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Making Headway on the Shy Person's Dilemma

One couple finds their icebreaker in a novelty hat

January 28, 2001|JERRY HAINES | Jerry Haines is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va

On public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," host Garrison Keillor frequently airs commercials for Powdermilk Biscuits, which "give shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done." What a pity they're make-believe.

If ever someone needed a little help, it's the shy traveler. To really appreciate a strange country or city you need to talk to its people, and that means more than "I'll have the No. 3 breakfast, but with bacon instead of blood sausage." It means talking to people who are not part of the tourism infrastructure--strangers on a bus or in a pub or in the bath. But how do you do that if you were born without the Chatty Cathy chromosome?

It's a wonder that shy people like me travel at all.

As the departure date gets closer, my anxiety grows. "You know," I say to myself as I write out the mortgage check, "this is a nice house. Why should I want to leave it?" I turn on the TV and say, "You know, 'Third Rock' is a nice show. I bet they don't have it where we're going."

On the long flight, as my muscles atrophy, I take comfort in my discomfort. At least it's familiar. I find myself saying, "You know, I can't feel my toes, but this sure is a nice plane."

One time I was on the ground at my destination and found myself thinking, "You know, this is a nice airport restroom. I'll just stay in here."

I did eventually come out, and I even enjoyed the strange city. Nevertheless, each day started with a little fit of unease over leaving the confines of the hotel room. "You know, maybe this place is too nice. Next time I'll book a really crummy hotel."

What has saved me is a bold but simple move that any shy person can follow: Marry someone who's not.

This is not to say that my wife, Janice, is a gonzo extrovert. No, she is properly demure, polite and respectful. Nevertheless, she can strike up quick conversations with fellow straphangers on public transport or cappuccino sippers at coffee bars. I stand there studying the tram schedule or the menu, pretending I don't know her. But I'm secretly envious of her ability to establish rapport with strangers at the drop of a hat or chapeau or sombrero. She can pump the locals for dining recommendations or where to buy ballet tickets. She will find out what the taxi fare to the train station really should be. (She also can ask for directions, of course, but, as we know, that's a gender thing.)

I would try to emulate her, but I don't have a grasshopper hat.

Some time back, Janice bought a grasshopper pin at a farmers market in Virginia. It's gray green, made out of corn shucks, I think, and it looks like the real thing. She pins it to a baseball hat, and it appears for all the world as though it has just jumped off the grass and onto her head. People will stop talking in mid-sentence and wonder whether she knows it's there, whether they should say something or whether maybe they should brush it off before it bites her or something. It is a marvelous conversation starter, and, at least so far, no one has attacked her with a fly swatter.

But even she had no idea of its tourism potential. She took the cap along on a trip to Mexico simply because she sunburns easily. But locals on the beach halted, pointed and exclaimed, "Chapuli-i-in!" When Janice demonstrated that it was just a pin, they laughed, saying, "Man, I thought it was real!" We even got into debates about whether it was a chapulin (grasshopper in the local dialect) or a grillo (cricket). So we not only made new friends, we learned two new Spanish words. And isn't that what foreign travel is all about?

She has worn it on subsequent vacations, leading me to what I am sure are unscientific and probably unfair cultural generalizations. In Mexico, for example, people reacted without inhibition. In Helsinki, on the other hand, while the grasshopper clearly startled people, they withheld comment; in fact, the only verbal reaction that Sennor Chapulin prompted in Finland was from a French tourist. In Bali, it was a matter of demographics: Adults covertly nudged each other, but some skinny-dipping kids we met at the side of a temple pool fell all over themselves laughing. (Janice and I plan to continue our research in other countries as soon as we can line up some foundation money. I think there's a doctoral dissertation in this.)

Now, I'm a guy, and a guy can't wear a grasshopper hat. I do have a Spam T-shirt that I got from the Hormel Co. Spam is pretty well known around the world, but when I've worn it, the few responses I've gotten have been from Internet geeks who interpreted it as an endorsement of junk e-mail. They were predictably negative. So I'm still looking.

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