Good Conversation Makes Traveling Experience
FINCA TATIN, Guatemala- There seems to be an ingrained notion that in travel you should have all sorts of happenstancial encounters of coincidence: you should meet the people you need to meet, have your path guided like some sort of Alchemist character. This is a part of the great expectations of travel. Routinely sitting alone and ignored in an otherwise crowded common room of a hostel is one of the greatest let downs of modern travel.
It feels sickening to sit in a crowded room of young people all night long trying to find someone to talk too, trying to make friends, while just turning up a lot of goose eggs. Nights like these send you to your room fast, too many nights like this sends many travelers home. I know that I have on many occasions sadly found more solace in a book than in conversations with real people when traveling. The only thing that feels worse that sitting in an empty room alone is trying to make friends and failing.
I must admit with a touch of embarrassment that I have retreated from many hotel common rooms like an unprovisioned army on the run.
Every man for themselves!
Travel often never feels more lonely than in the midst of other travelers who you cannot relate to in the least.
In moments like these, retreat seems vastly preferable to sitting around a room of people talking about “doing” places, while trying to do nothing else than “do” each other.
In many instances, the people in the common rooms of hostels seem pretty bored to me. Sometimes things get crazy and fun — there is a good group, people pair up, multiple groups become one, travel information is shared, and the paths of the travelers are changed by the hand of coincidence and happenstance.
But mostly I observe young tourists in hostels just sitting around watching TV, reading books by themselves, talking garbage, or just cultivating cool. Popular hostels are places where young people from all over the world come together, they should be fun places — the rooms are arranged to make conversation easy, the idea is that you sit there and meet new people — but all too often they are overtly boring.
As I occasionally work in hotels and hostels around the world I am always on the lookout for those quintessential moments of coincidence where one traveler joins up with another and has their path altered into a new direction.
Mostly I just watch people sitting around, idle, alone, just looking at each other from afar, like small Jewish girls writing in their journals.
The hostel is often not only a place to sleep, but a place to socialize, start the ball of coincidence that adds inertia to the adventure. Then you realize it is full of teenage boys watching TV. When people from all over the world come together — when they share multiple mutually intelligible languages — they should talk.
They do, but they often don’t say too much:
“Where are you from? Where are you going? What places did you do?”
Too often, these conversational blooms never grow to fruition. Young people are often far too tight to open up and really converse.
I have observed a pattern:
When older people get together, they talk, they converse deeply, they share information about themselves and learn about others. When older travelers come into the hotels that I work at I know that they are going to get the conversational balls rolling, and all too often, they do.
The young are no match for the old in terms of conversational ability.
When the crowd at the Finca Tatin is all young — early to mid 20’s — I know that the conversations will be sterile, I head straight for my laptop after dinner. When young people get together they all too often sit around uncomfortable, listless, their conversations either float on the surface or are centered around some jerk who is seemingly trying nothing more than to prove how knowledgeable he is about some arcane topic. But when there is an older traveler or two in the house, I can sense that the talk that night will be vital, and I too join the circle and converse.
There is a difference between the conversational abilities of the old and the young. I do not know what happens, I do not know what is learned, I do not know what is gained, but older people — 35+ years old — tend to have learned the arts of conversation.
Perhaps this is also the time when people begin to gain a sense of real confidence.
I speak only of patterns, I do not attempt to write rules.
The international sphere seems to stunt the display of personality in the young. Few seem to know what cool is on the international plane, and even less seem to have the confidence to show themselves without check. All too often I see young people acting reserved within the context of the international hotel — guarding their colors in an attempt at maintaining cool. They sit around bored.
This is not what travel should be like. Traveling is a taking and a sharing: you take stories, experiences, and impressions from other people and you share your own. If you step up and drop your cool, you have a chance at making friends, of living chance, of making the real traveling life something like it is written in the books. It is my impression that if you sit around a hostel like a teenage boy watching TV or a lonely Jewish girl writing in a journal you are blunting your own experience as well as ripping off everybody else around you.
Older travelers seem to have learned this already. They are often more than happy to tell a prospective interrogator all sorts of information about themselves, what they have learned here, what they picked up there — they are open to sharing lessons, they are often entertaining to listen to. They also have a tendency of doing the work to come up with questions, they can look a person in the eye and ask them a direct question that is so well timed and placed that it drives the conversation deeper, creating a plane for people to pick up and leave behind information, stories, ideas.
Conversing with the backpacker class of travelers often seems to be a scantly rewarding endeavor: most young people in the world seemingly have not yet cultivated deep conversational skills, perhaps they have not yet cared too, perhaps the realization of the wealth that can be found in conversation has not yet made itself known. Or perhaps they have not yet experienced or learned enough in their young lives to know much of anything — formal education often lacks the real substance of life.
Or perhaps the arts of conversation, the arts of listening and inquiry have been lost on the young — though I doubt it, conversation skills take time to earn.
I put effort into asking questions, and I appreciate the same in other people. If someone asks me a question about something other than how they can get to X place, I sit down. Questions take work to come up with, they take effort to construct — you must really want to know something to ask a good questions, you must care about the conversation. Driving a conversation is not a relaxing thing to do, it is stimulating — it works your mind, it gets your wheels turning, after it is over you often feel spent. The person who has the inertia to keep a conversation going is a gold mine, I like to put myself around these people.
It is easy to lay in a hammock and dream easy thoughts, it is work to look someone in the face, come up with questions, find humor, tell stories, laugh, joke, keep the conversation going. Older people seem to do this intuitively, they have learned the arts of conversation somewhere, they have discovered the personal benefits of listening to and telling good stories.
The continuous prospect of having conversation with new people on a daily basis is one of the best parts of traveling the world. Humans are social animals — we need to feel connected to the people around us, we need to share ourselves, we need to learn about others, and make friends. At the same time that travel strips you away from your home community it places you into a continuously revolving social pool:
World travel can either leave you feeling on the outside, lonely, and dejected, or it can stimulate you with new friends, fresh information, different perspectives, and verbal exchanges that can make you grow and change as a person. To better travel the world, listen to older people talk, study how they communicate, ask them questions, learn the old arts of conversation.
The people you meet, the stories you hear, the new ideas you share are the most valuable aspects of world travel.
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