I am not really one for socializing with strangers. In fact, it's kind of the bane of my existence. It's not that I don't like them per say, it's just that I don't really want to talk to them. As you might imagine, this is not an ideal situation for a traveler. Entering a room full of people I don't know, with the intention of starting a conversation is pretty much my worst nightmare. Maybe not my worst nightmare, but on the list of things I would rather not do ever - it's pretty much at the top.
Part of this is that I am very much an introvert, meaning that I draw my energy from being alone. If I don't get enough alone time in any given week - I feel deeply depleted. Compounding on the introversion is what I would call social anxiety, meaning that I find the majority of social situations to be varying degrees of uncomfortable. If I'm with a group of friends and only have to talk to them, that's one thing. However, being by myself around of bunch of strangers, with the expectation that I speak to them - that's where it's gets dicey.
In recent years, this quirk of mine has actually seen significant improvement. Right now, I'm in a pretty good place overall, but when I was younger, it used to be an unbearable aspect of my life that at times felt truly insurmountable.
In high school, I literally could not have a conversation with someone I didn't know - it started with fidgeting, then my shoulders would creep up by my ears, and then my mind would go completely blank, except for a running monologue of: Oh no, this person think you're weird. Say something interesting. No! Not that! Anything but that! Why do you ruin everything you touch?!
This... is not a great situation for any traveler on account of the fact that a significant and truly enriching part of the travel experience is meeting new people. What's worse is that when you solo travel, you either strike up a conversation or you end up as the lonely girl sitting in the corner.
Don't mistake me, it's not that I don't like having friends. I'm not a robot, everyone likes friends. It's just that I don't necessarily enjoy the process of making those friends - I would rather just skip to the part where we're already laughing about our ridiculous inside jokes.
The good news? There is hope!
As I alluded earlier, this little problem of mine has gotten significantly better as I've gotten older, but it took purposeful effort on my part and is still very much a work in progress. I don't think I'll ever be that person who strolls into a room, and is somehow instantly friends with everyone. I know people like that, and I both love and hate them. Love them because they can be my social buffer (they can talk to everyone, while I will not), hate them because they make it look so easy, when I find it to be such a struggle. This being said...
Socializing can be viewed as a skill. Meaning it can be practiced and perfected.
(That's why they call them "social skills," not "social you're-born-with-its.")
One interesting thing about being the shy/introverted/awkward girl is that the meek fish tend to steer clear of me, leaving room for the charisma dynamos to do their thing. I have always tended to befriend people who are significantly more charismatic than me - you know, the person I mentioned earlier who walks in the room and is friends with everyone. My guess is that this occurs because those people are less intimidated by the fact that my "resting bitch face" is top notch. It really is a work of art, if I do say so myself.
This is a situation works out great for me. My charismatic friends can get me in the door, and they do most of the talking. More importantly, through observation and friendship osmosis, over the years I've managed to piece together a social personality that consists of behaviors and mannerisms I've picked up from other people.
I will admit, that sounds a bit creepy when I say it out loud, but it was either grow and adapt or stay in the turmoil of my adolescent years. Having anxiety that crippling to your social skills is a horrible feeling. Horrible because on the one hand any kind of anxiety is inherently unpleasant, and on the other because when I was younger it did a serious number on my self esteem. I saw my inability to socialize in a way that seemed so natural to everyone else, as a reflection of some deep-rooted flaw or defect in myself. Going through each day wracked with feelings like that is no way to live.
Keeping all of this in mind, I've compiled a list of the tricks and tips I've learned over the years that have helped me most in my quest for social butterfly status. I won't lie and say that now I have ten million friends and eat conversations with strangers for breakfast... because I don't. However, I can now walk into a room and strike up a conversation without breaking into cold sweats and immediately wanting to excuse myself to go hide out in the bathroom.
These tips are geared specifically towards the act of striking up a conversation, as well as the following exchange. For other great articles with broader suggestions, you can find some really interesting reads here and here.
I give to you an introverts guide to social travel.
Otherwise known as tips for travelers (and people) who secretly hate everyone (don't like talking).
1. Smile, smile, smile!!! Now, I wish this wasn't my first tip, because I really just hate it when strangers tell me to smile: You'd be more beautiful if you smiled! or Smile! It can't be that bad! Screw you stranger on the street! I don't tell you what to do with you face... You'd be more beautiful if you minded your own business, and maybe it actually is that bad. You don't know me!! But. I digress.
The point is that smiling really is the key to making any social situation 100% more positive. It tells the world that you are a non-aggressive, upbeat, and generally happy person. No one likes a Melancholy Mary. These days, I automatically smile at anyone I make eye contact with ever. It's now a force of habit, but training myself to do that took concerted mental effort to create. Begrudgingly, I can admit that it really has worked wonders. Instead of comments like, "I totally thought you were a bitch when we first met," (Wow, why don't you tell me how you really feel), I now hear things like, "You seemed shy, but nice." Big improvement!
