Every Couchsurfer in the world knows the routine. Some stranger has just pulled you off the foreign chaos of the streets and planted you into their equally alien home. They’ve given you the tour, showed you where to put your luggage and how the hot water works, and now you’re sitting in their living room, looking at each other. You begin to talk, and try to figure out who the stranger in the room is.
These talks are exercises in the art of small talk, host and guest grasping for a nugget of common ground to stand and converse on. Over the cooling cups of tea, one has the opportunity to create a friendship, develop a business connection, or just get friendly enough to have a warm place to sleep that night. What comes out of the talk is influenced by chemistry, but it’s also a product of your efforts to find the point of connection.
It’s well worth the effort to find it. Chris and I have made great friends, developed trip supporters, or got some of our best scoops over these conversations. Besides, you have no choice but to engage them. It’s part of the cost of free couches.
Here are a few principles we go by to make these hours around a coffee table worth their while:
POSTULATE ONE’S SMALL GUIDE TO SMALL TALK
1. Silence is golden. Don’t ruin it with a boring question.
Letting silence hang is a way to show that you’re comfortable. The other benefit is that it often makes other people uncomfortable. They try and break the silence, and often give you some new piece of information, or start talking about something they really care about.
Chris and I use this in interviews all the time. When we were working on a call center story in Bangalore, we were trying to get our main character- a training instructor- to open up about some dark things in his past. I mentioned an occasion I’d done drugs in high school, then cut the story short before I put any detail in it. The silence hung for a little while, and then this guy launched into a full history of his battle against heroin addiction. It became a centerpiece of the story.
2. Don’t let people be lazy. Force substance with follow-up questions if they give you bullshit answers.
People so often give us half-baked answers, which is the quickest way to end a conversation (for the record, we also get lazy and use them from time to time.)
A few days ago we’d gotten invited out to Domino’s pizza by a few Indian gentlemen. The conversation was not progressing naturally. Our host had just left his job in Dubai, and we asked him why he left.
“Well, you know, it all gets to be the same out there.”’
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, I just kind of got bored.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“My mom wanted me close to home.”
Bingo. Now we’re getting to the core of the issue.
3. Work as a team
If you’ve got a travel buddy with you, this is critical. Exhausted from a day of traveling, taking turns is a great way to get a few moments to disengage from the conversation, whether it be to zone out, get your affairs in order, or take an extra long shower.
Chris and I take turns taking hits for the team. We surfed once with a family that lived on an organic farm in Austria. They were an absolutely charming couple, and were deeply passionate about sustainable living. They ended our conversation by showing us a twenty minute long Youtube video about how to create sustainable water heater with piles of rotting wood. After a day of bike touring, Chris toughed it out while I slept in my chair.
4. Make it a game.
The whole conversation gets way more interesting if you set a goal. What do you want to know about the person?
Our favorite game is trying to figure out why it is that people want to host total strangers in their home. It’s never just kindness. Some just want people to party with, some are totally lonely, some always wanted kids but never had them and adopt travelers instead. There’s a myriad of reasons, and it helps us learn a lot about the person.
My other favorite game is when we surf the real posh couches. It’s called “find out where the money comes from.”
5. Don’t talk about the weather or food. They are tortuously boring to everyone involved.
Duh. You’re going to do it anyways, but try not to. A better fallback conversation is “how did you get into couchsurfing?” It’s still pretty boring, but at least you’re talking about something that the whole world doesn’t have in common.