How to Make Friends with Strangers

Travel is one long introduction to the broadest of humanity. We aren’t perfect, but most members of our species are worth knowing. To meet those neighbors, follow these simple rules.

(Illustration: James Olstein)

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.

If I was crammed on a bus for 12 hours with Hitler, I could probably make friends with him. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it is a thing. 

I’ve spent decades now suffering in close quarters with people I don’t know. On cross-Haiti buses with international pack rats. Riding the rails around China in third class with Scandinavians. Spooned into a 4x4 in the high Atacama with Koreans for four days. I’ve mixed it up worldwide with PTSD Israelis, Brazilian ballerinas, German eco-warriors, and Kiwi bush pilots. Travel—and travel writing—has been one long introduction to the broadest of humanity. We aren’t perfect, but most members of our species are worth knowing. 

So how do you get to know them? There are some simple rules for meeting the neighbors. 

First, don’t wait. The awkwardness will only get worse over time, so introduce yourself while you still have the obvious excuse of newness. In planes, trains, and automobiles, just say hello right at the start—it only gets harder later, and if they don’t want to talk, you’ll know soon enough. 

But also be ready with a song. It’s routine to bust out a microphone on Chilean bus journeys, and everything from Chinese rafting trips to an overnight ferry to Canada can be improved with some heartfelt karaoke. In the rest of the world, saying “I can’t sing” is like saying “I can’t eat.” In other words, it is no excuse. Just pick a short one ("It’s Not Unusual," by Tom Jones, is 1:59), and make sure you actually know the words. 

Share food. Nothing is more bonding than offering up some bread for their sausage or accepting a glass of wine after handing out chocolates. The food may be alien—say yes to the goat liver!—but the further you reach, the more people appreciate it. Peruvians like to share birthday beer. Be ready. 

And while nobody likes a know-it-all, you will get invited to those meals more often if you do actually know something useful. Read good books about the place you are visiting, its history and its culture. And yes, that includes a phrase book. Just six words of any language—hello, please, thanks, yes, no, where—will take you very, very far. 

And you are more appealing if you are about something other than yourself. Just taking the usual vacation isn’t very revealing; reach a place nobody goes to, immerse yourself in wilderness, dare to walk alone in the souk. Surviving difficulties with other people—whether it is a zip line, a border crossing at night, or getting lost in Seoul—is bonding, even romantic. (See the infamous bridge experiments in the 1974 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety.”)

Lastly, be ready to bail on the social engagement. A lot of climbing camps, fishing trips, and sailboat cabins have been riven by feuding, intergroup breakdowns, and creative differences. So getting out of the wrong conversation without wrecking days of mutual confinement is critical. Try the old rules: Bite your tongue on religion, politics, and hygiene. Insincerity was invented for a reason. Be polite, mention pressing needs, offer to follow up later, and then move on. There will be more strangers soon.

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Lead Illustration: James Olstein
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