the lonely planet twenty questions

how to talk about what you know while avoiding what you don't when talking to strangers...

Written by graham


i don't necessarily claim to have travelled a lot, but i happen to be travelling right now as i'm writing this (in an internet cafe, as a matter of fact). i've noticed that i tend to have the exact same conversation with everyone I meet, over and over. it's not anyone's fault, i'm sure. it just happens. You get used to asking and fielding certain questions, especially when not everyone speaks the same language. but all the same, it is very frustrating to feel that despite all the words being exchanged, nothing important or even remotely interesting is being said.

i wonder... what is "good" conversation, and why is it so rare?

[article begins]

people like to talk about what they know.

talking about what i know is a lot of fun. i suspect it is for the same reason a guitar player plays his guitar. he knows how to do it, and he likes to have an audience to confirm it. i know i sure do. if i don't know a lot about something, it is hard to think of things to say. even worse, i might say something wrong and face the embarrassment of being corrected. in front of a total stranger, that can be frightening. i'm not sure why. but it is scary enough to keep me going to great lengths to avoid them discovering the horrible truth:

my conversation is boring and i am stupid.

when you travel, you meet a lot of strangers. that means, you inevitably find yourself in a lot of conversations with strangers. starting a conversation is way more difficult than keeping one going. especially with the opposite sex.

but travelling makes it a little easier, because thrust into a situation of mutual unfamiliarity, two travellers always share an immediate bond over their travelling experience... if nothing else.

because of this, i have developed a formula for the perfect conversation waiting to happen. in homage to the ubiquitous guidebook that is no doubt in your backpack and mine, i hereby present:

the lonely planet twenty questions.

let's begin...

  1. what is your name?

    it is fair that the first few questions between strangers ought to be pretty easy to field. since most people know their name, this is a good place to start.

  2. where are you from?

    even though i left my hometown because i was so bored of it, meeting someone who hasn't been there suddenly makes it seem exciting enough to talk about again.

  3. can we compare and contrast places of origin?

    since we both know a lot about where we come from, it is fun to talk about how those two places stack up against each other.
    the weather and traffic conditions are especially fascinating to discuss.

  4. where have you been?

    since every traveller must be coming from somewhere, it's a natural question. isn't this easy?

    (hopefully it isn't the same place as Question #2 or we'll hit some topical redundancy which might manifest itself as an awkward silence.)

  5. and how was it?

    i ask this to see how it compares to my pre-existing judgement of the place. If it differs, i might vocalize my disagreement and attempt to start an argument over the point. arguments are a lot of fun. and sometimes it even gets my heart pumping. if we're lucky, we'll get so wound up that we'll come to blows or have sex.

    it's even better if i've never been there myself and just repeat what i've heard my grandmother and pub mates say about the place because having actually been there and thus knowing better, you'll get really offended by my stupidity and try harder to prove my dumb ass wrong.

  6. are there any noteworthy features? discuss.

    even the most boring place on earth has the fact that it is the most boring place on earth to talk about. if i haven't been there, my Lonely Planet guidebook can tell me what would interest me if i did go.. even though now don't really don't need to because i already read about it. but go ahead, tell me anyway what i already know while i sit here and think of something better to say in the meantime.

at this point the conversation is flowing well, but i have to admit, the answers are getting a bit predictable. especially if this is the eighth time i've had the conversation... today.

so now that we've covered each other's past histories, we are well-acquainted enough to move on to the more exciting realm of our future plans.

  1. where are you going?

    in addition to having come from somewhere, every traveller is also on the way somewhere else! another sure-fire topical bull's-eye toward brilliant conversation.

    i should write a book on this.

  2. any topically-related anecdotal information to share? discuss.

    if i happen to know something about this place, i now have the chance to talk about another thing i know about while successfully being able to pass it off as dispensing some useful advice to you. how nice of me!

    since the future hasn't happened yet, its conversational well is a little shallow. at the risk of running out of something to say, it is better return to the safety of past history again.

  3. what do you do back home?

    sometimes i ask this because i want to have a perfectly accurate snap judgement of a person's character. knowing what their job is will instantly tell me this, as well secretly informing me as to how much money they make, and therefore how many nice things they may or may not own, which is reflective of their human worth. it helps to only talk to people that have the same skin colour as me because chances are better they'll have a job i can relate to enough to mutually complain about. complaining together is a good way to bond.

