Introducing yourself and making conversation
Once you’ve accepted a ride from someone and entered their vehicle, introduce yourself and, if possible, shake hands with the driver. Thank them for picking you up, but don't go over the top - some people can feel uncomfortable with elaborate displays of gratitude. A good way to put someone at ease is to immediately treat them as though they are a friend. You can start the conversation by simply asking “How’s your day going?”
Think about the way friends talk to each other – conversation flows naturally, almost effortlessly. They don’t interview each other; there’s no need to ask lots of questions about who they are and what they like, because those things are already known. Friends spend most of the time speaking in statements; one person expresses an opinion on something and the other person responds to it. They try to make each other laugh. Questions are used mostly to clarify or ask for more detail about something that has just been said. Both people usually engage in some form of “active listening”, where the listener agrees with the speaker while they are speaking and then restates or paraphrases what was said in their own words before responding with something new.
Your aim is to reach this kind of conversation as quickly as possible. Don’t fall into the trap of interviewing the driver, or having them interview you. The questions will inevitably dry up and, ultimately, the whole exercise is pointless. It is unlikely you will see this person again, so you don’t need to pry out every little fact about them. Most people realise that, on some level, this type of conversation is inauthentic – and treating them like a friend means being genuine and honest.
When you ask somebody how their day is going, you’ll generally get one of two types of response:
- “Oh, fine thank you, how about you?”
- “Well, I’ve got a long journey ahead of me to Salt Lake City. I’ve just been in Denver where I visited my daughter and her husband to help them get ready for their first baby.”
The second type of response is the one you’re hoping for – a long reply with plenty of conversation topics that you can choose to develop. Look for common ground and try to judge which topic the driver would be most excited to talk about. Then ask a question that aims to elicit a similarly long response.
If you get the first response, then it is up to you to be the one to present potential conversation topics from which the driver can select. A good reply would be something like: “I’m having a really good time. I’ve just been visiting my friend in Boulder and we spent a lot of time climbing and hiking. Now I’m trying to get to San Francisco – I don’t know much about it, but I’ve heard it’s beautiful.” With this response you have revealed something about yourself (you like outdoor activities and beautiful cities), you’ve opened up potential conversation topics about Boulder, and you’ve indirectly posed a question about what San Francisco is like. Try to anticipate any kind of common ground you might share, but don’t be dishonest about yourself to try and make them like you.
By talking this way you give the driver the opportunity to select the conversation topics that they are most comfortable with and you’ll find it harder to run out of things to say. If conversation dries up about one topic, you can go back and develop a new line of conversation about something that was said previously or you can ask another open-ended question and develop from there.
As you talk you’ll begin to get an idea of the personality and interests of the person you’re speaking to. You can use this information to effectively direct the conversation towards topics that they’re more likely to enjoy talking about. Here is a list of the types of conversation you could be aiming to have, in order from best to worst:
- The driver explains a subject in which they are an authority – their passions or areas of expertise.
- The driver tells you a story, or shares their thoughts and feelings about experiences they have had.
- You share with the driver your experiences, thoughts, and feelings with regard to a subject they are genuinely interested in.
- You seek opinions and recommendations from the driver on safe topics (movies, music, books, places to visit).
- You tell an entertaining story.
- Small talk.
- Sensitive topics including most political, religious, or philosophical discussion.
Is talking about sensitive topics really worse than silence? It depends, of course, and there are some hitchhikers who enjoy discussing these subjects while travelling in particular. Certainly you have the opportunity to hear a wide range of views and broaden your current beliefs by engaging in this type of discussion. However, you must have a high degree of tact and open-mindedness for this to work and, crucially, so must your driver. These conversations can be a minefield; tread lightly.
Generally, the more you manage to be the one listening, the better the conversation is – and you get bonus points for finding common ground or learning new things about the world. However, occasionally you’ll get a ride with someone who is not very talkative. In these situations it is up to you to judge if that person would be entertained by one of your longer stories, or if they’d prefer to sit in semi-awkward silence for a while. When you’re spending several hours travelling together, silence can sometimes be a relief.
Helping others help you
Most of the time, if you are in someone’s vehicle, it means they have made a decision to help you – but not all drivers understand the best way to do that. Don’t be afraid to be clear about what would be most useful for you. You’ll find that many drivers are more than happy to go out of their way to make your life easier and it’s definitely worth taking advantage of this when you can.
As you near the end of your time travelling together most drivers will ask you where you want to be dropped off. If you are in a town or city, go through the process of finding the next appropriate road to look for a hitching spot and ask if they can drop you off near that road or near any public transport that can be used to reach that road. If you want to stay on the same road, but they’re leaving it, ask to be dropped off at the last rest stop.
I've found that hitchhiking goes very smoothly for me when I use this magic phrase:
“I need to be dropped off on the road which has the most traffic going to [my destination], in a place where it is safe to stop.”
If you are close to your final destination, drivers will usually offer to take you all the way there.