You’re planning a trip to a new place, say, Copenhagen. When you mention it to your pal she exclaims, “I have a friend in Copenhagen! You should meet them!”
Grab that chance. Getting together with a local can take you beyond the tourist sites and Instagram opportunities, allowing you to more deeply experience the community and culture you are visiting.
Here’s how to get the most out of your meet-up.
Research the culture
Take some time in advance to learn about your destination and its culture. Is there appropriate dress you need to be aware of? Are shoes taken off before entering a home? Your host may feel they’d be embarrassing you by pointing out the cultural norms, so research them beforehand.
Personal space may be different than what you are used to. Shaking hands with the opposite gender may not be the norm in a conservative country. Mediterranean cultures prefer closer interactive distances, according to a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, than those in Northern Europe.
Topics of polite conversation may be different as well. Americans often ask, “so what kind of work do you do?” as a way to find common ground when talking with someone new. In some countries, that question can feel intrusive.
Finally, learn some of the local language — at least the words to say “hello,” “how are you,” and “thank you.”
Ask about your host
Knowing more about your host from your mutual friend, and what you may have in common, can help your conversation get beyond the niceties and into a more authentic interchange of ideas.
On her first trip to Asia four years ago, Nora Forbes met up with her best friend’s college best friend in Singapore. After getting to know each other over dinner, the two ended up talking long into the night about what it was like to be a queer person in Singapore and the community there, versus the more liberal atmosphere of an American college campus. “It was the kind of conversation you don’t have with a tour guide,” said Ms. Forbes.
Be a gracious guest
Suggest a few different activities to do together such as meeting at their favorite coffee shop or visiting a new museum exhibition, but note you are flexible. They might make an alternate suggestion, but offerinideas takes some pressure off your host to figure out an activity you might enjoy.
Offer to treat your host to a meal. If they invite you to their home, bring a small gift from your own hometown. Glassybaby votives or Fran’s salted caramels offer a Seattle vibe while a Londoner might bring a tin of tea and biscuits from Fortnum & Mason or a copy of “Paddington Bear” if the host has young children. Canadians or Vermonters can tote along small bottles of maple syrup.
If your luggage can’t accommodate a gift, find something when you arrive. When Petra Palinko hosted a friend of a friend in her flat in Budapest last summer and offered to cook him a Hungarian dinner, the guest surprised her by doing the grocery shopping.
Don’t be a burden
Don’t ask the host to be your translator, driver, restaurant guide and source of all cultural information. Do not bring your laundry to wash!
Establish a clear start and end time when meeting up. This lets your host carve out the right amount of their day for you, and you won’t be eyeing the door, trying to figure out how to leave when the conversation lulls.
“I love sharing my culture,” said Ms. Palinko, including Budapest’s underground music scene and smaller museums she knows that tourists generally don’t get to. “But I don’t want to be responsible for planning their whole itinerary.”
Jonathan Englander, an American who lives in Bangkok, has hosted many friends of friends over the years. “Don’t be helpless or at least don’t let your helplessness overburden the host,” he said. “I’ve had a friend of a friend email me pictures of Tevas to ask my opinion on which was best suited for a proposed trekking trip.“
Mr. Englander also said he hopes his visitors will excuse him from accompanying them to the most famous tourist attractions. “I get hives at the prospect of yet another trip to the main temples,” he said.
Above all, respect your friend’s relationship with your host
Don’t overstay your welcome. Keep away from any touchy personal subjects and don’t tell stories about your mutual friend’s less-than-sober or less-than-stellar exploits. In short, when you leave, your friend’s relationship with the person they have generously shared with you should be stronger because you made a great impression.