  4. where did you go to school?

    this is actually a trick question. i really just ask this to check whether they did "go to school", meaning university only-and whether it is one that cost a lot of money to attend and/or is famous enough that i've heard of it. doing so helps me establish their worthiness to address as a fellow human or the kind of subservient slug that someone like a plumber could only be.

    also, if they happened to study something that i'm actually already interested in as well, we have another conversational bull's-eye. but that's pretty rare because most of the things other people study are boring. let's face it.. who really cares what you wrote that paper on besides you?

  5. do we share interests? discuss.

    based on the vividly revealing testimony of the above subliminal interrogation, i hopefully have enough to find something you like actually interesting enough to talk about more.1

    1 unfortunately, this is rare. i'm afraid the things you like are things i don't know anything about, much less enough to actually care about. it's cute that you want to tell me about them, but it is a lot of work to listen to a gibbering baboon try to describe the taste of its own feces. so instead, i usually use the time to practice my best "i'm paying careful attention to what you are saying" mannerisms such as nodding and um-humming, while tuning my powerful mind toward more pressing matters, such as how much i need to poo right now.
  6. so how about popular culture?

    here comes the conversational cavalry!

    just when i thought we were running out of things to say to one another, I realized that thanks to pop culture, there are billions of world-famous celebrity antics at my reference that even the most primitive slog on the most remote island must have heard about.

    and if you haven't, i can at least take pleasure in vocalizing just how incredible that is. i may even have to confirm this astounding truth several times with emotionally-animated bobbling-head gasps of amazement, such as, "Really?!", "Are you serious?!" and-if the experience has succeeded in touching me in a profoundly spiritual way-"Oh my god!" 2

    2 thankfully, it can take a long time to exhaust pop culture as a conversation topic. depending on how juicy the particular soap-operatic, reality-televised, politically-blundering, celebrity-exposing gossip is, we might never exhaust it in the short time we have beside each other on the public bus or office lunchroom. the best sources are the ones that continually renew themselves with new antics to discuss, so long as our minds both remain simple and stagnant enough to constantly be entertained by this.

however, one can't live on cotton candy alone. one needs the meat and potatoes. which is why i ask...

  1. so how about the latest news?

    now is the perfect opportunity for me to show you have caring and sensitive I am-not to mention worldly informed-by bringing up the most recent or horrific tragedy... preferably one that was close to home. we can swap emotionally-significant stories about how we were personally affected. or if we were, we can at least describe where we were when we heard about it. these are good ways to create the illusion i care about what happened. if i could do it on the fly, i'd get a little teary too.

    if it's far from home, it's harder to relate to, so it had better be really big with lots of vivid pictures.. like at least a couple thou dead. millions is better. the more i hear about it, the more i can feel like i really "know" what it must be like to be there, and it feels a lot more consistent when i shake my head from my nice plush living room during the family get-together, saying, "such a terrible thing, isn't it?"

    the best is when there's a major political or ideological upheaval to accompany it, with clearly defined sides labeled "us" and "them", which i can pick a fight over when i feel like fighting, which is when i'm drunk.

    by this point, i'm afraid my conversational well has been drained dry. i might even have to resort to...

  2. do you know any jokes?

    this is the conversational equivalent to a toad's spontaneous urination upon being picked up. it's purely a defense measure of desperation. while you struggle to think back through twenty, thirty, fifty years of back history to your childhood in an attempt to remember one (that is, if you bother at all and don't just immediately tell me you can't remember any), i can work on managing my raising panic that you are about to realize i'm boring to talk to.

    evasive action is required!
    dive! dive!

  3. are you hungry?

    everyone needs to eat. no matter how boring you think i am, sooner or later your need to sustain your nourishment through the intake of food or drink will get the better of you, and i'll be there to follow it along. now we'll have a whole new setting to comment on...

  4. so how about this place?

    after discussing the past of our personal histories, the future of our plans, and our abstract beliefs about the current happenings and culture, it seems like at this point, the only thing left on my plate is what's in front of me. fortunately, with just two eyes, i can make an infinite amount of observations about the four walls surrounding me. unfortunately, few of them are interesting.

i'm about spent now.

we've been getting to know each other for a good while now, so maybe it's finally time to just drop all this silly conversation charade and get down to the real point of why we even bothered to start talking in the first place...

  1. do you want to have sex?

    all this talking really makes me want to get myself off and i could really use your help. if you're lucky, there might even be a little pleasure in it for you too!

    oh, c'mon.

    what more could you really ask from conversation?