The art of talking to anyone you meet when traveling – The Boston Globe

Despite all the information available on our screens, you can’t replace human interactions when you’re traveling. Sometimes you’re asking simple questions to find out the essential stuff: which train to get on, where to find a good cup of coffee, and whether you’re allowed to feed the wild monkeys or if they might bite your hand off. Other times, you want to feel a deeper connection and get a richer understanding of the place and its culture, perhaps even make a new friend. Or maybe you just want to stave off loneliness and homesickness. To help make these exchanges as smooth as possible, here are nine tips on how to create fulfilling conversations no matter where you go in the world.
Many people get tense, nervous, even fearful when they are outside their comfort zone. It can be unnerving to be in a new place full of strangers, where you might be unfamiliar with the customs and unable to speak the local language. “The more unfamiliar the surroundings, the more likely people are to give into amygdala thinking, the oldest part of the brain that views the world through fear and threat,” says Celeste Headlee, author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.” “When that happens, you are not thinking logically anymore, you’re not using executive decision making, and you’re not going to have a good time.” To combat jitters, Judy Apps, author of “The Art of Conversation: Change Your Life with Confident Communication,” recommends simply taking several long, slow breaths in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Unless you’re seeking specific information from someone, keep the topic of your initial interaction mundane: the weather, events unfolding around you, what you’re eating. If you choose the latter, be curious and respectful; never describe foods as “weird,” “exotic,” or “scary.” Steer clear of politics; even current events can be fraught. Apps warns to never ask what people do for a living; in many cultures it is considered rude because it’s connected to class. Definitely don’t crack a joke to start. “Most people think they’re funny and very few people are,” says Headlee. “And when you’re traveling, humor rarely translates.”
There are two rules for devising a good question: the respondent knows the answer and they care about what they’re discussing. Ask them about what they’re wearing; their tattoos; the place they live; their favorite restaurants; a good place to take a walk to get a sense of where you’re visiting. “And that takes the pressure off you in terms of your anxiety,” says Headlee. “If you’re asking questions, you’re not worried about what you’ll say, you’re focused on what they’ll tell you.”
A robust conversation involves give and take. If someone asks you a question, Apps advises tacking on one of your own at the end of the response. Don’t answer simply “yes” or “no.” Even a basic question like, “Have you been here before?” can be answered, “No, I haven’t. Do you come here often?”
Generally, Americans consider silent stretches in conversations socially awkward, so we tend to fill any gaps in the flow. This is not true around the world, where quiet moments are the custom, so slow down the pace of your interaction. “In many Asian countries, it’s very normal for someone to leave a long period of silence, but they haven’t given up the floor,” says Apps. “It can be interpreted as rude when an American jumps in thinking the person is done speaking.”
No matter how carefully you tread in conversations with strangers, it’s still possible you may accidentally offend someone personally, culturally, or politically. When it happens, don’t say you didn’t intend to offend, because your intention doesn’t matter, and don’t argue about whether what you said was offensive or not. Instead, quickly acknowledge and accept your mistake. Headlee counsels asking for an explanation about the root of your inadvertent offensiveness, so you don’t make the same mistake again.
If you’re visiting a foreign country, brush up on a few helpful phrases, such as “thank you,” “hello,” and “I don’t speak your language, but I would love to learn some words.” “I have found in my travels that when you tell someone you are trying to learn their language, they open up,” says Headlee. “They’re so happy to hear from a native English speaker who actually wants to learn their language. That in and of itself can start a conversation.”
You don’t have to wait to go on a trip to practice talking with strangers. Apps suggests striking up conversations in everyday situations — in line at the grocery store, queueing to get into an event, or while waiting for an appointment to begin. You’ll be able to go over all the steps in the process in a low-stakes environment. Even if it doesn’t go well, “give yourself credit for trying,” says Apps.
Remember amygdala thinking, where the world is viewed through fear and threat? Well, positive social interactions tend to calm down that part of your brain. “Good conversations tend to engage the more evolved parts of your brain,” says Headlee. “They’re going to up your mood, increase your energy, and make you more compassionate and patient, while making it more likely you will take risks, try new things, and enjoy it. Ultimately, you’re going to enjoy your trip more.”

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