how to make friends

WHEN TRAVELLING ALONE

Image de Profil, Avril is Away

You, me, we both know that feeling: we’re at a pretty cool party, there’s music, plenty of people and drinks but still – we’re bored as fuck because there’s no one for us to talk to. Aouch. But guess what ? Everybody’s been there, and there’s a few things you can do anywhere to make friends in an instant !

If you’ve been traveling alone (even if you haven’t, actually), chances are you’ve already ended up willing to meet other people but without necessarily knowing how to do so. I don’t mean to say I’ve got it all figured out, obviously, but I’ve made a list of a few tips that help me make friends whenever I’m traveling.

Remember how simple it was when we were kids ? I certainly remember this one time, I must have been 10 then. My mother dropped my at the pool for the afternoon cuz’ she had a lot on a plate. Although I first spent an hour or two swimming around, I eventually got so bored I started considering drowning myself to put an end to it. 

Instead, I looked around and there was another kid at the other end of the pool, so, I maned up and asked him : “Do you want to be my friend ?”. BOOM, done ! We ended up playing together for the rest of the day. Simple, right ?

(Noticed what I just did there ? I was talking about myself and it turned blue ! Yes, that means my story are written in blue so that you can skip them easily if you’re not interested ^^)

TIP N°...: ASK PEOPLE IF THEY WANNA BE BE YOUR FRIEND...

OKAY, OKAY, just kidding !

I mean, that strategy might still work (who knows ? Have you tried recently?)… 

But you also might might make every one uncomfortable and maybe even pass as a major creep, so hey, maybe not the best method!

TIP N°5: LEARN SOME OF THE LINGO

That might seem like super obvious (or super obnoxious, depending on your traveling habits) but learning a few words in the local language can really go a long way. Most of the travelers I’ve met on the road adopt a pretty conservative strategy when it comes to languages. They learn how to say “Hi”, “Thanks” and “Please”, and that’s it. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a start, and it’s always far better than saying those in english. I simply figured that if you learn a few other sentences like “Hi, my name is Avril”, “I’m 20, from France and I’m travelling alone”, “Do you wanna grab a pint ?” and “Do you mind if I speak english?” and how people answer to those sentences, well, you’ve essentially started a conversation.

The point is that, even if you mess up the pronunciation, or if you barely understand the person’s reply (some of them will get carried away, assume that you understand all of what they say and start chatting up as with another local ^^), you’ve shown that you’re engage and curious toward the person’s culture, and that you’re not afraid to stutter and make mistakes. Why’s that important, you may wonder ?

Because by showing good will, you’ve just made it easier for the other person to use their knowledge in english (or any other language actually) to communicate with you. They might have been too shy to do so otherwise, but by exposing yourself, you’re already bridging the gap.

On my first trip to Japan, Reito and I climbed up mount Takao. When the sun started to come down, we went back to the bottom of the mountain, only to realize we were missing the view of the sun setting on the valley, so we hurried back up a flank of the mountain. We met a Japanese guy up there, who we greeted in Japanese. Because he had heard us talk French on the way up, he asked us where we were from. When we told him, he started speaking French and he told us about his journey in Canada and how he had learned the language. The three of us ended up talking politics and drinking sake on the way back to Tokyo. Such a great moment that might never have happened if we hadn’t initiated contact.

TIP N°4: THE Couchsurfing hangout trick (+Apps for travelers)

This isn’t the first time I’m mentioning Couchsurfing on this blog, so you might have read about it somewhere already if you’ve been following me (have you ? Am I alone at my desk writing stuff no one ever reads ?). I’m going to focus mainly on  the “hangouts”, but you can read my detailed article about the platform.

So if you login to Couchsurfing’s app on your phone, you can find “Hangouts” on the main page of the app (you might have to scroll a little). The pitch is pretty simple: you type in what you wanna do, the app display that, your name and your photo publicly in a register of all the hangouts around you. Then, you can contact (or be contacted by) people with the same interests. Through the chat, you can get to know the other person a little bit and organize the meet up: and there you go, you’ve got a new friend waiting for you !

The most popular activities usually involve going out for drinks or clubbing (unsurprisingly) but you can also find people doing all sorts of things, like going on a trek, searching for street art around town, going on a foodie tasting session, etc.

Here’s what to the Hangout tab look like. Scrolling down lets you see the list of all the available people nearby. I took the screenshot at 4am whilst writing the article so it’s not surprising the closest person was 3km away but that’s rarely true during day in densely populated areas.

If you’re interested in the app, you can register here and learn more about it there.

Alternatively, there’s many app for travelers being developed these days, here are a few I’ve heard about (but havn’t tested yet):

– Party with a Local allows you to connect to a pool of local people and their profile as they get ready to go out. You can then send them a message to initiate contact and join up. It has pretty good reviews on the Appstore so far and is available for Android too.

– Backpackr lets you type in your planned itinerary and compare it to that of other travelers so that you can find buddies to hit the road with. It used to have pretty good reviews, but it went through a number of bugs which considerably lowered its ranking. According to the developers, that should be fixed, though, so you can still try it out, see what it’s worth.

