1. Set reasonable expectations and celebrate small victories
The advice that follows will help you to have brief interactions and get recommendations from locals. Yes, achieving total immersion is the goal – finding someone to invite you into their circle of friends for the evening, for example – but you also have to keep things in perspective. Think of all the factors that would have to be in line for you to take a traveler under your wing in your home town. Your success in getting a local to go beyond a casual conversation revolves a lot around good timing. Do you meet someone as they’re having their first beer, or their last? Is the person you met at the museum going out with friends that evening, or do they have to work early the next morning?
Always keep your eye on the jackpot of cultural immersion, but be sure you don’t get discouraged if every person you meet doesn’t become your best friend. Focus on having good interactions, no matter how short. The most common will be small 5, 10, or 15 minute conversations, and that’s okay. It is there that you will get the best recommendations and advice that will enhance your trip and lead you to other opportunities. The more conversations you have, the better your chances that one sticks and all of a sudden recommendations turn into invitations.
2. Ditch the big camera
Nothing singles you out as a tourist more than a camera around your neck, which in my opinion, instantly puts something between you and the locals. It alters an observer’s preconceptions about you, and whether or not they are accurate, those assumptions put you at a disadvantage, especially in poorer countries. If you’re someone who likes taking photos of people, you’re even further shooting yourself in the foot, the camera immediately creating a disconnect between you and your surroundings.
Big cameras also limit your ability to be impulsive because their value requires you to babysit them. For example, you’re not going to be whisked onto the dance floor at a bar or talked into a spontaneous swim at the beach if you’ve got a $2,000 camera to look after. Pocket cameras are doing great things these days… look into one.
3. Don’t bypass sitting ducks
When we think of making friends in foreign countries, we often imagine ourselves meeting someone out and about, maybe at a bar, market, or festival. We tend to focus on the people participating in the same activity alongside us, but don’t forget about the easy targets floating all around you, people that have to interact with you when you approach them. I’m talking hotel employees, bartenders, shop owners, street promoters – anyone who’s current activity provides an easy icebreaker. Not only is it a guaranteed back and forth, these people (especially service industry workers) are typically young and know the city well and can make great recommendations. But how does one transition smoothly from business to pleasure?
4. Pretend to be a journalist
Okay, not really, but adapt the mindset of one. Most locals respond positively to people who come off as genuine. This all stems from asking questions and showing that you are truly interested in learning about the city and its lifestyle. Whether it’s a sitting duck or someone you bumped into naturally, the easiest way to transition into a conversation is by asking for a specific recommendation, regardless of what it is. Once the initial interaction begins to fade, start asking questions.
Maybe you were looking at the same painting in a museum and shared a few comments about what you were looking at. “Hey, have you been to any other museums here?” “Oh, there’s one in that neighborhood? I’ve never been there. What else is there to see?” It doesn’t really matter. You just want to break the conversation through the surface and get them talking about what they think, get them invested in the time you are about to spend in their city. Many times, the person will respond to your request for recommendations with something like, “Are you just visiting?” or “Where are you from?”
When this happens, you’ve accomplished the first big step: Getting someone to ask you a question. Once that happens, the dynamic of the interaction changes – it means a conversation is brewing. You must feed this like kindling on a fire. Like a good journalist would, ask and answer all questions in an open-ended manner, and get more personal in small increments as you go. “Where do you like to hang out?” “What do you do for fun?” How personal you are able to get with your questioning varies completely between situations and depends on a number of factors, from the openness of the local to the delivery of the question.
5. Ask for the sale
One of the biggest things they teach you in sales training courses is to always ask for the sale. You must not forget this when it comes to making friends abroad. A local may not take the initiative and invite you along with themit might never cross his mindwhich is why you want to make sure you put the idea out there for him to consider. If you’ve had a 10-minute conversation and seem to be getting along, don’t be afraid to throw it out there. “Hey, what are you doing later? I was going to go grab a few beers.” This non-threatening approaching gives them the opportunity to decline, accept (“Yeah, I’ll join you for one.”), or counter (“Well, I was going to meet some friends. Want to come along?).
6. Weed out the blood suckers
One of the dark sides of the travel industry is that it has turned beautiful destinations into businesses that focus more on making money than they do on being themselves. This goes for the physical environment as well as the people who inhabit them. Many times, when you’re browsing a market or wandering a city, you will meet a shop owner (a sitting duck!) who seems very nice. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether that person is genuinely interested in having a conversation or whether he/she is just being nice to make a sale. Don’t waste your time with the latter (unless you’re actually in the market for what they’re selling). Steer the conversation away from the sale early and often to see how they respond. If it always comes back to the sale, run for the hills.
7. Pick your moment, then pounce
When a lion is hunting a gazelle, it quietly sneaks up on its prey, then pounces at the right moment. This is exactly the type of approach you want to have abroad when trying to get in with the locals. “Roaring” will only scare everyone off. Instead, wait for the moment when what you say will be heard and you can catch someone off guard in a good way. Also, there’s a small victory to be had by being quiet, especially in Europe where Americans don’t always carry the best reputations. When your mouth is shut, you avoid being pegged as a certain nationality. Many people cannot tell if I am American, European, or Australian by looking at me – it is only when I begin to speak that they can start to make assumptions. Pick your moment to present yourself, but when you do, go for it.