living?
Generally people travel to escape the 9 to 5. Why remind them of it!
“What do you do in life?”.
I though that was a brilliant question. Instead of talking about my boring job, I was telling him that I am a writer, that I blog, that I long to write a book one day, that I am an activist and interested deeply in system change, people power and peaceful revolution. It was a great question and we found a lot to talk about from it.
Also try: Tell me about your passions? or: What are you passionate about?
5. But how can I start a conversation if I am shy.
“Shyness is nice but shyness can stop you, from doing all the things in life that you’d like to” – from ‘Ask’ by The Smiths.
Please do not be self conscious if you have been using some or all of the questions that I have criticised above. If you have been, you are in the majority of travellers and that makes you normal.
But most people who travel, do so to help them develop. To grow more confident and capable in the world and so the purpose of this article is simply to assist that development in one small area – conversation.
I can be shy. Sometimes I am more shy than at other times. Maybe I am tired from hiking, or a long bus trip and I go inside my shell. Sometimes I am hungover and feel a little delicate.
When this happens, it is best to approach people one on one for conversations. Find a conversation opener that works for you. You can use the same thing with lots of different people and they don’t mind, so long as it is not the same boring thing that everyone else is asking.
Top tip: Find something to compliment the person you are approaching for a chat. People like compliments, so it starts the conversation in a very positive way. I just looked up, whilst I’m writing this and across from me is this guy, wearing a t-shirt with lots of tiny little flags on it. So for him I might say…
“I like your shirt. Have you been to every country on here?”
If you don’t like being the person who starts the conversation, then that is fine. Use you’re body language to tell people that you are interested and open to communicating with them. The simplest way to do this, is to smile at someone when you catch their eye. Your smile is without doubt the most valuable thing you can take travelling with you.
Note for Women: Sometimes female travellers can be concerned about smiling at males, because men can sometimes read to much into a simple smile, but if you are in a public place or hostel then this should be fine. A smile can be very disarming.
Note for Men: Be mindful that the female experience when travelling is very different, particularly for solo female travellers. When meeting these type of travellers, it’s great to invite them along to things but be mindful of what and where. To go hiking with you alone at sunrise is probably not appropriate. But to invite a solo female traveller to a public place, for a meal or along with friends to a group activity together is great.
6. Use open body language. You can communicate, even with those who cannot speak the same language with good body and sign language.
7. Use positive language to keep the conversation tone good.
8. Avoid confrontational topics if you are not confident discussing them BUT if you approach them in a sensitive and polite way then these can be great conversational topics.
9. If something is interesting to you, then you are more likely to talk passionately, which makes for a really great talking point.
10. Be aware of cultural differences. Read up on local customs, i.e. Save Face is a common trait in Asia.
11. Do not take offence, if someone says something you perceive as rude or incorrect. But do explain to them the issue that you have in a nice, calm and appealing manner.
Side note: Two Irish girls were singing in our taxi bus, on the way from our hostel to the bars on Koh Samui. One of the songs contained sectarian lyrics, praising the Irish Republican Army. As I am from Glasgow, sectarianism is a sensitive topic and is the cause of lots of historical violence in my city. When we arrived at the bars and had got a beer, I explained this to the two Irish girls. I said that I respected people who had the view that Ireland should be a unified country but that songs that glorified terrorism and violent people is offensive to me. We remained on good terms after that evening and had no further issue.
12. Carry a photograph of your family, loved ones or pets. This can be a great topic to talk about with people and adds a visual element to your conversation, which will make it more engaging.
13. Show people your travel photos, if they are relevant to the conversation but avoid showing too many and boring your new found friend.
14. Discussing religion can be a great topic when trying to understand other cultures and peoples but do avoid making judgements or strong opinions on this topic.
15. Don’t be rude. We all get a little tired or hungry or upset sometimes but there is no excuse for intentionally offending someone.
16. Be genuine. Express your personality and be honest – it’s far more interesting than being agreeable and misrepresenting yourself.
17. Respect those who don’t want to talk. Avoid trying to start a conversation with people who are reading or have headphones in. These are non-verbal signals that someone wants some alone time.