– Tourlina caters to female travelers who don’t wanna risk being solo with other male travelers (note that the option is also available on Backpackr). Every user is checked by the developing team so that the network is secure, and once you’ve entered your destination and dates, you’ll be shown other women planning to go there. From there you can chat up and plan parts of your trips together. It has few but good ratings.

TIP N°3: Make friends at social events around you

Another great tool from Couchsurfing that you can use is the event section.

Couchsurfing is a great place to start searching for socials as residents from many large cities organise “weekly meetups” or other events quite frequently. What’s so great about those events is that they kind of come with a built-in open-minded and welcoming attitude. After all, the people who attend are just as eager as you are to socialize with other travelers and locals. 

Lightning Talks Munich is getting rooms packed with travelers and locals every now and then, check them out if you have the occasion !

There’s this one time from last summer, for example. I was in Munich, the Bavarian capital, as part of my roadtrip, and I had just finished crossing Switzerland, spending most of my time alone with the mountains. I was in dire need of human interaction (the social kind, you perv) so I looked up at Couchsurfing events in town and found out about “Lightning Talks”.

Basically, people could register and prepare 5 min-long presentations on any topic and give them in either German or English, whichever they were most comfortable with. Every n-talks, there’d be a break so that people could grab a drink, light a smoke and discuss what they had just been taught about. Also, there were the cheapest bar in Munich and great pizza.

IT WAS LIT ! People would grab a drink, talk about anything and everything, and no one felt weird going up to anybody to start a conversation. There were also a few open slots at the end of the session, and since I got pretty enthusiastic, I gave a spontaneous 5-min speech on the Perks of Traveling Alone then.

I probably met 20 people that night, and even went clubbing with a few of them. 100% recommend !

I might have picked up bad reflexes at school ...

Obviously, there’s many other platforms where you can find out about what’s going on in a given town, and you should definitely use those as well. Even Facebook and Google are great places to browse through what’s going on.

I just thought I’d emphasize on Couchsurfing events because of that built-in welcoming aspect they have which makes it a lot easier to make friends.

TIP N°3: use the backpacker lifestyle to your advantage

If you’re going for the backpacking experience, you’re probably going to do a few things a lot of others backpackers will too. That includes staying in hostels, commuting by bus (or train) rather than flying whenever possible, etc … Chances are you’ll spend many hours sharing a facility or sitting close to somebody else : that’s your chance right there !

Hostels cultivate laid-back atmospheres where people can talk and grab a drink together without efforts so take advantage of it and you’ll soon find yourself going through the backpacker’s introduction like “where are you from ? where have you been ?” etc… Try and remember people’s name. It’s appreciated worldwide and it shows that you care. 

(I personally am terrible with names and faces but I try hard and its always pays off !).

Sharing a plate of lasagnas that the neighbors had brought with the other guests at Waya's, Sapporo
Long trips, be it by bus, train or even plane are also a great opportunity to make start a conversation. Don’t underestimate the quality of the people you can meet there ; you’ll be sitting next to each other for hours anyway, so you might as well get to know the person sitting next to you !

I was riding the train from Sapporo to Otaru when I met Kentaro and Heik (the two guys beneath). If my recollections are correct, I had asked them whether or not they could take a picture for me, and that got us talking for the rest of the ride. They suggested that we roam around town together and so we did: we drew angels in the snow by shaking our limbs, had multiple snowball battles, we went to a temple and even got a unique set of handmade matching necklaces (I’ve still got mine as I’m writing this !). 

Since it was then only a few days before my flight out of Japan and I had just realized I had never yet eaten sushi there, I had spent 30$ at lunch getting the best sushi in Sapporo. But these guys knew better, they were from Sapporo and had gone all the way to Otaru to taste the freshest sushi in Japan, so they talked me into eating yet more of the delicacy and we ended up stuffing our faces with the famous Japanese dish.

TIP N°2: ASK PEOPLE FOR

Okay, I know this sounds terrible; smoking is bad for your health (also, its so fucking expensive). Right.

Trust me, I know, I may be writing this but I’ve quit on the 01/01/2018 and I have no intention of resuming anytime !

So what’s the point? 

Well, you wouldn’t believe the number of people I’ve met simply by asking for a lighter or anything I needed to roll a cigarette. I sometimes even asked for a lighter even though I had one myself just to start the conversation.

There’s this thing I call “smoker solidarity”: when you smoke, you know how annoying it can get to not have this one little thing you need to indulge in your addiction, whatever that thing might be (a filter, a sheet, tobacco, the whole thing, whatever). Because smokers know that feel, most of them will help you out of it if they can. 

I’d recommend asking for a lighter (it’s the least intrusive), but if you don’t have a smoke you’re gonna look weird. 

Anyway, the point is not smoking itself but engaging in a conversation. When you ask for a lighter, you actually do just that. Because you have a legit reason, you also avoid seeming weird. Finally, if the person’s still smoking too, you’ll probably have a few seconds to start a proper conversation by asking the usual basic questions like “What do you do, are you from here, etc…”.

