Seeing new sights, enjoying exotic food, and simply taking in the experience of being in a new place are the main reasons I love travel so much. The history, culture, and beauty of a new city or country always excite me. But there is one thing that has grown on me as I’ve traveled more: meeting new people.
Growing Comfortable with Conversation While Traveling
I don’t consider myself an extrovert. I also don’t consider myself an introvert, which is a bit odd. Good conversation can energize me, but so can sitting and reading a book. So the jury is out as far as personality goes. Things are always a continuum anyway, rather than an either-or choice. So maybe I’m right around the 50th percentile.
There is one change that has happened slowly over the past decade. I’ve grown more and more comfortable in my own skin, and conversations that previously intimidated me don’t really cause me much consternation anymore. I used to not really like “unwanted” conversation with people I don’t know. Now I find that it’s often an enjoyment. I still don’t pursue it as much as I probably could, but I’m much more open to it.
It has taken practice to enter a conversation with the simple goal of being friendly, engaged, and able to enjoy someone’s company. This will be a lifelong goal. The more I reflect on my communication habits, the more I realize how crappy they have been. So many times I’ve been quick to speak my mind, slow to listen, and quick to exit a conversation if I’m in a rush. Simply slowing down opens up possibility. It also reduces stress. Often, I realized I didn’t need to be in a hurry anyway. I often default to “mission mode” still (e.g. at airports). But I’m trying to slow down and enjoy the journey of life more. And this has made me more open to conversations.
Not everyone wants to engage, though. My trip to Colombia in January illustrates this well. I had one taxi driver in Bogota who barely said three words to me, even after I tried asking a couple questions. But I also had an excellent conversation with an Uber driver later that same day. My final evening included a great conversation with a bartender in Cartegena. Most importantly, I am content either way the conversations go. I’ll ask a couple questions. If there is no response, just let someone be.
Lean Into Openness
I don’t tell people all about myself. There may be the basic questions of where I live, what I do for a living, etc. More often I steer the conversation to where I am visiting. But I do express an honest interest and enjoy talking. Sometimes I learn a lot about people, if they are willing to open up. They may tell me all about how amazingly well their autistic kid has done during the COVID lockdowns. They may teach me some Spanish slang, which is súper chévere. Or they may somberly relay the reality of providing for impoverished family trapped in Venezuela.
You just need to be open. That’s honestly all it takes. If you don’t typically enjoy conversation, the initial discomfort will be a hurdle. But it’s only by pushing through discomfort that we actually grow. Growth, in multiple ways, is one of the best parts of travel.
What’s funny (or not funny) is that I treat conversation abroad differently than in the United States. Somehow I enjoy it far more in a foreign country. My mind is usually in a different state. It’s way too easy to get self-absorbed and busy in the U.S. especially during the day-to-day grind or on a busy work trip.
Bridging the Language Gap
Not knowing the local language is one of the biggest hurdles to having excellent conversations when abroad. It’s one reason I believe that learning at least a little language before you travel is vital. For some destinations, however, you don’t need to bother. Much of western and northern Europe are accessible to the English-speaking traveler, especially the Netherlands and the Nordic Countries. It’s one of our travel privileges.
Other places, however, will require you to struggle with the language if you want to have any sort of conversation. This can, of course, make it a bit awkward if you want to get to know the locals. But trying is the most important thing. You could have full command of the language, but if you are disinterested in getting to know your hotel waiter or Uber driver, what’s the point?
If you enjoy visiting Latin America, consider learning Spanish. There are quite a few countries where this language will serve you well, and it is one of the easiest to learn for an English speaker. If you have your sights set on a different language, go for it. It may seem daunting, but you won’t know how well you’ll do until you truly try.
Struggle. Stick your neck out. Learn some language basics and give conversation a try. I doubt you’ll regret it
You never know the awesome moments you might have while traveling. A couple months ago I had an encounter on an Amtrak trip that completely changed my day, in a good way. I’ve done other “crazy” things in the past, up to and including picking up hitchhikers while traveling in my own state. The conversation is rarely dull. All you have to do is try.