It was one in the morning and I was sipping on Fernet and Coke while discussing the commonalities of Tango and Marital Arts with an Argentinean who had trained extensively in both. The Argentinean, named Ricardo, explained that in the first, you must use your insight into your partners body to work together while in the latter, you must use the same insight to defeat them. It was a far cry from the night spend alone watching Love Actually that I had had just 72 hours prior in a city 6,000 miles away. But, I’ll get to that in a second.
The previous night I had been unable to sleep. I was still dealing with the five time zones I had skipped (I feel you Marty McFly!) and was trying in vain to get used to a culture that routinely stays out until six in the morning. Countless sheep from REM sleep, I did the next best thing. I got on Twitter. Someone I had never met asked me via tweet if they could get a free copy of my upcoming book in exchange for a review. I Googled the person and found out they were a very successful marketer themselves. I asked them to send me their address and then tweeted out to the world that I had made it safety to Buenos Aires.
When I checked Twitter in the morning, I found out that the same SEO was also living in Buenos Aires. He asked me if I wanted to join him for a traditional Argentinean roast at a CEO’s house of a major web company. I looked at my completely empty calendar and told him I could probably pencil him in.
We pulled up to the house about seven or eight (Yes, that was a Fresh Prince reference. No, I won’t apologize.) and quickly realized this was not going to be just an ordinary barbecue. We were greeted by wait staff and escorted past several modern art displays to a small table filled with meat and cheeses on the edge of a golf course. The CEO said his staff wasn’t done preparing yet and he didn’t want us to feel uncomfortable with the unfinished presentation. I didn’t think being uncomfortable was going to be a problem.
We sat at a small table under a big tree and waited for the meat to finish cooking. I knew that Argentineans didn’t mess around with their steak but I was still unprepared for what was to come. The grill (if you can call it that) measured 10 feet by 3 feet. The cook was preparing at least ten different types of meat and the other staff was preparing a table of fresh vegetables, fruits and diary products. The dining table was pre-loaded with bottles of red wine (Vino Tinto) and traditional wooden plates with brazilian crafted eating utensils.
As the management team and I sat around the delicious meal, the conversation went from technology to politics to the works of Shakespeare. The social dynamics were fascinating as everyone operated under the social forces of the CEO. Unrestricted by these social constructs, I held my own discussing my belief that China was going to overtake the United States as the world’s major super power sometime in my lifetime. After discussing the increasing influence of China, the conversation then turned to Tim Ferris’s new book and a discussion started about the importance of the 80/20 rule. While all of this was taking place everyone enjoyed their full plate of meats and vegetables. I went for seconds… twice.
My dinner the following night was almost the exact opposite type of situation but was possibly more delightful. A SEO friend of mine, Aaron Davis, had introduced me email to a Buenos Aires local named Nico who he had stayed with while in Argentina. Nico responded via e-mail very politely and insisted I come to a roast at his house. Hungry and eager to meet him, I agreed.
I arrived at his apartment and knocked on the door. A very attractive Argentinean woman answered the door, kissed me on the check and offered me a beer. “You’re not Nico… but very nice to meet you and yes I’ll have a beer”. I walked in and she gave me a tour of the house. She was Nico’s wife.
A few months ago while traveling in Israel I learned it was common upon first meeting someone to ask them their name, what part of the military they had served in, how much money they now made and who they voted for in last election. At first I was offended by these questions. In the United States, we don’t ask such questions! (Pish posh!) It turns out, as a result, our shallow introductions also keep us from really getting to know people upon first introduction. You can learn a lot about a person by the answers to those four questions.
Argentineans don’t directly ask these questions but they do have a knack for getting the corresponding answers. This always leads to a much deeper and full natured conversation. This night with Nico and his wife, Victoria, was no different. We covered politics (both Argentinean and US), religion, sex, food and money. We enjoyed a pizza and finished a few more than a few beers. I will be having dinner with Nico and Victoria again soon.
While all of this had been going on, I had been exchanging e-mails with yet another local named Morgan. He invited me to his house for a wine night with “several dozen of his closest friends”. I agreed but couldn’t help but think I was getting set up. I had specifically been told by another local to bring either chocolates or flowers as a gift to Argentinean houses rather than wine because of the level of wine related expertise of Buenos Aires locals.
In a restaurant when forced to pick the wine, I always go for the second least expensive option on the menu as it is usually has the best flavor for its value. (The least expensive option on a menu is notorious for being a cheaply flavored wine with an exaggerated price as restauranteurs know cheap customers will pick it). In a wine store, I haven’t developed a rule of thumb yet so I went for the one that was at eye level (and thus moderately priced) and had the coolest name, El Fin De Mundo (The end of the world). It was a Malbec made in the southern region of Argentina which is widely believed to be one of the last places on earth explored by Europeans. (Thus the punny name.)
I arrived at Morgan’s apartment and was immediately greeted by the man himself. He was about my age, white and originally from Portland, Oregon. There were about 30 other people at his apartment who all had fascinating back stories of their own. Some had started their own companies, others had spent several years abroad and everyone had something to share with the group.
My comprehension of spoken Spanish is starting to gain legs and I was happy to find out I could get the gist of most of the Spanish conversations in the room. Like many foreign language learners my vocabulary is growing faster than my grammar knowledge. This means I can understand spoken Spanish much more than I can contribute to conversation myself. Luckily, most of the discussions I had with people revolved around their passions. When it comes to this topic, body language expresses much more than grammar.
When someone talks about something they are really passionate about, their body usually says much more than their mouth. Their posture opens up (arms open, palms out), their face brightens (smile extends horizontally, pupils dilate slightly) and their voice quickens and becomes more punctual. Covering someone’s passion regardless of if I am interested in the subject itself is always my favorite conversation. I have been informally studying body language for almost a year now and it has dramatically changed how I interact with people. I find body language uniquely beautiful because of its universal nature (everyone laughs in the same language) and its ability to cut through social constructs to reveal what people are actually thinking. (Hint: When someone says “That is hilarious” and smiles with their mouth but not with their eye brows, they don’t actually think you are funny. They are just being polite.)
The party went late into the night and eventually ended with a long conversation about the differences between American and Argentinean steak, the intricacies of a Paleo diet and procession of all night Argentinean weddings. The conversation was fun, smart and most importantly, it was with really great people.
When I was living in Seattle, I shared an apartment building with about 60 other people. While we shared walls, we never shared more time together than an elevator ride. I did spend a lot of time with people outside my apartment but it was always with the same group in the same places. In many ways I was in voluntary social purgatory. I wasn’t meeting new people and I was rarely talking about new ideas.
Now that I am traveling the world, I am meeting new people every day. What was the cure for this social stall? When I first pondered this, I thought the cure was simple necessity. I was being forced to meet new people simply by virtue of location. The reason I was enjoying myself more socially was simply because I didn’t have a choice. As I thought about this more, I realized this was only half true.
The other half of this truth is that I didn’t actually have to travel to a new continent to do this. If I would have realized how easy it was to expand my social experiences, I could have done it from my home. I am doing it know because I have to but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have done it before without the necessity.
The same is true for you. What is keeping you from meeting the people around you? What friendships are you missing out on with the people you nod at in the elevator everyday? What are you not learning because you are not having conversations with that co-worker that you only exchange informal niceties with?
I challenge you to go out of your way and start a conversation with someone new today. Don’t stop after small talk. Ask them about their passions and see if you can really get the person to open up. Worst case scenario you will feel temporarily uncomfortable. Best case scenario, you will make a new friend. It has worked wonders for me, now it is your turn.