After assisting to the Wakamya festival in Nara, I stopped for lunch and a cigarette. A guy was smoking on a bench nearby so I asked him for his lighter (that was about all I could say in Japanese at the time so the rest of the conversation relied mostly on sign language and “Guguru Translation”). We started chatting and eventually he asked me what I was planning to do this afternoon so I told him I was going to infiltrate an abandonned amusement park.

In shorts, that’s how we both ended up spending the afternoon playing cats and mice with guards in what used to be Nara Dreamland.

I can see the non-smokers among you being like “What seriously? Your tip to make friends is to smoke ? Fuck you”

Well no, it’s not ! Whilst it’s true that a shitload of social interaction happens in smoking areas, you don’t have to pick up a bad habit to benefit from this observation. 

The key here is that the first step is the hardest part of starting a conversation. Nonetheless, you can jump-start things by finding a legit pretext to talk to someone. That can be asking for directions, the time, what’s going on in the surroundings, etc … whatever !

TIP N°1: Be foolish, be fun, don't be afraid of interacting

Okay, so that might seem a bit obnoxious, but I guess it’s the best tip I could ever give. This isn’t “something you can do” but rather a way to be, to think. I’ve said it before, but to me, traveling is not just an occupation, it’s a mindset. A way of being open to what surrounds you. Playful, even.

The point is you should not hesitate to comment the funny things you spot. First and foremost, laugh at yourself when you make a mistake, especially in public. You’ll seem clumsy at worse, but also sympathetic to many and you’ll immediately feel the shame fly away. Don’t hesitate to make a funny comment if you overhear people talking in your language abroad (English doesn’t count, I guess). Use your best judgment to not be too intrusive of course, but hearing someone speak your language can be somewhat comforting sometimes and you could make a connection this way.

Join the people that are performing in the streets, listen to the musicians, join in on the “Free hug” mobs. Pull faces at the groups of children, whatever: have fun, be fun. 

In Berlin, for instance, I was walking down the city center when two guys wearing UNICEF t-shirts asked me if I wanted to give them a hand. I said “yes”, expecting some humanitarian speech or project, so I kind of fell on my arse when they asked me if I could shoot water at their friend as part of their water-war. I did hesitate a second, but given that it was more than 25°C outside, I though there would not be much harm anyway. I sneaked being my victim (on the left) and started shooting whilst the two guys burst in laughter and my target started running around to avoid the splashes of fresh water. Once the gun was empty and I had apologized to my target, we all starting chatting a little and they gave me goodies and advice on what to visit in Berlin. Worth it, right ?

The point is not to invade people’s privacy or anything, obviously. Be wary of the cultural norms wherever you go in order to avoid embarrassing situations and quid pro quo. Yet, “ping” the people around you. Some won’t want to have anything to do with you and they’ll shut you out. Other will simply laugh or smile and go. But some might also come to you for a chat and might show you around town. Those are the ones you’re making the efforts for.

Be interactive, forthcoming. For example, if you see people taking selfies near a cool photo spot, ask them if they want you to take a picture for them (back cameras always look nicer anyway!). Give up your seats to elders in trains, help people carry their shopping, etc … It might not always work, you might accidentally scare a few people, but you’ll still be rewarded with unique human opportunities at the end of the day.

That’s actually how I met Kaya and Shouji, two of my actual beloved friends in Japan :

I was strolling down Dotonbori (a neighborhood in Osaka) when I saw them imitating the Glico Runner’s pose whilst trying to take a selfie. I asked them if they needed a hand using bits of sentences a friend from Tokyo had taught me and we ended up going for drinks. Not only did they drive me back to my hostel that night, but we also hung out for four days together whilst I was in Osaka. More than that, they booked a ride on a Shinkansen to Tokyo to meet me there by surprise during New Year’s celebrations.

How’s that about amazing people ? I must admit, I truly got lucky to stumble upon such great girls.

Shouji, on the left, Kaya on the far right, one of their friend and I having dinner and a drink !

Well, that’s it ! Five tips on how to make friends in real travelling situation. Of course, this post won’t turn you into a social beast machine, but I hope it comes in handy sometime or simply that you enjoyed it !

I’ve been asked “aren’t your afraid to feel lonely going away alone ?” bazillions of times before, so I felt like this was a legit source of anxiety people had when considering whether or not to go abroad. Through this post, I wanted to show that not only you meet much more people that you’d expect but also that making the first contact isn’t all that difficult and that it’s definitely worth it ! 

I think the moments I shared help putting all of that into context, and hey, you get to know me better 😉

What do you think ? In your experience, what are the best ways to make friends anywhere you go ? 

If you liked the article, please share it with your friends: they might enjoy it too, and it’ll help me a lot 🙂

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There are no strangers here;
Only friends you haven't yet met.

- William Butler Yeats

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Wonderful blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Appreciate it

    1. Hi Maddix, thanks a lot for taking the time to comment,
      Sadly I’ve got no idea how to rank on Yahoo News especially so I won’t be able to help you ^^

  2. Hi Avril. Very entertaining blog. I admire your panache!

    1. Thanks Duncan, hope I’ll see you around again when I publish new content 🙂

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