When you travel in a foreign country or even just outside of your own hometown, it can be easy to forget that you’re not alone. You don’t need friends in every city to know what’s happening, to know the cool things to do, or the best place to eat. You don’t even need the internet. Simply relying on your conversational skills and being open to new experiences will go a long way to opening up your new surroundings. The easiest place to make this happen is in a bar and the easiest person to talk to is the bartender. This is how to find friends quickly, and this is how we do it when we travel.
Scope out a spot – First, find a bar that you actually feel comfortable in, find a place that you feel like you belong; a place where you like the decor; a place that feels welcoming. If you’re not sure what type of bar you’d be comfortable in, pubs are great places to start. They’re usually warm, welcoming and full of conversation. They also usually have pretty friendly bartenders. Look for people at the bar who look like the know the staff and each other. Dive bars also tend to be friendly. If you’re not sure if you fit in or not, just check out the other patrons, listen to the music, and generally, just observe. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Move on – there are plenty of other fish in the sea!
Start during the day – From personal experience, we’ve found that the best places to strike up conversations in are bars that open during the daytime hours. Typically, the daytime crowd at a bar is more subdued and quiet. People are just in there to enjoy a quiet drink or two. Also, the bartender is usually not as busy as they would be on a Friday night at 9. Use this time not only to find a bar that you like but to get acquainted with the area. Make sure it’s a part of town you feel comfortable having a drink or two in: there’s nothing worse that staggering back to your room drunk and afraid.
Sit at the bar – This should be a no-brainer, but I have to include it. For the love of God, please sit up at the bar if you’re looking to talk to folks. Grabbing a table tells people you want to be left alone and want your privacy, or at least your own sphere of influence. When you choose to sit at the bar, you’re automatically opting in to a communal environment, and you’re face-to-face with the bartender. Also, sit toward the middle of the bar if you can. It conveys to others that you’re assertive and don’t mind sitting among strangers. Before you sit however, quickly observe others at the bar. Avoid sitting right next to anyone you know you don’t want to have a conversation with. If you’re talking to the bartender, it’s pretty much a public conversation that others will jump into as they please. Sitting near the right bar patrons helps to elevate your conversation.
Observe and comment – If you’re a little timid or if the bartender is already in active conversation with other patrons, start out by observing what they’re talking about and figure out a way to contribute, if possible. Sometimes the bartender isn’t free for you to talk to alone. Sometimes you just need to jump into existing conversation and go with the flow. Act natural and make sure to add value or comedy to the situation. Try not to add anything negative or be contrary to the other people in the conversation. Obviously, this is counter-productive to what you’re trying to achieve.
Be bold: talk first – Conversely, if the bar is quiet and no one’s really saying much. Take the opportunity to speak first. An easy time to do this is when you’re already in an exchange with the bartender, like when they deliver a drink to you. Take the chance to start engaging them and asking basic questions like “what’s there fun to do around here?” or “I’m hungry, you got any suggestions?” The second one is good for either if they have food there at the bar or even if they don’t, you could be asking about the general part of town or area. Break the ice, and if they seem open to conversation, get into questions about where they like to go and what they like to do on their time off. Bartenders are wonderful resources and are fountains of local knowledge.
Ask questions and listen – When you’re in conversation, listen to the other person. If they seem interesting, ask questions (not too personal, but close enough to show you’re paying attention) that are relevant to the conversation and what you’re trying to find out about the area or what there is to do in the area. Most of the time, locals are happy to help you out. They’re happy to tell you their favorite places to go to eat or drink or watch a show. They’re also usually willing to give you suggestions on places or things to avoid. Listen when they speak. They probably know better than you do about the neighborhoods to avoid and where not to be at certain times. More than once this has helped us out in cities we weren’t yet familiar with.
Be gracious and generous – So once you’ve established a rapport with the bartender, and he or she has given you all their favorite places to go, and engaged in conversation with you (all while serving you and all the other folks in the bar) be sure to tip well at the end. We come from New Orleans where the locals know that you must take care of your bartender. Extend the same courtesy to a bartender who’s helped you out with local knowledge, or even if they just provided good service and a pleasant stay. One thing to note though – before you tip, make sure you’re in a country that has tipping customs. Some don’t and tips are actually offensive (I don’t understand this). But if you’re in a place where tips are accepted, a good minimum per drink tip is USD $1. That’s a sign of respect and gratefulness here in the US. Extend it to those who help you elsewhere as well.
So there you have it. Getting tapped into the local culture and scene in a new locale can be easy if you know where to go and who to talk to, or at minimum, a great excuse to meet people. As I said earlier, bartenders are a highly valuable source of knowledge and experience in a particular city. They see and experience lots. Most are friendly and happy to share what they know. Don’t let this valuable resource slip by, and have a drink or two while you are discovering where you are!