A new friendship is the best souvenir you can get from travelling. Experiencing the sights and cuisine with locals is tremendously enjoyable, but in a foreign country with odd customs and a new language, it can be hard to break through and meet people. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned during my own travels.
1. Don’t Start With “You Speak English?”
-This is a pet-peeve for many and, in a way, it shows a lack of respect; you’re in their country but you don’t want to speak their language. People understand that you’re not going to be fluent, but starting with a nice “Bonjour” or “Ciao” and explaining that you’re travelling will show the locals you’re flexible and willing to learn from them. They'll be nicer to you because of it.
2. Be Friendly, But Don’t Make Too Many Jokes
-While it might seem like weird advice, you can only know this one from experience. Senses of humor differ greatly from country to country and especially between languages. I once had a Bulgarian man try to tell some classic jokes from his country and they were nothing like I expected. (Much longer stories and more abrupt punchlines) A smile can go a long way, but all it takes is a misplaced joke about a smell or a family member and you’re screwed. It’s really easy for a mistranslation to escalate.
3. Welcome Cultural Differences
-Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When you’re in a foreign land with wildly different customs, you should always follow and respect their rules, but you don’t have to agree with them. If someone mentions their religion over lunch, that isn’t an invitation to debate; the world is covered with differing opinions and viewpoints for every issue, millions of people think you’re beliefs are just as weird as you think theirs are. Main message: everybody's different, accept it.
4. Don’t Treat People Like Strangers
-Chances are you won’t be in the same location for very long while traveling; at times it can seem hard to feel relaxed around people you just met. What I do is imagine new friends are actually relatives I haven’t seen in a while, I don’t feel like I need to impress anyone that way. The absolute best way I’ve seen to get to know someone quickly is over dinner. My first night in Italy we ate outside from 7pm until 11pm chatting and learning about each other’s countries, by the next morning we felt at home with each other immediately.
5. Remember Where You’re From, It Matters
-We still live in a world full of nationalism and stereotypes, so even if you treat everyone else well that doesn’t mean they will. I’m from the U.S., trust me, everyone has a strong opinion about my country. If I were living in Japan or Italy that wouldn’t be a problem; they usually really like Americans, but if I went to Jordan or Palestine you better believe I’m saying I’m from Canada. When you’re meeting new people abroad, always consider if there’s any reason their country might have a bad impression of yours.
6. Keep It Simple
-Making friends is easy wherever you go; just stick to talking about food, weather, or sports and you’ll be fine. Try to avoid conversations about religion, politics, and money with people you don’t know well; those are the big three that everyone gets upset talking about. A smile and manners go a long way.
There they are, my six tips to making friends while on the road. Personally, #4 is my go to. Thanks for reading, have a good one. Adam