Gap Year Advice: Talk to Strangers

“Don’t talk to strangers” is the single worst piece of cultural brainwashing that we’ve perpetrated on children in the past couple of generations. While statistics are pointing to the fact that America is safer than it’s been since the mid-sixties, we continue to frighten each other into believing that we are at constant risk of abduction or maltreatment at the hands of strangers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s important to remember, as you embark on your travels, that everywhere you go is home to someone else.

The local people around you are profoundly comfortable in the places that you find seriously outside of your comfort zone. They are, perhaps, the most important resource at your disposal. They’re better than a guidebook in a thousand ways, from their “off the beaten track” knowledge, to their up to date intel on everything you need to know. But you have to be brave enough to ask. If you listen to that inner voice whispering stranger danger, you’re very likely to miss out on the whole point of your journey: authentic cross-cultural interaction.

Connecting with complete strangers takes a little practice, especially for those of us who’ve been raised in very individualistic societies. You have to learn to make eye contact, to smile, and to ask questions. Not just the questions you need answers to, like where the bus stop is, what time the bank opens and where to find a pharmacy, but questions about the weather, personal preference, and interests that generate small talk.

Once you leave home, every single person you encounter is going to be a complete stranger, have you thought about that? How do you do with strangers now? Is it easy for you to walk up to a man on the street and strike up a conversation? Or is that outside your comfort zone? Who you are and how you interact isn’t going to magically change with the continent.

Let me assure you that the connections you make with complete strangers are going to be the very best part of your journey and, ultimately, the things that change your life forever.

If someone had tried to tell me that on my travels I’d meet a world cup boat designer, an award winning author, a well known Italian conductor, or spend two evenings in the company of a legit Knight of the Realm, I’d never have believed them. I couldn’t have fathomed that it would be a fireman, an orphan, and a millionaire who ultimately changed the course of my life. It will be the same for you.

Now is a good time to practice meeting strangers.

Spend a Saturday wandering around your town with the express purpose of creating interactions with people you don’t know. Talk to kids at playgrounds. Sit on the curb and talk to homeless people. Drop into corner stores and ask questions about the area to the people behind the counter, even if you already know the answers. Remember, that it’s going to be easier at home, in your own language, than it will be on the road, in places and languages you aren’t comfortable with.

Think about ways to make connections without words. If we’re in a place for more than a few days we purchase a soccer ball. Ball games are a universal draw; you’re guaranteed to make friends. If you play an instrument, consider taking it with you. Other musicians will find you, locals will come out to listen, and you’ll learn a lot from cross-cultural music sharing as you travel! Sharing food is another way to break the ice with people. Start cooking in the common kitchen of any hostel and I guarantee you’ll make friends.

Remember: Strangers are just your best friends that you haven’t met yet.

This post is an excerpt from the fantastic and FREE GapYear30 planning resource, provided by BootsnAll. There’s a parent’s version too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.