Application to Travel: Smiling is universal! Pretty much no matter where you go in the world, smiling will make the situation better. Even when you don't speak even two words in a common language, if you smile at someone they will be about a million times more likely to trust and/or help you.
2. Ask a lot of questions. Asking questions is an awesome strategy for several reasons. First, asking a question deflects the attention away from you, and onto the other person, and at least for me less attention means less anxiety. More than that, interesting and relevant questions not only give the impression of genuine interest, but it gives the other person the chance to talk about a topic they know well and feel emotionally connected to: themselves. Most people love talking about themselves, so asking questions is a sure-fire way to keep the ball rolling. Now, try not to ask inane things - actually listen to what they are saying and ask questions that are relevant.
Application to Travel: Asking questions, especially of locals, can reap unexpected and beautiful rewards. You will learn more, feel more connected to the country and culture, and in most places I've been to locals are more than happy, and often even excited to share their culture with you - as long as you demonstrate a genuine interest.
3. Eye contact. Everyone has heard that quote about how 90% of what you say isn't coming out of your mouth. Eye contact is a huge part of that 90%. Unfortunately, holding the right amount of eye contact with people I don't know is for whatever reason, a huge struggle for me. No idea why, but I just find sustained eye contact with strangers to be overwhelming.
One strategy I haven't actually used yet, but sounds quite helpful is looking at one eye for five seconds, the other eye for five seconds, and then around chin or shoulder area for the next five. Also, when looking away it's a good idea to nod or make some sort of 'I'm listening' confirmation such as "Yes" or "Mhhmm." Though I have made strides on this front, it is still oftentimes a struggle. When I'm comfortable eye contact is significantly easier, but when I start to get anxious it is always the first thing to go.
Application to Travel: When it comes to travel, this one is actually a bit tricky. More eye contact is important when in the West. However, many cultures consider too much eye contact to be rude and overly aggressive. So make sure you know what kind of culture you're dealing with before you start trying to stare down strangers.
4. Pep talk. This is actually one of my most useful methods. I don't do it all the time, but if I'm feeling extra anxious or want to leave an especially good impression, a mental pep talk is my go-to strategy. Essentially, it's just running through a checklist of everything I mentioned above right before entering a social situation.
If I'm heading into an event where I know a lot of people, this is more of an optional step. As the stranger danger factor is much lower, I mainly just remind myself to smile. However, if the situation is essentially a social cold call, it's absolutely necessary or there's a good chance I won't walk in the room at all. Last year, on my solo trip to Japan, there were a bunch of people hanging out in the hostel common room, and not wanting to lurk around in my pod all night alone, I decided I should go hang out. I got one flight of stairs away, and almost turned around. Sometimes, the anxiety is really that bad. But, as I said earlier, that's no way to live, so I gave myself the pep talk, walked into the room, and as can be expected it turned out fine. Bringing me to my next point...
5. Consistently remind yourself that your fears are, by and large, totally in your head. In the wise and beautiful words of Regina Spektor, "People are just people. They shouldn't make you nervous." I love her. And she is 100% right. This is something my rational brain understands. I understand that I'm not some kind of freak with two heads and a forked tongue; however, the irrational social anxiety part of my brain thinks quite the opposite. She sits there and chatters, "Oh my God. How is this going? Is it going well? Do they think I'm weird? They probably think I'm weird!!! YOU NEED TO LEAVE IMMEDIATELY" It's ridiculous, and that's something I'm aware of, but irrational fears are just that... irrational!
Part of the problem with social anxiety is that it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you're so wrapped up in your anxieties, you are much more likely to act withdrawn, which in turn lead others to withdraw from you, which adds fuel to the fires of your initial fear. If you consistently remind yourself of the realities, it makes resisting your anxieties significantly easier.
Application to Travel: As I've said before, and as you know if you have done any traveling yourself - travel constantly brings you into contact with new and interesting people. There are endless opportunities to hear unique stories, connect with people you otherwise wouldn't, and expand your personal horizons and perspectives. If you allow your anxieties to rule you, you miss out on a truly endless world of opportunities. When on the road it's sink or swim - you either get over your fears, or you end up lonely and alone.
Reading this whole piece through, I fully understand how clinical it sounds - turning socializing into something that requires a step by step process. For extroverts and those people who love talking to people, the majority of this advice probably sounds weird, bordering on crazy. Putting that aside, I cannot stress enough how much learning and practicing these skills have change my life and social interactions.
I don't know if I will ever be able to simply walk into a room and feel 100% comfortable on arrival, but I am happy with my progress thus far - the person I was in high school and the person I am now are worlds apart. As I said , if you suffer from the same anxieties as me, try looking at socializing as a skill - one that can be practiced and improved. Rather than becoming discouraged because those skills do not always come naturally, I encourage you to find empowerment. A skill is something that you have the power to change, and like anything else the more you practice, the better you get.
Enjoy the beautiful view!