How to make conversation with strangers: 5 tips for solo travellers

Ice breaker games and questions for solo travellers

On holiday alone and bored of your own company? Here's how to make friends, fast

By Steve King, Condé Nast Traveler

Entire books - entire libraries of books - are available on the subject of how, as adults, we can learn to get over the strict instruction our parents gave us, as children, not to talk to strangers. Solo travel makes this process more or less complicated, depending on the circumstances.


Enthusiasm can overcome any language barrier

The lack of a common language can, of course, be a severe barrier to conversation when abroad. But it doesn't have to be. A while ago some Norwegian friends asked my wife and me to babysit their daughter, who was five or six at the time and didn't speak a word of English. Unfortunately, we didn't speak a word of Norwegian either (apart from 'snuplass', which is hard to translate - it's that place at the end of a cul-de-sac where you turn your car around. Not sure why I picked that up - I don't drive). We supposed this linguistic impasse meant we'd be in for a quiet night. Far from it. The delightful child greeted us in spirited Norwegian and didn't stop chattering for hours. We responded in the same enthusiastic vein, in English, and the conversation carried on well past her bedtime, to the great satisfaction of all involved. I wish more conversations were like that one.


Don't let total incomprehension put you off

The previous point notwithstanding, you should probably set a limit to the number of attempts you're willing to make simply to get a conversation started - in any language, including your own. I still struggle occasionally to make myself understood in Glasgow, where I have lived for several years, even when the exchange is of the most mundane and formulaic kind. Feigning incomprehension is a pastime for Glaswegian bus drivers. When a passenger who is manifestly not Scottish hops onto a bus and says 'A single to Queen Street Station, please,' he or she is as likely as not to be met with an incredulous, outraged glare that telegraphs a sentiment of the 'What the fuck did yer just say tae me, ya mad rocket?' variety. Don't be fooled. This has nothing to do with miscomprehension. The driver understands you perfectly. It's a wind-up. Deposit your coins in the slot and limit yourself to one or two calm repetitions of your original request. Beyond that it becomes a waiting game. Just stare back patiently until the driver, having had his wee bit of fun, jabs a button on his control panel and your long-awaited ticket at last curls out of the machine.


If in doubt, flirt

On to the romance of travel. Now there's a subject. For the single traveller, a repertoire of well-rehearsed pick-up lines is, I imagine, likely to prove useful at some point. These might range from the silkily suave to the politically incorrect. Of the former, Groucho Marx's quip in Go West remains a personal favourite of mine: 'Let's go somewhere we can be alone… Ah, there doesn't seem to be anyone on this couch...' Of the latter, I recently saw a screen-grab of a Tinder message that read: 'Are you a Middle Eastern dictator? Because there's an uprising in my pants.' Leading with a question, a show of geopolitical awareness, wordplay - full marks. It's a delicate balance, though. A university acquaintance of mine used to try to combine both suavity and political incorrectness. Whenever he spotted a girl he liked the look of in a bar, he'd wave a banknote in the air and say 'I'm willing to bet £10 that I can make your boobs shake without touching them.' Then he'd simply shake the poor girl's breasts and hand over the cash. Actually, more of a conversation-ender than a conversation-starter. Also, strictly speaking, assault.

Read next

Ingratiate yourself with the locals

If you wish to attach yourself not to an individual but to a group, expressions of solidarity can be helpful. Should you find yourself at the Tokyo Dome stadium, for example, surrounded by tens of thousands of the home team's obsessive yet eerily well-behaved fans, you might go with something along the lines of: 'The Giants aren't just the best baseball team in Japan, are they? I hear they're the best in the world.'


They have ways of making you talk

Possibly the people with whom it's easiest to strike up a conversation in a foreign country are law-enforcement officers. Stepping into a public place in, say, Riyadh, swigging the last few drops from a magnum of Champagne and screaming 'Who do I have to blow around here to get a refill?' is almost certain to initiate a stimulating dialogue, even if it must be concluded in a holding cell.
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Travel Magazine: How to make conversation with strangers: 5 tips for solo travellers
How to make conversation with strangers: 5 tips for solo travellers
Ice breaker games and questions for solo travellers
Travel Magazine
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