How to start a conversation with a local while travelling

Plucking up the courage to start a conversation with a stranger is challenging at the best of times – but throw in a language barrier and a cultural divide or two and the task can seem insurmountable.

Don’t be shy. Travel is the ultimate opportunity to work on your people skills, so start simple, give them a smile and see what happens – the results might surprise you. At a loss for words? These city-specific tips from our Lonely Planet Locals should get you talking.

A dark alley lit by lanterns in Tokyo, lined with barsA drink or two will boost your confidence in Tokyo © aon168 / Shutterstock

Connect with fellow diners and drinkers in Tokyo

The notion that Tokyoites are stand-offish is largely true: in public spaces, people generally prefer to keep to themselves (as evidenced by the eerie quietude of the city’s trains). After all, it’s a crowded city where tensions can run high. But something has got to give, right?

An izakaya – the Japanese equivalent of a pub – is where locals go to let off steam, and they can get as noisy as the subway cars are silent. Most izakaya have two kinds of seating: tables for private groups and a counter where socialising is the norm.

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Learn the lingo: If there’s one thing Tokyoites have in common it’s a love of food. Drop an ‘oishii desu!‘ (‘This is delicious!’) to the chef across the counter, or the customer beside you, to invite smiles all around.

Lonely Planet Local Rebecca Milner is a long-time Tokyo resident. Follow her on Twitter @tokyorebecca.

A tabletop laden with croissants and coffee in ParisChoose real-life engagement over Instagram in Paris © Artem Tryhub / Shutterstock

Get to the point in Paris

Forget the stereotypes: Parisians aren’t rude, but misunderstandings can arise from cultural differences. Communication here typically dispenses with a preamble and gets straight to the point, which may sound abrupt to non-francophone ears. Although non-French speakers will have few-to-no problems, you’ll earn greater respect using (even minimal) French. Always greet/say farewell to anyone you interact with, such as shopkeepers. Parisians don’t speak loudly: modulate your voice to a similarly low pitch.

Paris locals love discussing food and wine, philosophy, art and sport, but avoid talking about money (eg salaries or spending outlays). Volunteer-led Paris Greeters tours are a fantastic way to connect with locals.

Learn the lingo: Nail the basics to make a good impression: ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ (‘good day/evening’), ‘au revoir’ (‘goodbye’), ‘parlez-vous anglais’? (‘do you speak English?’), ‘merci’ (‘thank you’), ‘c’était délicieux!’ (‘That was delicious!’).

Catherine Le Nevez is a long-time Lonely Planet writer based in Paris.

A chai wallah preparing chai in a panConverse over cutting chai – Mumbai’s famous half-measure of tea © Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock

Chat over chai in Mumbai

India’s largest city offers it all, from historic sites and idyllic green spaces to artistic enclaves and eclectic nightlife. But a key anxiety for travellers to Mumbai may be how to connect with locals and make friends.

Although most Mumbaikars speak good English, the universal greeting namaste (hello in Hindi) is a great ice-breaker. It is always a good idea to steer away from conversations about ‘the largest slum in the world’ and instead focus on how the city has evolved over the years, over a cup of cutting chai and vada pav (tip: don’t call it the Indian burger!). Asking for advice about offbeat excursions or offering to visit locals at home will earn extra brownie points.

Learn the lingo: Add ‘phir milenge’ (‘we shall meet again’) when you say goodbye at the end of a first meeting; in a city of 20 million, people will appreciate the gesture.

Deepika Gumaste is a Mumbai-based blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter @feetonthemap.

Adagi Caffee and Wine Bar in Venice, ItalyThe food should get you talking in Venice © Yaraslau / Shutterstock

Ask before you order in Venice

Venetians take pride in knowing their labyrinthine city. Asking for directions is a good way to initiate a conversation and you might even get escorted at least part of the way to your destination. Many Venetians, particularly younger ones, have a decent grasp of English and are happy to converse.

Alternatively, head to a bar. Venetians watch in horror when they see culinary crimes, such as baccalà (cod) washed down with a cappuccino, so pleading ignorance and asking for tips about Venetian delicacies and recommended wines to accompany them is a great conversation opener.

Learn the lingo: ‘Mi scusi, potrebbe darmi un consiglio?’ (‘Excuse me. Can you give me some advice?’) will get Venetians into help mode, particularly if your query is epicurean. Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

Jo-Ann Titmarsh is a freelance travel writer specialising in content about Venice and Italy. Follow her on Twitter @jokamojo.

Walkers' legs reflected in a puddle in MontréalDiscuss sports over a ‘steamie’ in Montréal © Benoit Daoust / Shutterstock

Opt for Franglais in Montréal

Does everyone in Montréal speak French? This seems to be a common concern for those visiting one of the world’s largest French-speaking cities. The quick answer is that Montréal, especially in the downtown core and tourist neighbourhoods, is quite bilingual and visitors will have little trouble getting by in English.

The best way to understand and enjoy this unique hybrid city is to embrace its blend of cultures. Strike up a conversation by asking about the beloved Montreal Canadiens hockey team. Visit a greasy spoon diner to get a taste of Québécois culture at its most relaxed (while enjoying a poutine or ‘steamie’ hot dog).

Learn the lingo: Montréalers are used to speaking Franglais (causally mixing French and English), so throw in whatever French you might know. Even a simple ‘bonjour’ or ‘merci’ will go a long way.

Lonely Planet Local Jason Najum is a writer and traveller based in Montréal. Follow him on Twitter @jasonnajum.

A hat seller works on his products in MarrakeshHaggle with confidence in Marrakesh © cornfield / Shutterstock

Have a meeting of minds over mint tea in Marrakesh

Haggling prices in Marrakesh’s souqs (markets), often conducted over a piping hot cup of mint tea, isn’t just for tourists; locals are also loyal shoppers. Start by offering 40% of the shopkeeper’s initial price (though keep in mind shops off the tourist trail tend to offer reasonable prices from the beginning).

Remember that what you’re bargaining for is ultimately worth whatever it means to you. Go in with a positive attitude, have fun with it and try out a few words of Arabic. But in the end, don’t be afraid to walk away by politely thanking shopkeepers for their time.

Learn the lingo: ‘Salam alykhum’ (hello), ‘b’chal hadi?’ (How much is this?), ‘ghali bizef’ (that’s expensive), ‘la chakrun’ (no thanks), ‘wakha’ (OK, yes).

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