This is the easiest way I’ve found to meet people when traveling.
I make a living off of bored people. I’ve learned to speak foreign languages because of bored people. A good bunch of the information that I obtain about places and cultures comes from bored people. My friends? Yes, my friends too are often bored people. If your objective in travel is to learn about places, people, customs, and language, look for the people who have time to teach you this stuff: look for bored people.
Before I began traveling I envisioned myself going around the world befriending cool people, getting invited into homes, meeting people who would show me their culture, banging girls in funny garb under banyan trees without needing to do anything other than show up and say “Here I am.” It doesn’t work that way. I quickly found out that just arriving in many places of the world and expecting to be befriended is a good way to be very lonely.
Meeting people is part of the work of travel, it requires a strategy, and sometimes takes planning and effort. It’s a game where you can chose to be the hunter or the hunted. You can either be the center of attention and draw people to you or you can approach others. The first method is good when traveling in remote locations where the people are curious in you. In these places you really can just show up and get attention. Though I found that most places require the more predatory route.
My best strategy is hunting bored people. I just walk down the street looking for them. I look for people who are stationary, tied to a location, who are not extremely busy, or those who are just hanging out, recreating. This is where I find them:
In restaurants outside of mealtimes. This is probably the best place to meet people. Just walk in and order a meal after the breakfast, lunch, dinner crowd has long departed and the clean up job is complete. You may piss off the waitstaff a little, as the only thing they probably want to do is stare off into their mobile phones or take a nap, not wait on you. But after they’re finished lamenting their fate and cursing the stupid gringo who doesn’t know what time to eat at, you can start talking. Just start asking questions. If you’re in a place where tourists tend not to go there is a good chance that the entire restaurant staff will come out and gather around you. This is good, it means they’re interested.
Bars are easy places to talk to people because people hanging out in these places are generally those who have nothing else to do: they too are looking for action, they are bored. I generally look for bars that tend to have a local clientele. “Old man bars,” is one way to describe them. I’m looking for the places that people go to drink and talk, not drink and score. These are often the places where the news of a place is shared. You can tap into this wire just by hanging out being friendly.
Find retired expats. As a group, expats are probably the bored-est people on earth. They often seem starved for people to talk to (i.e. talk at). Take advantage of this. Sure, many are bitter, self-absorbed complainers with cultural superiority complexes, but if you control the conversation you can often get them to tell you some interesting stories. The amount of truth they contain is often inversely proportional to how many empty beer bottles they have sitting in front of them — which will invariably be a lot.
Look for people working in places without customers. It is amazing how many people are employed in this world to essentially do nothing. The streets of many cities are streets of boredom. Walk into those little shops that nobody walks into and start asking questions about some of the things they are selling there. Shave off a few conversational sparks and see if it can ignite something. Oftentimes the person will just treat you like a very odd customer, but sometimes they have a mutual interest in you, and you can have a real conversation.
Hang out in cafes. Now, I feel that cafes are hit or miss places to meet people. It depends on what kind of cafe it is, the social class that goes there, and the broader culture you’re in. The Moroccan cafe scene is deeply ingrained in the culture, and cafes essentially take the place that bars do in some other countries. Albania is similar, but cafes and bars are basically the same thing there. These are some of the best places in the world to meet people, as they primarily attract people with little else to do but talk to people. Avoid doing this in cafes like Starbucks or in countries where people commonly go to cafes to work in their computers. Try meeting people in cafes in the USA and you’re just going to be annoying.
Talk to the person sitting next to you on airplanes. If you’re flying next to someone on a plane there is a reasonable chance that they are going to the same place you are. Maybe they live there or are even from there. Talk to them. Why not? There is this unspoken, middle class custom to not talk to people on airplanes, to be polite to strangers by pretending they don’t exist or something. It’s an unnecessary social precaution. Peek over at the book or magazine that the person next to you is reading and ask them a question about it. Look for something that you may have in common. If there are no straws to grasp at ask what they know about the destination you’re going to. If your fellow passengers have no interest in talking to you they will let you know it — usually with a grunt or the absolute avoidance of eye contact. Though chances are that the person sitting next to you may also be bored stiff and lonely, and could very well be aching for some semblance of human contact in the insanely impersonal setting of air travel.
Sit with street vendors. If you really want to become the focus of social attention befriend street vendors. These people are generally just standing around on the same street all day with nothing to do but watch the same people walk by. So go to where they are working and sit down next to them. Ask questions about their what they are selling. Be the foolish foreigner. If you’re in a place that tourists tend not to go there is a reasonable chance that you are going to become the center of attention. A group of onlookers will probably form around you and an entire crowd may start shooting questions at you. Embrace this. Use it as a way of engaging people who seem knowledgeable, get them to show you things that you’re interested in.
Go to trade shows. If you want to find the highest concentration of bored people per square meter, go to a trade show. These are places where people of a certain trade, profession, business, or interest gather together, make connections, and look at relevant exhibits. All too often the people sitting in the booths and pavilions that are set up at these things are dead bored. Very often they are just standing there for hours watching people walk by, feeling awkward. Go up and talk to them. Look at what’s being exhibited, ask questions about it.
Now, when you’re traveling abroad you have a choice: to hang out with your own kind (other backpackers, your boyfriend, etc . . .) or become a social predator. Some people do this naturally without even knowing it — they talk to everybody, and wherever they go they leave a trail of conversations and acquaintances. They are natural born social predators. For the rest of us we need to fake it. We need to flip on a switch and act the part of the loudmouth.
Joe Ades was one of the greatest street salesmen New York City has ever known. His pinnacle product was potato peelers. Yes, the guy got rich selling the city potato peelers — and he was incredibly good at it. In an interview he once said that all he needed to do was to go out in the street and start talking to himself, and invariably he would draw a crowd. That’s basically what you need to do when trying to engage a stranger in conversation: just start talking and see what happens.
The first words are always the hardest.
But once you get these first words out you have someone hooked. Keep them on the line until you’re done with them or the situation becomes a little too awkward. As a good rule of thumb, if someone is not asking you questions back it’s a good sign that they don’t want to talk with you anymore. Not making eye contact is another. Answering questions too simply and vaguely a third. But really, there is no harm done by this. Do I care when someone doesn’t want to talk with me? Not really. If they answer my questions poorly I will probably lose interest and move on to my next target anyway.
I also carry around a list of topics about a place or a culture that I want to learn more about in a notebook or on my mobile phone. Once I have someone engaged I can usually move down the list of topics, firing off my inquiries. Once I run out of ammo I then start making personal chit-chat. It’s easy: you know nothing about the person in front of you so the full gamut of general questions are available to use.
When looking to make friends when traveling you first want to find people who have time for you. Try talking with a businessman scurrying down the streets of Manhattan — it’s next to impossible. Try to make a friend in the Shanghai metro during the workweek — it’s probably not going to happen. But stroll into a restaurant one hour after lunch almost anywhere in the world and you’re going to find a room full of people staring at you with nothing better to do than respond to your fool questions.