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Have Better Conversations Travel Tip

A large part of the traveling experience is found in the people you meet, the stories you hear, the things you learn, the information you share. Conversation is a large part of traveling, though is something that I find that many young travelers are terrible at. I write travel tips about how to get from [...]

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A large part of the traveling experience is found in the people you meet, the stories you hear, the things you learn, the information you share. Conversation is a large part of traveling, though is something that I find that many young travelers are terrible at. I write travel tips about how to get from here to there, how to live cheaply, how to be more self sufficient, though I rarely write about how to enjoy travel.

To these ends I have been focusing more on conversation: what makes a good conversation?

For at the end of a day of travel, it is just you, your traveling companions, and a hotel full of other travelers — at the end of the day, after seeing the sites, and “doing” this or that place, all that is left to do is converse. I can recall a few good examples of good conversationalist that I have met on the road, though, for the most part, backpackers have some of the poorest social skills that I have ever observed in just about any subset of humanity.

As I listen to the conversations that abound within the traveler circles of the world, a pattern consistently rears its head: people speak loudly about things, places, issues that they clearly know very little about. It does not take a very skilled listener to know when someone is bullshitting, saying things just to make the people around them think they are interesting, babbling on about things that they have not deeply experienced, things that they have only had a brush of exposure to — crap that they read in a guidebook and then regurgitate as though it was their own knowledge. But this kind of conversations often dominate the common rooms of backpacker hotels and hostels.

Why are so many people from some many different places in the world so prone to talking about topics they know very little about?

It is amazing how often I sit and listen to travelers talking about things they learned second, third, or fourth hand and, essentially, know nothing about while a group of people sit around listening (perhaps trying to remember the details of the story so that they can in turn regurgitate the same nonsense at the next hostel on their itinerary?). Sometimes the audience will nod their heads or add some other piece of antidotal, second, third, or forth hand information to keep the bullshitter bullshitting.

Ultimately, I find myself wondering why nobody calls these people out, why nobody interjects and demand that the person shares the knowledge that they really know, that they give a real good story that we can retell with gusto — I was in this hotel in the jungle of Guatemala and this guy told a story about . . ..

I feel ripped off listening to bullshit conversations, I want to know what the people around me are made of, what they really know.

Why doesn’t anybody shut up this surface talk and dig deep?

Why doesn’t this person speak about what they know?

Travel Tip: Talk about what you know, we are interested in listening


“Do you know about the Zapatistas?” began a Kiwi at the dinner table of the Finca Tatin?

Seven guests sat around the table, none of them knew what the hell a Zapatista was, even though some of them had just traveled through southern Mexico.

The kiwi then launched into an introductory lesson on proletariat struggle in Mexico, a course which he should have taken before trying to teach.

“The Zapatistas are a group of non-violent Maya in Chiapas who practice passive resistance to get what they want, and the Mexican government just leaves them alone. They base their philosophy on Ghandi and Mandela . . . ”

He went on and on, it became clear that he did not really have any idea what he was talking about, he admitted that he got his information from some guy he met somewhere, but he kept going anyway. It was clear that he was not going to stop. He spoke the catchphrases against Globalization, as the crowd “uh-huhed.” The speaker’s words were not based on experience, nor research, but on very far removed hearsay. The other guests nodded actively, perhaps determining if they too could potentially lift this information to retell at another gathering of the flock.

I tried to focus on my dinner, I did not want to be rude.

My wife then broke down, she looked at me with a crooked smirk. I reacted.

I called the guy out. I was a little gruff.

He was talking about something that he knew nothing about, I basically forced him to admit it. He then retreated silently back into his dinner.

The dining room then fell silent. I felt bad.

I began a new conversation by asking the Kiwi questions about himself. I wanted to provide him with a chance at conversational redemption, and he took the lead magnificently. This time the guy talked about something he knew.

It turned out he makes his living traveling around the world working on large sailing ships. The Kiwi turned out to be a sailor, making between $6,000 and $8,000 a month. He had good stories about dodging pirates off the coast of Somalia, about going to Alaska, information on boats, he gave me some tips on purchasing one, how to get into sailing. The Kiwi again took over the dinner time conversation, this time he spoke about what he knew.

The rest of the guests, myself included, listened with open ears, spellbound, laughing, thoroughly entertained. We learned a little about our world from listing to this guy speak of his first hand experience, from listening to a traveler speak about what he knew so well.

We all left the dinner table a little richer for the experience.


Why do people talk about what they know nothing about?

I have no idea. Though I know that this is a common default move for people meeting new acquaintances. I have suspicions that this may come down to a matter of politeness.

