It is technically possible to avoid other people on a cruise but there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to and this will inevitably lead to one terrifying prospect: you’re going to end up talking to strangers. This might not be too big a worry if your cruise is short but what if it’s longer? What is your capacity for conversing with people whom you’ve never met? And, most importantly of all: are you aware that shipboard conversations will often take the form of a strategy game with never-mentioned rules?

Firstly, don’t panic if you’re not great at conversations and the thought that there’s some kind of challenge is news to you. There will always be people around who will probably instigate and then carry the conversations leaving you to mostly nod, agree, and do little else; you won’t win these conversation challenges but for some people it’s just the taking part that counts. This will have no effect on your enjoyment of your cruise. However, you’re also going to bump into different people every day and this will give you the opportunity to copy little pieces of what you’ve already heard and try starting the conversation and initiating the unspoken challenges yourself. After a while, as you become more experienced with cruising you’ll learn the rules that every experienced cruiser instinctively knows but if you don’t want to wait to pick them up first hand then here’s a handy guide to the conversation challenge on a cruise ship.

Have you cruised before?

There are many variations of this including “Is this your first time?” and “Are you regular cruisers?” but the goal here is to ascertain who in the conversation has the most experience that they can impart about life as a cruise fan and it’s typically started by the eldest people present. That person will then become the educator and will dispel wisdom about cruising in general to which the other party merely has to smile and nod, appearing thankful for such pieces of wisdom as “You’ll become addicted to it!” It’s possible to truncate this conversation by mentioning that you’ve heard the same thing from other people, whether true or not, but remember that this could lead you into a conversation you’re not prepared for. It’s also possible to challenge the education you’re receiving by mentioning that it is the opposite to what you’ve heard; this will force the educator to justify their point of view or accept that other opinions may exist and may be equally valid. The ritual is complete when the next topic of conversation starts.

What did you get up to today?

Usually asked in the evening after a day in port, and often when sharing a table at dinner, this is a means to determine who has scored most points in the unofficial Who Arranged The Most Interesting Day? challenge. A good or bad experience on an excursion scores well here so it’s important to exaggerate just what occurred and show appropriate enthusiasm; dictating this conversation is key. For people who haven’t done very much compared to whoever else is in the conversation a useful tactic is to downplay the importance of interesting things and emphasise that dull events are what’s important in life. “You saw a shark breaching while on a chartered boat ride to a private cove with a cavern glowing with natural emeralds? That would be too much for me. I prefer just getting off the ship, grabbing a coffee, and having a seat in the sunshine.”

Did you have to travel far?

A popular challenge at the beginning or end of a cruise when departure is fresh in everyone’s mind, this question works best with a minimum of three parties. The goal is to either have had the shortest distance to come, attracting envious comments about how lucky that is, or to have had the most arduous trip because of distance or time taken or some incident that triggered a delay and receiving appropriate sympathy comments. Envy and sympathy add up to points while those in the middle get nothing and must try with a different set of conversation competitors later in a bid to earn anything.

Did you vote for Brexit?

Some people will say you should never talk about politics or religion with strangers but those people are cowards or they haven’t got a taste for the cruise ship conversation challenge yet. This question – or a variation on it, such as “Did you vote for Trump?” if you’re talking to an American – is a measurement question. Someone will only ask this question if they need to verify suspicions about someone in order to direct the conversations further. In certain circumstances everyone in the conversation will actually agree on the answer and this can lead to bonding, although bonding with strangers over politics does carry with it the risk of extreme boredom. More typically there will be a disagreement and the old game of insulting the person you’re talking to about their life choices while maintaining smiles all around can commence. There are no overall victors in this conversation challenge as nobody ever changes their viewpoints; instead all participants will rack up reward points the longer the topic can be politely argued and digs can be expertly delivered without causing anger.

Have you heard of the great Billy Graham?

This is an example of a unique, advanced conversation attack that we encountered once on a South American cruise. If you cruise on international ships then you’ll encounter Americans and if you encounter Americans you will eventually run into Southern Baptists. They’ll be white and elderly and they’ll have those lilting southern twangs that make you think they’re so nice, but they can be vicious. They’ll have voted for Trump and you’ll probably have already shown your worth in conversation battle here so then they’ll move onto religion either before or after letting it slip that there are too many foreign-looking people in the world right now. Be on your guard. Answer incorrectly and you might be treated to a Jehovah’s Witness-level onslaught of crap eating away any points you might have already accrued. Answer in a way that stops this conversation dead and victory is yours. We had a stunning result when faced with this question on our cruise when I quickly and laughingly responded “Oh, we’ve heard of him, but I don’t think anyone in our country refers to him as great.” Ah, the look I got. Good times.

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