While traveling this past week I found myself waiting on a train platform. I was headed south from Boston and the train was delayed. While I was waiting for my train I saw a man come bursting through the station doors. He ran to the track next to mine and asked the conductor whether the train that was leaving just then was bound for Washington, D.C., his destination. When he was told that it wasn’t, he asked where his train platform was. The conductor didn’t know the answer and suggested that the man go back upstairs into the station and check the board. I knew based on his questions that I was waiting for the same train that he was looking for. Just as he was about to run up the stairs and back to the main station, I stopped him and let him know that he was in the right spot.
Over the next two hours on the train to D.C., a couple of things happened. I met someone I hadn’t known before and we passed the time on the lengthy ride by chatting and learning a little bit about each other (my new friend designs expensive boats.) Now I do understand there is a chance that, when you travel, you wish to keep to yourself and not engage in conversation with other people. That is normal and perfectly all right, but you must remember that meeting new people can lead to many positive outcomes. You could make a new friend, find a more pleasant way to pass the time on an otherwise boring trip, learn something that can benefit you personally, or foster a new professional connection that can benefit you or your organization in some way. With that in mind and based on my personal experiences traveling quite frequently, here are three tips on how to break the ice with people you have never spoken to before.
The first step in meeting new people while traveling is to offer something of value to them. Before I helped my new friend out by letting him know what train he should be on, he was frantically looking for his platform and had no clue whether he was in the right spot. He was lugging his bags and looking in all directions, clearly unsure of where to go. I was fortunate to have the information he was looking for in this case, so I was able to give something of value to someone in need. Offering this piece of valuable information did break the ice for us and opened the door to further communication.
Sharing information with a random stranger can, on the other hand, be a little bit tricky for two reasons. Firstly, you want to make sure you are right about whatever valuable information you’re distributing. There is nothing worse than dispensing wrong information to someone in need. Secondly, you don’t want to come across as a know-it-all because that could turn the other person off from engaging in any conversation with you whatsoever. When people are getting set for a long journey they already have apprehension about the trip, as there are typically so many variables that are outside of their control. The last thing people want is to be stuck sitting next to a know-it-all that won’t stop talking about nonsense to them. To avoid coming off that way, I will often use the tactic of letting a person know that I have been in a similar position as they are in at that moment and can appreciate how they feel, then use some outside reason as to why we have common ground (in this example, using a comment like, “Don’t worry, the tracks are poorly marked at this station,” shows that you are empathetic to the person’s circumstances.) You can then stop talking to see if they care to engage in conversation any further. If the other person doesn’t respond or acknowledge your comment, then they may not be interested in engaging in conversation at that time. That is all right. You can feel good about having shared helpful information and can go about your trip as usual. If they engage, however, they may be interested in talking to you, and perhaps they are also hoping to chat, foster a new professional connection, or simply pass the time.
If you’ve gotten this far in your new interaction, the next step is to ask open-ended questions. In my situation, once the man at the train station realized he was in the right spot to catch his train and we were left waiting for the train together, I simply asked him, “Where are you headed?” A question like is very simple, but effective. We then got into a conversation about where he is from, where he lives now, his family, his job, his friends, why he is going south, and even some of his hobbies. By keeping the questions open-ended you are letting the person you are talking to direct the conversation where they want it to go instead of leading them yourself. By letting the other person guide the conversation it will lead to a more genuine back and forth between two people, as opposed to merely scratching the surface. People are usually very excited to talk about themselves, so by asking questions about the other person you will find that they become more at ease and comfortable talking to you. Once people are comfortable, they drop their guard and relax, leading to a more pleasant journey for everyone involved.
Both of these steps are important, but there is nothing more important than remembering to smile. A simple smile goes a long way in helping people feel more comfortable with you. Smiling is not like breathing. It’s not involuntary, so you will need to think about doing it. By smiling you are showing the other person that you are comfortable in the current situation and are happy to be present in it. You will have greater success meeting new people and will be able to begin more meaningful conversations because most people are more apt to be interested in talking to you if they feel comfortable with you. The easiest way to get people to feel comfortable with you is to smile. Often times, people don’t smile because they simply don’t think about it enough. Remind yourself repeatedly and consistently to smile.
Traveling can be a stressful event for a lot of reasons. There are logistics, complications, events outside of your control, risks, and sometimes delays. It is important to remember that, in most situations that involve some form of traveling, you are not alone with these feelings. At train stations, bus depots, and airports, everyone around you is also traveling, so if you engage with the people around you, you have common ground with them to build from. Although you may not automatically think it, these locations can be great places to meet people. Meeting new people can have profound benefits on other people’s lives and your own life. You can create new personal relationships, learn something new from another person that has different life experiences than you, and build your professional network. You never know who you might meet while traveling or why that new contact could be valuable to you. However, you will never get the opportunity to find out if you don’t smile, go into your interaction with an inquisitive mind, and offer something of value to them in return.