In an effort to be polite and sociable, it is common for people from Western societies to start off conversations based on what they think their audience may find interesting. Oddly, this is often not what the person knows about, but what they think other people may want to hear. I suppose this is a jest at politeness, a giving of sorts, the attempt at bringing up a topic that the assembled group may find pleasing, that everyone can, perhaps, participate in.

Often, these types of conversation just end with one person spouting bullshit and everyone nodding their heads.

I suppose this is called politeness, really it is just moronic.

It is my impression that people who really have a deep knowledge about something tend to be hesitant to bring it up in conversation. The most interesting men in the world often bring up the most uninteresting topics in conversation if not provoked otherwise.

Conversation is an art in which all of its practitioners need to take on various roles. Interrogators — people who ask good questions — are often needed. It is my impression that people often feel arrogant just beginning a conversation with a group of new acquaintances about something they truly know is interesting, about something they truly know about. Perhaps this is a show of politeness, perhaps it is embarrassing to bare yourself to strangers without invitation.

A good conversation often needs such invitations. I felt bad about calling out the Kiwi who was talking about something he knew little about, so I sought to figure out what he did know. It turned out he knew a lot about sailing. The conversation turned to allow him to fully divulge interesting stories, share good information.

This only happened because I invited it. I let the Kiwi know what I was interested in hearing — that which he really knew about — and I asked questions to get what I wanted.

Part of my job is to listen to people talking and remember what they say. To do my job I need to get people talking about interesting topics, I am a very good interrogator — I know how to invite conversation. But this is not a matter of skill, it is a matter of effort — a matter of learning how conversations work and doing my part in them.

Conversations are not only a taking, but a giving. The person who speaks the most in a conversation is not the only giver, but the director of the conversation, the asker of good questions is giving as well.

I would never bring traveling up with a room of non-travelers, even though this is what I know about. I would probably talk about Zapatistas before I speak of vagabonding around the world. This is an odd point of my culture, one that I know is nonsense, though one that I cannot beat. For some reason, I would feel impolite, as though I were showcasing myself in some attempt to gain regard. Or maybe I am shielding myself from the knife stab that would come from people showing disinterest towards a topic that I identify myself with.

Though, in the end, I am sure that many people would want me to talk about nothing more than traveling, how I travel, stories of people I have met, places I have visited. But it takes a real good interrogator to get me talking. I am not prone to conversationally giving to a group of people who just want to take, I need to be asked good questions in order to be provoked into speaking in depth. I sometimes wonder how I would react to one of my own interrogations, how I would perform in one of my own interviews.

Though I know that I would probably open up and talk all day.

Questions are the main force that drives conversation. Conversation is work, it takes mental energy to figure out where someone stands and to get them to tell you what they know. Everybody wants to talk about themselves, but most need to be prompted first. Good conversation is not a leisure activity, it is something stimulating, it is something that gets your wheels turning, it is something that demands participation, thought, effort.

I look around hostel and hotel common rooms around the world and I find young people engaging in lackadaisical conversation. They do not seem to want to put in the leg work, the effort, to provoke each other to share the particular knowledge that most of them hold. It is work to get a person to open up and show what it is that is truly interesting about them. Most people come equipped with conversational shields — it often takes very sharp questions to break through and get out what is truly interesting about the people you travel to meet.

Travel Tip: Ask Good Questions, Talk About What You Know, Have Better Conversations

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About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

3 comments… add one

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  • bicycle luke June 26, 2010, 6:18 pm

    Lackadaisical – my new word of the week. Thanks.

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  • Bob L June 26, 2010, 7:48 pm

    I was about half way through this article and my typing fingers started itching. Then you not only covered all I was thinking better than I ever could and added more insight that I would not have thought of. Although I will add that alcohol intensifies the effect. It sure does with me. I always know I am bullshitting because my voice gets louder 8^)

    One point you brought out that was absolutely fantastic. The point that you called the Kiwi out, but then brought him back by asking him questions etc. Not something most people do. I have had people call me out when BS’ing, basically killing any conversation and I have been subjected to strong inquisition that made me and everyone else feel uncomfortable but never had anyone both smack me downand bring me back. That is a fantastic skill. I think you pointed out quite well that a good conversationalist is often a result of the active listeners rather than the speaker himself. The skill of gentle inquisition is something I would love to learn. Better would be if we could all learn that skill.

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 27, 2010, 1:49 pm

      It is also amazing to look at the stark contrasts in conversational skills between young people and old. Conversation is an art that is truly learned through experience.

      More on this later hehe.

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