What to do when you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again when traveling.
I really enjoy reading your articles. I was wondering if you can write something about how you deal with all the random people constantly asking you the very, very same questions.
I have to admit that I don’t really know how to deal with it, since on the one hand, those people are just interested in this stranger with whom they maybe even practice their basic English, but on the other hand most of the times it is just annoying, because after the basics there is not much more coming. Are you always happy about those conversations hoping that at the end you are hearing or learning something or how do you feel about that?
Also those random “Hello, Mister! How are you?”-shouts?
Yes, those repetitive questions are one of the more onerous aspects of world travel. Hostels and backpacker bars especially are flooded with people talking about the same things over and over and over again. Everybody eventually gets annoyed with this, but most keep doing it anyway — apparently for lack of anything better to ask. But interacting with locals is often no different, and if you don’t make something of the conversation and dig deeper they are more often than not going to lead in circles:
“Where are you from?”
“What do you do?”
“What do you think of [country you’re in]?”
“Do you like [country you are in’s] women?”
“Do you like [name of politician]?”
On and on.
People everywhere are in a perpetual hunt for things to talk about with each other. As you state in your question, you are bored of the conversations you are having. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this: everybody is bored with the conversations they are having. Gossip, Facebook, reality shows, sitcoms, sports, the news are so popular all over the world for a reason: they give people stuff to talk about.
Travel is a global exercise in meeting new people, and these baseline questions is just part of the territory. There is no way to avoid it other than not talking with people or not traveling. You don’t get these questions in the sedentary life because everybody knows the answers already.
But while these same old, same old questions can be annoying, you generally need a groundwork of understanding with someone before you can really have a good conversation. So those irritating inquiries serve a function. After they are over, you can take things deeper.
I always view it as my responsibility to make a conversation worthwhile. Then again, my work is based around asking people questions and collecting their responses. If I was just traveling around the world, having conversations for kicks, I probably wouldn’t engage a tenth of the people I end up talking to. In point, I found that it helps to have a reason to talk with people, a purpose for making temporary friends. If it’s your mission to find out as much information as possible about a country then most all conversations with locals can be engineered to have value.
To these ends, I carry around an ever-evolving list of questions with me to ask the various people I meet. When my natural, off the cuff, conversations go a bit dry I consult my list (which I also try to have memorized) and dive into various topics that I am interested in learning more about. In this way, my conversations all too often become impromptu interviews.
It is my opinion, and I could be wrong here, that the main impetus to travel is to learn about the world we live in, so having set objectives helps me to move forward with this endeavor. Though I’m sure it helps that I have an endgame for these inquires: I write articles that draw from the responses I receive.
To get technical about my strategy, I always carry a small notebook with me that has a page that is specifically for lists of topics that I want to talk with people about in a particular place. Before entering into a social situation, or sometimes when I am in the process of conversing, I will open up the notebook and glance at this list. I will then try to naturally include these topics in my conversations. Often, people seem to enjoy me taking an interest in them, their country, and culture, and simply showing an initiative to learn more is enough to open doors and drive the interaction deeper.
Humans are natural teachers.
My current list of topics for China:
Where do you want to be in five years, in ten
Do a survey to gaugue the state of this culture
Collision between tradition and modernity
Mobile public chatting
Anxiety about the future
These lists are always changing and evolving. When I want to learn about something else I add it to the list, after I collect a good amount of information on one topic I will try to focus on others.
There is also a general rule of humanity that makes these inquiries possible:
People everywhere tend to like talking about themselves.
As I stated earlier, sedentary people don’t ask each other basic types of personal questions because they think they already know the answers. So take advantage of being an outsider, ask people about their lives, and chances are you will be giving them an opportunity to talk about things they don’t usually get to talk about. I’ve had people tell me stories that they have never bothered mentioning to even their families, and it is not uncommon for someone’s kid to exclaim with surprise: “He/ she never even told me about that before?”
In point, showing an interest and asking questions can become a stimulating venture all parties involved.
What is even more exhilarating is that once it becomes known in a place that you have an interest in what is going on, more people will come out to engage you. Ideally, what I want is to give people something to talk about. I want them to talk with their families and friends about the foreigner who asked a bunch of fool questions and took a lot of photos. This opens doors for my work.
Give people something to talk about and they will answer your fool questions.
My conversational shtick is based on being the fool. I go out acting ignorant and try to get people to show and teach me. If I go out in the streets acting as a know everything already I will learn nothing.
It is amazing to me how many travelers are bent on telling the world the way things are. These people learn nothing because they are always talking, not listening. And they are seldom heard. Everybody already knows how the world works. You are not going to convince anybody of anything, whether it’s politics, religion, or attempting to show that people from your country are different than they think. What I find interesting is discovering worldviews that are different from my own. So I try to act foolish and I go out looking for people to “learn me.” At the end of the day I often come out ahead.
When you’re someplace new, surrounded by a culture you’re not familiar with, and people you’ve never met before it is almost impossible to have mundane conversation. Just stick to the basics: who? what? where? why? when? how?
My biggest problem comes when interacting with other Americans of my peer group who see me as “one of them.” I can no longer enact my fool routine and must interact in more of a “normal” fashion. There are many questions that I can’t ask because it’s assumed that I already know the answers. These interactions are hit or miss for me. If the other person listens well and is also an inveterate question asker on a perpetual hunt for information and knowledge then we will more than likely hit it off well. If not, then the conversation will probably not go very far. 9 out of 10 times this situation ends up being the latter.
