The following guest post was written by Colin Wright of Exile Lifestyle. I’m a big fan of Colin’s narrative writing style. Colin is currently living in Buenos Aires while running his sustainable visual design business. Check out his new free eBook How to Be Remarkable.
I’m walking down the streets of somewhere with a gaggle of people I just met, trying to remember names and heading to a place I’ve never been and wouldn’t recognize if I saw it.
The sidewalks are broken, exposing dirt and pools of dirty water. Crowds of people press together, hoping to be granted entry by the scar-faced bouncers guarding clubs with sizzling neon signs and ironically elaborate facades.
I pause for a second to catch my bearings and lose the group, walking alone in the direction they were heading before they disappeared into thin air. I walk further, reaching a club called Ink as my phone rings. The anonymous voice at the other end asks me where I am and directs me back to an unmarked door at the corner where I had strayed from the pack.
Making An Entrance
Upon entry, I immediately head upstairs, nodding to a clearly drunk couple on their way down. I don’t know where my group of familiar strangers has wandered off to, but I do know that the best way to enter a party where you don’t know anyone is to act as if you belong there. As if you live there, in fact. I’m still not sure this is the right place, so confidence seems prudent.
I can hear the sound of electronic disco music as I step onto the roof. Silhouettes periodically lit by colored strobes of light dance around in time with the beat, some stopping to nod as I pass by. I strike up a conversation with the DJ and in his broken English he asks if I want a drink. I reply, in my broken Spanish, that I would love one.
He comes back with some kind of mixed concoction and a beautiful girl that he introduces me to. I smile, she smiles. First connection made. It’s going to be a great night.
‘It was a great night!’ I thought as I slowly ambled in the general direction of my apartment at 9 the next morning. After the house party we went to a bar and after the bar we went to a club where we all continued to drink, dance and, in the case of most of my new friends, partake in illicit substances. Now I just need to sleep for a few hours so I can hop on that client call at 1.
It’s strange moving to a new place, leaving all your friends and family and connections behind. You don’t realize how solid a foundation you’ve poured for yourself over the years until you don’t have that foundation to build on anymore.
It’s easy to do business when you’re in familiar territory because you have so much history with the locals: the other business owners in town are friends or friends of friends.
But picking up and moving to a completely new country – a country where you don’t speak the language and the people adhere to radically different customs – leaves you with no foundation at all. No connections, no commitments, no easy way to tell people your story or hear theirs. It’s a bit like being deaf, mute and immobile in that you can feel totally helpless but still be aware of how much information is swirling all around you, unprocessed and useless.
This is why I frequently find myself at unfamiliar parties and clubs with strangers: I try to build social bridges.
Why I Get Funky
Building a social bridge is all about finding a common denominator between you and your intended audience so that you can make a simple connection and build up to more complicated connections as time goes on.
In the case of the aforementioned house party, I was able to make a simplistic connection with a handful of strangers who have now become good friends. The distance between stranger and friend is not that wide, but if you don’t know how to build strong foundations, you have very little chance of bridging the gap and creating a real, lasting connection with someone you’ve just met.
This is why I’ve made it a priority to go out partying, and this is why I recommend that anyone who is starting from scratch socially – or anyone who wants to improve their existing social circle – does what they can to make similar connections.
Building Social Bridges
Here are some basic steps you can take to simplify the bridge building process:
- Find something you have in common: this may be music, this may be dancing; it could be just about anything. I find that the easiest and most consistent commonality seems be drinking (it spans cultures, age groups, genders, etc), though you definitely do not need to get trashed to make a connection.
Find something non-verbal that allows you to share a smile and allows you to tag along with whatever happens next. Think hard about what would make you want to connect with a stranger and do that.
- Make an effort to communicate: it can be incredibly frustrating (and fun) to attempt communication with people who come from completely different backgrounds and speak unfamiliar languages. Use any words from their language that you know and make use of wild gesticulations (I’ve become a pro at improvised sign-language since moving to Buenos Aires).
If you need to, draw a picture on a napkin or make animal sounds. Treat it like a game and the other person will usually get into it, rather than cringing, shrugging, and walking away.
- Make light of your differences: an experience that I’ve shared with just about everyone I’ve met since I left the US has been identifying and mocking preconceived notions.
This can happen many different ways (depending on how it comes up and who you are speaking to), but generally it will start out with a question about a stereotype and evolve into the listing of every single stereotype you’re aware of about the other person’s country or countrymen.
If done right, this can get the awkward misunderstandings out of the way and set the stage for very open channels of communication. It can also be very funny and eye opening to find out what other people have heard about your culture (a shocking number of people I’ve met assume that everyone from the US either lives like the characters on Friends or carry concealed weapons).
- Embrace your similarities: just as important as identifying the differences between cultures is being able to build as many bridges as possible between them. There are certain life experiences that almost everyone has had regardless of age, sex, race, religion, culture, economic status or political bias. Most everyone, for example, has coming-of-age stories that involve going against their parents’ wishes. Ask other people for their stories and share your own; you’ll likely find that you have more in common than you thought.
- Be generous: this will mean different things to different people, but in general make it a point to give what you can of your hands, mind and wallet.
Pitch in. Help out. Try to make the life of someone else a bit better while you’re around. This shows that you are invested in them as people and as a culture, not just some tourist passing through and snapping photos. Wouldn’t you take a positive stance toward someone who just helped you out with no expectation of anything in return?
It should also be noted that in many countries around the world, your currency will be worth more than the local currency. In Buenos Aires, for example, the US Dollar is worth 3.88 Argentinean Pesos. This means that if I spend a little more than planned at the market it will cost me close to nothing, but those extra pesos will still make a big difference for a small shopkeeper. Take advantage of this fact to give generously without breaking your own bank and everyone will benefit.
Funky is Fun
Even though there are plenty of professional reasons to get out and get funky, it should be noted that partying also serves another important purpose: it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Go out and have a good time! Enjoy making memories with new friends and relax. The best thing you can do for yourself AND your business is to keep a healthy work/life balance: even better if you can improve both at the same time over a beer with strangers.
Colin Wright is a designer and blogger currently based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. You can find him on Twitter at @colinismyname and at Exile Lifestyle, where he blogs about lifestyle design, minimalism and his travels.
photo by miuenski