Art of Travel Conversation

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
-George Bernard Shaw

Crowded Saigon backpacker area is perfect for noisy conversation
Crowded Saigon backpacker area is perfect for noisy conversation

It seems that some travelers lack basic conversation skills. This isn’t to say that I’m a great conversationalist — I usually go out for a drink after work and read a book in the corner (this includes my Friday evening at the local beer garden because sometimes Tolstoy is more interesting than conversations with strangers) — but I certainly understand that there are some things that don’t work as conversation starters.

Last week I headed to the backpacker area of Ho Chi Minh City — it was the first day of Tet and it was the only part of the city that was open for dinner and drinks. As I decided to sit at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with sidewalk seating that turned the street into a narrow single lane, I was approached by a Canadian traveler. It all started just fine with him asking where I was from and ordering some beer. The follow-up to discovering that I’m from New Jersey was one of the top ten conversation no-nos. He asked, “So, do you think 9/11 was an inside job?”

Seriously? Is that how you normally start a conversation with a fellow traveler? Or anyone for that matter?

Fortunately, I’m not easily offended by such stupid questions and continued talking with this young Canadian. He then went into how horrible the Americans acted during the Vietnam War, but of course he’s only read the the government propaganda from the museums in Vietnam and didn’t even understand the ridiculous political situation that led to the war. Still, I wasn’t bothered by this — I admit that the war was a mistake and the use of napalm was atrocious even by standards of war.

And the conversation kept getting more bizarre

phnom penh night market
A social crowd at the night market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Somehow, this conversation turned to prostitution. He asked if I’d had any experience with the prostitutes in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. He even admitted to trying it a couple times.

At this point, a 20-something Irish couple sat at the table next to us and we could start a whole new conversation. This conversation ended up with the Canadian regaling us with tales of drugs, excessive drinking, and sex with girls who were described in terms that resembled Michael Bluth’s mentally retarded girlfriend (some of the funniest episodes of Arrested Development).

Fortunately, after a bit, the Irish couple turned the conversation toward travel destinations and plans (or lack thereof). The conversation became more friendly and pleasant. And when the Canadian departed, the three of us headed elsewhere for another drink and a game of pool.

The conversation fish in Japan
The conversation fish in Japan

This definitely wasn’t the friendly Canadian conversation that I had on my way to Panama — those two had some amusing stories as well, but they weren’t nearly as graphic and didn’t come out until we’d talked for quite some time. They were really only told as jokes anyway.

I’ve dealt with sex-pats before in China. Their conversations usually revolved around what they didn’t like about China and sex. They were amusing, for about 15 minutes. But even their sordid conversations didn’t start that way — they usually eased into such conversations to prevent everyone at the table from leaving.

It was always better to have people who discussed other topics, such as work, news, literature, or situations back home. These other topics were conversations that kept expats grounded in reality — we could still rant about difficulties of life in China, but we had to avoid making those the focus of the conversation.

Some ideas for starting conversations with strangers in foreign countries:

  • Don’t open with any sensitive topics that could result in a punch to the face.
  • Keep the graphic sexual details to a minimum, unless it’s the punchline to a joke
  • Ask about food or drink recommendations
  • Discuss where you’ve traveled
  • Find something in common
Have you ever had an uncomfortable conversation with a fellow traveler? Any advice for dealing with such people?

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