1. Host Couchsurfers.
Even a couple of years into my travels, I was still a little awkward around people I didn’t know well. I didn’t know what to talk with them about. The catch-22 here is that you can get more comfortable the more time you spend with people, but how do you get that time in the first place if you’re too awkward to be around?
That’s when I discovered Couchsurfing, and realized that I could invite interesting people to my city and hang out with them for several days at a time. I felt useful because I knew the city better than they did, and I would research the history to give them a walking tour. Talking about my home was easy, provided instant conversation ideas, and helped us get into other topics.
Also, when someone stays at your home, you have breakfast together and hang out more than you normally would. They may be a complete stranger at first, but you get comfortable and can learn to open yourself up a little better. Best of all, the site has a review system so you know you can trust them before inviting them into your space.
2. Become an amateur photographer.
I’ve never liked the idea of drinking to become more social. For one thing, it’s very limiting that you can only be more outgoing on Friday and Saturday evenings. What if an opportunity to be social suddenly springs up at 3pm on a Tuesday?
As idealistic as I can be here, though, the fact of the matter is that people at social events can feel uncomfortable if they don’t have something in their hands. So rather than give in to peer pressure, I’ve found that having something to hold can actually ease the tension…and give you an interesting conversational starter.
What I did in university was save up for one of the very earliest digital cameras. The display was a tiny LCD screen, but big enough to see the photo just taken. I made myself the official “campus photographer” and went around with that camera and no actual photography skills — and amazingly having a full hand meant nobody pushed drinks at me anymore.
Another great thing is that the camera itself helped me make friends. I’d simply walk up to people and say, “Hi, can I get a photo of you for the university website?” and they’d say yes every time. All I had was a basic static page that happened to be hosted at the university, and I’d post the photos I’d taken for everyone to find later. It worked great, and soon after I got more popular as “the photographer,” since nobody else at the time was putting photos online.
This tip is harder now (everyone and their dog can upload photos to the internet in an instant), but there are many other things you can do to help make parties run better. When I was at Burning Man, I handed out free earplugs (a tub of 200 of them cost $10) since it was a noisy event and sleeping was hard. At concerts, I’ve used an app that makes my phone look like a candle and held this in my hand instead. Made me so many friends!
Another fun one was when I was in Valencia (the first time when I was 21), I managed to find a tandem bike for a really good price. I made friends (nearly always male) by offering a ride home to anyone who needed it, since I had space to carry them.
Finally, I’ve found that carrying around random confusing items as a conversation starter can work wonders to encourage other people to talk to you and take some of the edge off you always having to initiate conversations.
I find people’s “peer pressure” to drink is not as much that they need you to drink, but they don’t see you doing something or having fun, and want to change that. Simply not looking like you’re awkwardly “missing something” changes everything at these events, and if you can bring something that can make the event more fun, all the better.
3. Clink first, ask questions later.
I think the biggest problem I had when I was shy was thinking myself out of perfectly good opportunities to meet people. Someone interesting would be right there, beside or in front of me, and I’d start thinking about what I should say to them, or maybe phrase out a good opening conversation thread that could last at least 10 minutes, or wonder if maybe I’m too boring to talk to them, or what if they’re in a bad mood tonight and don’t want to talk to me…
And before I knew it, I’d been thinking so long the opportunity had come and gone.
Now that I do interact with so many people at social events, I can let you in on a little secret: Most people don’t have very clever conversations and nothing needs to be over-analysed. In fact, I have indeed messed up and said something really strange in my intro, but then laughed it off and gotten into a normal conversation.
This is why now I have a strategy of simply walking up to someone and saying, “Hi! I’m Benny from Ireland, what’s your name?” and seeing what happens. The most important thing I think about before I approach anyone new…is nothing.
I like to call this my “glass clink trick.” I introduced it to a friend in Germany who wanted to practise English by simply grabbing her hand and forcing her to clink glasses with some Americans — I then ran away. Her time to think of something “clever” to say had been taken away, and she simply had to say “Hi” and go from there. Two hours later, she told me she’d been practising English all night!
4. Embrace your inner Klingon.
While actually speaking Klingon (yes, I do) to strangers can be equivalent to nuking your chances of making friends, I’ve found that finding extremely specific common interest groups and attending them has made making friends WAY easier.
When I first started traveling, and was still unsure of what to talk about with strangers, I found groups about particular topics I knew I could talk about to be a great way to get me to open up. Since I was into language learning, I attended meetups with language learners.
There are events on meetup.com, on Couchsurfing’s meetup pages, and on Facebook if you search for events in your city where people informally get together to talk about what they’re passionate about. If you’re into chess, flying kites, dog walking, yoga, coding websites, or anything else, you can find a group to meet with.
And whenever I’m in the States, I find it so curious how specific conferences can get! There are conferences not only for bloggers, but specifically for travel bloggers, wine bloggers, and finance bloggers. I of course attended the Star Trek convention, and finally found my online polyglot conferences.
So think about what you’re passionate about, and search around for events where people with that same passion come together. You may be surprised how your specific interest has so many people finding one another thanks to the internet, coming together every week or once a year.
5. Aim to fail.
One of the most intimidating things for me in my early travels, when I’d arrive somewhere new and know absolutely nobody, would be to go to a social event completely alone and need to make friends. Those initial attempts are crucial to having a positive experience over the next months, and this is a lot of pressure. At times I felt like if I didn’t do it perfectly, I’d be solo my whole trip.
And then I had an idea from a friend of mine to try social skydiving, and just go up to as many people as possible and realize the more I try, the more likely I am to make a friend. While quality trumps quantity every time, you need a little quantity at first to meet the right people. Otherwise, your first attempt could be to make a friend with someone totally unsuited to hanging out with you, and how poorly it goes can intimidate you and deflate your ego for the rest of the night.
That’s why my new approach was not to get nothing but positive interactions, but to go into each interaction with the mindset that “this attempt to make a new friend may crash and burn, and that’s okay.” I would try my best and accept failure to be not only an option, but a likely outcome most of the time. Aim to fail.
Amazingly, it turns out strangers don’t want to bite your head off, and you get pleasantly surprised the vast majority of the time. Your confidence comes across as a charming character trait and people want to get to know you better. I went up to new people faking being confident so many times that now I kind of am.
Go up to more people, act confident, and accept that maybe they won’t buy it and excuse themselves. Shrug it off and try again. Rinse and repeat and you will have new friends by the end of the night. This post was originally published at Fluent in 3 Months and is reprinted here with permission.