But, generally speaking, I don’t travel to hang out with people from my own or similar countries. If I wanted to do this I would go to the USA or Canada. So I tend to not put an emphasis on frequenting traveler hang outs. I have nothing against them, I just don’t find them the best places to go to have good conversation.
Ultimately, f you have nothing to say to someone then there is no fault in not talking to them anymore. It’s OK to sit silently.
That said, it is easy to fall out of the conversational loop when traveling abroad long term. If you’re not watching the same sitcoms, the same sporting events, reading the same websites as the people around you then it is going to be hard to connect. So I find out about the popular TV shows or music in the country that I am in and try to follow them. As far as communicating from people from a similar background as myself, I try to keep up on the news and sports in the USA and Europe. At the very least, this provides some conversational fodder and common ground to connect with people through.
Developing good conversation skills
It seems to be as if there are two types of conversation:
1) Interrogative – asking questions about something you don’t know.
2) Discussion – talking about something you share in common with somebody.
Mastering both types of conversation is an art. To be blunt, having a good conversation takes preparation effort. Once you are living a life where you are not having experiences in common with the people around you you’re going to need to look for other things to talk about. As I mentioned earlier, having a list of topics that you’re interested in learning more about is one way; educating yourself about what other people are interested in is another.
Conversation skills are cultivated from years of experience, and older travelers tend to have better conversations than young. Many people are simply not willing to put in the legwork to have good conversations or they have not yet built these skills (or even realize that this is a skill set they should be building), and there is nothing you can do about that.
The problem is if it is you that needs to work on conversation skills. Conversations go two ways. If you’re bored talking to someone then rest assured that they are more than likely equally bored talking to you. As the great Bill Nye the Science Guy once said:
“If you ever say that you are bored what you are essentially saying is that you are boring.”
Make the most of the people around you. Just about everyone can teach you something if you ask the right questions. It’s good practice to try to take a mundane and otherwise boring conversation that twist it into something that’s interesting.
I traveled with a friend once who got so sick of being asked the same conversations over and over again that he would just flip the switch and come back with the most random, probing questions he could think of.
“Do you believe in God?”
In the end, it is my impression that conversations are more about connecting with people than anything else. They don’t always need to be good to be worthwhile. Simply engaging someone verbally is often enough to satisfy some deep social need.
Most people in this world are talking gibberish to each other most of the time. One of the most amazing things about learning a foreign language is when you get to the point where you can understand the conversations that are happening around you and you realize that they are 90% bullshit. Good conversations are rare everywhere. It’s the connecting, not the content, that counts.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
May 23, 2013, 11:06 am
Well, I just typed quite a long comment, but somehow it got lost while posting it 🙁
I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about that topic. I like the idea with the list and I’ll try it out.
In my first message I also asked quickly “Also those random “Hello, Mister! How are you?”-shouts?”. You did not say something about that, so I’ll formulate that a little bit longer: I noticed, especially here in Indonesia (I don’t know how it is in China…), that many people ask quickly “Hello, Mister! How are you?”, when you walk by, sometimes even shouting from the other side of the street or off a motorcycle.
It is a little bit annoying I think, but just ignoring them, I think is rude, too. I usually just smile at them, especially those, who walk by close to you, because if I answer, they often start to try out the other few words English they know: Name, Country etc. Then it would be even more rude to just ignore them.
Unfortunately I am not interested in starting a conversation every few minutes, especially if I want to get somewhere…
I don’t know why they do that (I just noticed actually I never asked someone about that, so I’ll do that tomorrow), but my assumption is, that they want to practice their English or think it is polite. An exception are groups of young boys I noticed who somehow think it is funny to just shout all English words they picked up so far to you…
Usually no-one wants to sell you something here!
I guess you have been in similar situations and I hope to read what you think about that and maybe getting a new perspective like I did reading this article you wrote here 🙂
May 24, 2013, 4:48 am
Thanks for responding here. Yes, I had a little section about the people who yell hello at ya in the streets, but I cut it out because that’s a little off topic and I’m going to do another article about that soon.
Basically, the “hello, hellos,” are often just catcalls. I don’t respond to them, unless it’s clear that someone really wants to talk to me. When they are just making noises at me like an animal in a zoo I really don’t play along. It’s annoying. If someone really wants to talk with me they would come up and have a real conversation and not just shout greetings.
June 27, 2013, 3:35 pm
Try being a remotely attractive woman abroad – talk about annoying. We get all the above attention on top of sexual harassment. Just count your blessings, smile and be glad you aren’t stuck at some desk job in the Midwest. 😉
- VagabondJourney May 24, 2013, 4:48 am
May 26, 2013, 7:33 am
Some of the questions that annoy me in China are when people ask me how much a home or an iPod or some other luxury consumer product costs in America (where it costs less) or when someone criticizes American foreign policy right when I first meet them, as if I’m representative of American foreign policy. I be okay with talking about that later on in the conversation, if they are interested in a conversation. A few times last year, people even brought up Diaoyu Dao using the corollary Japanese are guizi, and U.S. is allied with Japan, thus Americans are also guizi.
May 26, 2013, 7:42 am
Yes, I had some girl ask me how much a bottle of some kind of specialty skin whitening cream cost in the US and looked at me like I was strange because I had no idea. Right on, when people dive into a political conflict right away I get out of there! Well, unless they seem sufficiently crazy to give me something to write about.
- VagabondJourney May 26, 2013, 7:42 am