How I'm Slowly Getting Over My "No New Friends" Policy While Traveling Alone
Traveling solo doesn't have to be *solo*.
The first time I realized I had a “no new friends” policy in play was when I was in Vietnam and I was unlocking my bike in front of my hostel. It was barely nine in the morning and the sun was already doing its best to melt me like a popsicle, so I had this idea of riding to the beach for some bikini-and-pineapple-smoothies-time. That's when this cheerful Danish girl I danced under confetti with the night before came over and asked what I was doing. And then promptly invited herself to breakfast, telling me to wait as she grabbed her scooter.
To which I answered with a dumbfounded blink.
What? She's crashing my morning? But...what?
No new friends.
Applications weren't being reviewed, the positions have been filled, the doors were closed. Apparently. And I had no idea this was my usual reaction until that very moment, where — for a half second — I had to work over my initial shock and force myself to smile and croak out a “that'll be great.”
Now, I wouldn't say I'm a shy person. I'm the type that'll bring you a cup of coffee because you said hello to me once, and then demand to know what your favorite breakfast food is and if you've ever watched Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, because that's what's imperative about you. Which is why I was practically mind-boggled when I discovered I was carrying a sign around my neck that basically said “get the hell away from me” for the majority of my travels.
So why did I get over that? Because after awhile, visiting cathedrals and bakeries alone, and poking at a cold sandwich for the 12th day in a row can get sort of boring. Below are my tips on how I got rid of my internal resting bitch face and became more open to making friends while on the move.
1. Think Of Everyone Like A Podcast You Want To Hear
Going up to someone you don't know can be intimidating stuff, but instead of thinking of how they'll reach over and slap you for saying hello, think of it as an opportunity to hear about a really cool story. We all have them, especially when we're traveling.
Coming up to a rando is like scrolling through your feed looking for an interesting podcast— you want to be entertained and listen to the adventures and thoughts of another person. There's nothing more or less riding on it.
Not only does that take the pressure off of approaching someone unfamiliar, but it also makes you interested. The focus is no longer about making a good impression but, rather, the interaction is now all about them. You want to know what they did last week, what shenanigans they got into, feelings they felt, beautiful things they saw. And it'll have you asking questions and wanting to learn more, turning you magically chatty while making them do most of the talking. A total win.
2. Imagine Yourself As A Host Of A Party
My favorite piece of advice about jumping over that initial reaction of “oh God, I wish I was at home watching Netflix,” is to imagine yourself as a host of a party. When you have friends over, you go into this mode where you try to make everyone in your living room feel as welcome as possible. You want to make sure they're having a lovely time, they're entertained, and that they have enough wine in their glass and enough guac on their plate.
When you're in that role, you don't think about being self-conscious because you feel in your element. This is your house, your dinner party, and it's up to you to make sure everyone leaves with warm feelings. So how do you translate that into approaching someone eating alone in a bahn mi shop?
Sit down and ask how the food is; which sandwich they'd recommend. Then start talking about what they've been up to during that day, and get all charismatic by making the whole conversation about them and being interested in what they want to share with you. Don't worry about making yourself feel comfortable and not-nervous; worry about making them feel that way. And boom, you've got yourself a compelling conversation with a compelling new friend.
3. Do The Scary Thing: Be The First One To Ask To Hang Out
If you want to understand the crazy workings of a person that asks you to spend an afternoon together, you're going to have to slip into their shoes and see how they benefit from doing that. And the only way to do that is to take their role and do the asking. When I was in a hostel in northern Vietnam, I was in a room of five and hit it off with a Belgian girl as we were packing our laundry into plastic shopping bags. Once all my socks were tossed together and ready to go, I was ready to do my usual fleeing exit. But instead I hesitated, did a mini freak out dance with jazz hands in my head, and quickly asked her if she wanted to get pizza and beers later that night (because you know, that's a Vietnamese specialty). She smiled and agreed, and invited along a Brazilian friend she met on the bus on the way to the rice paddies. We spent a long evening underneath streetlamps, overlooking a busy street of tie-dye clad backpackers and Red Dao vendors, slowly making our way through three pizzas as we laughed and talked about our hometowns and world misadventures.
Which completely beat me sweating in my non-air-conditioned hostel room, re-reading a Nora Roberts book instead.
4. Use Advice As An Ice Breaker
Meeting friends while traveling is ridiculously easy, mainly because everyone on the road is looking for an experience. They want to see new things, hear beautiful stories, and meet interesting people that can teach them something about how pretty life is. So how do you break the ice with one of these people without sounding stiff and awkward? Just ask for advice.
If you're at a bar, ask which beer the person next to you is drinking and what they'd recommend you try next. If you're on the street and see someone else holding a map, approach them and ask where a certain street is and see what they've already seen today. If you see someone eating a sandwich alone on the steps of a piazza, sit down next to them pretending to people watch and ask where they got their lunch. Once it looks like they're friendly and willing to chat, invite yourself in. Ask if they've been in town long, see if they want to go check out this amazing, leather-and-lemon-oil-smelling library with you, or see if they want to check out this hidden bakery you heard about after their sandwich. It's as easy as that, friends.
So get to chatting. Get to pal-ing. And see who you could meet!