How to Small Talk Internationally

Dear Debra,

My partner and I travel often for work and pleasure, and while we are great traveling companions, we disagree on how to converse with the people we meet. When traveling internationally, specifically to poorer countries, is it condescending not to ask your taxi driver if he’s ever been to the U.S. (thus assuming that he does not have the financial means to travel?) — or is it worse to pose the question, when clearly the driver’s financial story seems obvious?

Please know that I am not a snob, nor am I typically a person who just assumes the life experience of those around me, I simply want to do the right thing. Do we appear like two wealthy, disconnected Americans living the high life, or do we level the playing field by asking this question? Interested to hear your take — thank you.


Traveling Man

Dear Traveling,

First, I applaud you both for making small talk while traveling. And, I applaud you for traveling, period, as it opens up a new way of looking at the world.

I understand your dilemma, and I believe there is a balance. Instead of asking a specific question, such as: “Have you ever been to the U.S.?,” try approaching it from the angle of getting to know more about the person, rather than his or her specific vacations. Open-ended questions are the quickest and kindest way to achieve a positive end result.

Saying the cliché: “How are you today?,” is appropriate as long as you really mean it, and are planning to follow-up with a more engaging conversation. For example, jumping into a cab in Chicago and saying: “How are you today?,” is really just you saying hello, a form of greeting. When traveling internationally, asking “How are you?” is an actual question, one that will likely get a response. So, if you are hoping for a conversation in Chicago, “How are you?” won’t work — but if you are shooting for a meaningful exchange in another part of the world, you are in luck.

The key to keeping a conversation going is to dig a little deeper with your phrases and make the exchange about the other person. Open-ended questions that might work for you and your partner while traveling could include:

• “We are so excited to be in Bali — what brought you here?”

• “What is your favorite thing about living in Bali?”

• “If we were to sample one new dish while in the country, what do you recommend and why?”

• “What advice would you give first-time visitors to this part of the country?”

• “How did you get started in this kind of work?”

• “Tell me about your family.”

• “Describe your definition of the perfect day in Bali.”

I, too, travel a lot for work and pleasure. Striking up a conversation has allowed me new experiences and lasting memories. Because of exchanges between myself and a local, I have discovered the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants, engaged in expeditions that are not listed in any guidebook and learned more about the city I am visiting than I ever imagined. And I’ve made many friends across the world. Real friends who ask, “How are you?,” — and mean it. Happy travels.

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