The Fine Art of Place-Dropping

Spud Hilton: With a subtle, well-crafted remark about your last trip, you, too, can win friends and influence people!

02.26.10 | 11:30 AM ET

tourists on camelsiStockPhoto

Passing by the desk of a colleague, I noticed his usual carefree blond locks were more closely—and more creatively—trimmed, in a style that seemed to reflect the handiwork of a less-than-holy union of Dirk the Marines’ barber and a 25-horsepower weed whacker.

“Um, new haircut?”

He grinned. “Yup. From a Pakistani man in Barcelona.”

And with that he had practiced a subtle and often unnoticed art form: place-dropping.

Lesser known than its popular cousin, name-dropping, place-dropping shares many of the same elements and goals, but focuses on experiences with places—often exotic or far-flung corners of the map—instead of people for the purpose of raising one’s status within a social hierarchy (even if the hierarchy is anyone within earshot at the pub).

And while it once was enough to offer up the place alone and the fact that you were there, an increasingly well-traveled population makes it necessary to add a wild-card element (sometimes as mundane as getting a haircut) to capture the attention of listeners.

Often, an effective place-drop (not “place dropping,” for obvious reasons) is a short phrase casually blended into a conversation that accomplishes five goals:

1. Conveys that you were there.

2. Explains that you did something interesting. (Because, again, just being there isn’t enough.)

3. Invites requests for further explanation. (Having a larger story is a requirement.)

4. Invites others to briefly share their stories, comparable or not. Again, briefly.

5. Inspires the glowing envy of those for whom “exotic and far-flung” is Epcot Center.

The art form can be at its most brilliant—and brutal—among large groups of longtime travel agents, tour guides or guidebook editors, inflaming a level of one-upmanship that makes beauty pageant contestants look like ganja-smoking slackers. (One of my colleagues usually breaks stalemates with a passing reference to being given a receipt from Maoist rebels in Nepal for having “donated” money at gunpoint.)

Some basics of place-dropping etiquette to consider:

Examples from my own catalog (which, I guess, makes this whole column one big place-drop):

“Exchanging e-mail and rounds of pancha with pushcart drivers in Funchal (Madeira).” (Note: It’s even better if you remember the specific street.)

“Sharing a Fanta Orange with a 90-year-old sheikh in the Jebel Akhdar mountains.”

“Hunting for green curry rotis in downtown Grenville (Grenada).”

“Shopping for stamps in Tabuaeran (Kiribati).”

And my trump card: “Jamming with Bulgarian street musicians in Málaga (Spain).”

Not surprisingly, I have friends who place-drop in Christmas cards. Postcards are too obvious, but a holiday note on the back of a photo from the Kham region of Eastern Tibet fits the standard (and made me mildly ashamed of the photo of Ann and me on a hill behind our San Francisco apartment).

A few more tips:

A warning: Place-dropping is addictive. You can’t use the same drops in the same circles, so you have to keep going to new places. (Although beware of becoming a trophy destination hunter who travels in ever-widening circles of obscurity—it rarely goes hand in hand with deeper understanding of a culture so much as being able to impress friends with cluttered passport pages.)

In the end, in your whole life you might never place-drop, regardless of your far-reaching and exotic travels. But considering the requirements (to go someplace interesting and do something interesting), it certainly couldn’t hurt to go with the approach that you will.

Spud Hilton is Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he blogs at Bad Latitude. His stories have appeared in more than 70 papers and magazines in North America -- a few of which still publish. He has been hopelessly lost on five continents.

14 Comments for The Fine Art of Place-Dropping

John R 02.26.10 | 12:59 PM ET

The fine art of place-dropping?

More like the fine art of being a totally insufferable a**.

DR 02.26.10 | 1:27 PM ET

This is the most interesting article I’ve read since the time my ex-pat dive guide gave me a copy of the local paper to read while doing a surface interval in Rarotonga.  Nice job!

Jim Benning 02.26.10 | 1:41 PM ET

Excellent place drop, DR! I’m impressed!

Ryan 02.26.10 | 2:18 PM ET

Well said, Mr. Hilton.  We all do it. 

And I think it’s better to chuckle and embrace our guilty self promotion that goes hand-in-hand with being a traveler, especially a travel writer, than to be falsely noble about it.  However, though travel one-upmanship can be bad, nothing beats wisdom-teeth stories.

Unless you were to combine a place-drop with a wisdom-tooth story, like mine: I had seventeen yanked out by a Greek florist in the backseat of a taxi in French Guiana with no anesthetic!

Beat THAT!

Rolf 02.26.10 | 2:32 PM ET

To quote Mark Twain in “The Innocents Abroad”:

“We wish to learn all the curious, outlandish ways of all the different countries, so that we can ‘show off’ and astonish people when we get home.  ...The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.  I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad and therefore is not already a consummate ass.  If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.  I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I have finished my own travels.”

Marcy Gordon 02.26.10 | 5:06 PM ET

Ha! Good pointers here Spud. I think place dropping always more fun than dropping in place. One of my favorites: I adopted a french bulldog at the Esposizione Internationale Canina (dog show) in Bastia U (Umbria)

Mary Arulanantham 02.26.10 | 8:45 PM ET

Oh, c’mon John R, if you travel, y’know you do it. The trick is to spread it around, like all good fertilizer and BS. I recently caught myself crossing the line when travelling with a lesser travelled friend when we took a one week trip together. I kept relating every one of our experiences to something I had done in one previous trip or another. Not wanting her to only remember me as—what was it again? oh yes, an insufferable a**, I stopped and tried to get her to enjoy the game with her own remeniscences about one of her previous trips. Much better, when everyone gets a turn.

Lynne Friedmann 02.27.10 | 2:17 PM ET

This explains why mentioning shopping for nail polish in Nicaragua always gets a reaction.

Ahmed M 03.01.10 | 8:34 AM ET

The water sports at Gitmo were memorable.

Jenny 03.04.10 | 3:49 PM ET

Funny, Spud. Truly, though, after lots of years of travel I’ve decided that no matter how subtle I think I’m being in my “place-dropping” it’s kind of verged on “friend-dropping.” Need to look out for the tale tell sign of “friend-dropping” - which is the very unsubtle rolling of the eyes (and the unspoken message “Oh, here she goes again with the: when I was in…blah, blah, blah story, yawwnnnnn”). So, not too much “place dropping” for me anymore. But, man, if somebody wants to see my passport stamps - look out!!! 03.09.10 | 11:24 AM ET

Great article!  There’s nothing like having a pint or two at Frankenstein’s Pub.  The creatures who frequent the pub are harmless.

Lamont Swittenberg 03.15.10 | 12:32 PM ET

Place Dropping is just the beginning. I have encountered all types of “Droppers” recently, including School Droppers, Festival Droppers and Neighborhood Droppers. I wrote about them all on our blog last month when I just couldn’t take it anymore. See below…

Angie 03.17.10 | 4:07 PM ET

Excellent article!  Remind me to tell you about racing through the earthquake ravaged streets of Port-au-Prince with a Dominican guide, the windiws rolled down, and blasting Pakistani music. :)

Gary Singh 03.28.10 | 11:47 AM ET

Just returned from two weeks in a bus with numerous name- and place-droppers. And I’m not going to tell you where it was.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.