Advice on Asking Locals Questions

Working at a bookstore in downtown Ketchikan, I get asked a lot of questions. Ninety percent of the time, I love this: I feel helpful and intelligent when I answer people's questions, and it makes the job more exciting. However, from my experience with that ten percent of the time where answering questions isn't so fun... here are a few brief pieces of advice if you're ever a tourist and want to ask locals questions.

  1. Do a bare minimum of research before arrival. More often than you might think, people tumble into my store talking as if they are unsure of what city or even what country they're in. One classic story is of tourists stepping off their boat and asking what the elevation is, and just two days ago I overheard a woman talking about how they went up the "river" to Skagway. (Skagway is at the end of Lynn Canal, the deepest fjord in North America, quite obviously salt water.) Tourists who don't know anything are probably the least likely group to ask questions anyway, but learning a little about where you're going beforehand should certainly enrich your experience.
  2. Always use a good map. This advice can be a little harder to follow, as it may be difficult to tell whether a map is good or bad, especially if you've never been to the places it shows. However, quite often I'm surprised to see tourists toting around ridiculous little maps produced by their cruise line showing a chunk of land three blocks by three blocks square, or one with confusing 3-D buildings and jumbled street names. I immediately give such folks a Historic Ketchikan walking tour map, and many problems (as well as potential questions asked to locals) can be remedied.
  3. Ask questions that lead to good answers. It's fine to ask simple questions, like where to find a bathroom, store, or place to go eat seafood. If you want to know more about a topic, however, asking for a specific fact isn't the best way to engage a local. Sometimes I get asked "How many people are in your town?" and when I reply, I'll always hear back a comment like, "Oh, ok. That's a pretty big/small town" and our conversation is over. Instead, if people asked me how Ketchikan compares to other Alaska communities or what I personally like or dislike about its size, then we could really talk about something. One time a guy came up to the counter and said "Tell me about the Tongass rainforest." Although incredibly vague, even this sort of conversation starter is far superior to a question like "Where do you find the Tongass forest?" (That question also refers you to advice point #1.)
All in all, I have a lot of fun doing my job. Next summer I may even want to get work doing even more talking to tourists, rather than spending my days in retail, no matter how sophisticated it may be. However it works out, I'll be sure to let you know.