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
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:
- You shouldn’t need to say what country. Better to leave it out and open the door for someone to ask about it. Example: “Shopping for ice cream bars in Nizwa (Oman).”
- A good wild-card element should seem out of place. My colleague’s Pakistani barber in Barcelona (Spain), for example, just begs for further explanation.
- In place-dropping, people usually are unnamed. (The rare exception is if you’re on a first-name basis with someone deeply colorful, but you run the risk of having to explain more about the person than the place.)
- An activity as a wild card should be on either end of the spectrum, from wild to mundane, and not something you would ordinarily think to do in that place. (Tip: It helps that the activity be something you don’t usually do at all when traveling.)
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:
- Save something for the follow-up. Travel-adventure author Tim Cahill often gives writing students this tip: Use your second-best story after the lead and your best one toward the end.
- Be casual, but there’s a fine line between nonchalant and blase. (If you tend to say things like, “We jetted down to St. Bart’s with Muffy and Chip” in your best nasal Thurston Howell III voice, then you can stop reading now. Subtle place-dropping is obviously not your thing.)
- It doesn’t necessarily help to emphasize the degree of drunkenness involved, if only because it might raise questions about the rest of your account and whether you were really there at all.
- Change in appearance is the best setup for place-dropping; nothing invites inquiries like new hairstyles, tan lines, tattoos, odd clothing or a medium-size hula hoop dangling from one ear.
- A good place-drop paints a picture, and offering photos as supporting material deadens the cool factor.
- Don’t overplay your hand. “I got so drunk with Chilean bus drivers that I woke up in Peru reeking of jugo de caño.” To which any astute listener, desperate to change the subject, would simply answer, “Yeah, me too.”
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.