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Old Travelers Have Better Conversations Than Young

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 [...]

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.

Related articles: Have Better Conversations Travel Tip

Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Guatemala, Perpetual Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

8 comments… add one

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  • The Longest Way Home June 28, 2010, 3:09 am

    Wade,

    What’s going on? Don’t you want to spend the evening glued to “Lost” and then having beers talking about it? Ha ha.

    Couldn’t agree more. Sad to say, but I generally stay clear of the younger backpackers as 95% of the time they seem glued to a TV set or Facebook in a hostel these days.

    With an older person I usually go out of my way to start a conversation. If they are not in the midst of an escape from reality situation after a divorce, or drinking their lives away, then it usually means good tips and chat.

    That said, I have had great conversations and travel with younger Eastern European backpackers. They seem more seasoned than western. Maybe that’s the key to young and old conversations.

    I met a Bosnian guy (50+) in Nepal who told a young USA backpacker how to take their “Katrina” devastation story and shove it sideways compared to seeing your home country bombed and neighbors slaughtered all in the name of peace. Then a decade of rebuilding and being forgotten about.

    He did it so masterfully it was both humorous and true. Not insulting, but expertly done to put the young chap in his place and realize a perspective on life.

    Dave

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  • Brian P June 28, 2010, 11:48 am

    It’s exactly that type of conversational pissing match: my ethnic clensing beats your urban devastation (and by the way, because your American it’s your fault), that generally leads me to stear clear of hostel common rooms.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 29, 2010, 8:33 pm

      Good move, I completely know what you mean.

      I try to remain open to being surprised, but I don’t often have high expectations of the conversations in hostel common rooms.

      Though I suppose an essential ingredient for conversation is a common ground of knowledge and experience. I suppose all conversations are, in the end, the result of the lowest common denominator of possible topics.

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  • Emma Field July 7, 2010, 3:44 am

    Good call Wade! I try not to travel with the intention of meeting people in hostels, particularly the kind of international hostels you talk about here – I can meet plenty of people like those at home here in London. Whenever the budget allows it, I try to stay in locally run, independently owned small/boutique hotels. At the risk of sounding very pompous indeed, the variety of people staying there is often far more stimulating! You might like this blog entry – “Sometimes, the hardest thing about travelling is other travellers…

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 8, 2010, 12:38 pm

      Good call, why would you want to travel just to meet the same people that you can back home? Haha. It is true, staying outside of the backpacker circle makes it far easier to meet the people who live where you travel.

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  • JonSkarvinski January 16, 2011, 4:31 am

    Wade,
    It may also be true that those who are older and are still travelling are doing so because they get something more out of it than many of those bored young people. They were not bored nor boring to others, so they had no reason to go/stay home. In my work I interact with old people all the time (mostly in the hopes that they may imbue a great, and sometimes delitefully off-colour, story unto me). Generally, they are just old boring people. You, Wade, spend your life engaging in an activity which caters to interesting people. It’s clear that it is not what you do, but how you do it and how you interact with your environment, that makes your times on the road so enjoyable. To an extent, people can learn this. For many, as you’ve said of, mainly, youth: They go through life without developing that ability and, although they know they’re missing out, they retreat from life.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 16, 2011, 11:14 am

      Thanks for this comment, Jon,

      Pretty much, I don’t really mean those mind blowing, revealing conversations, but rather just the act of conversing in general: asking questions, listening to answers, asking follow up questions, giving good answers when questioned, making jokes, GIVING to other people conversationally. Generally, it is my impression that younger people tend to be too selfish and self-absorbed to really give of themselves in a conversation — how can you take an interest in another person if you are always thinking about yourself?

      I say this somewhat jokingly, but there is a major difference between how the young and the old interact. It is my impression that you have to learn that you are not the center of the universe before you can really begin giving to other people, and this often does not happen until at least the age of 25.

      I am not even talking about travelers, but tourists as well. Go into a setting with a bunch of old tourist and they will all be gabbing, laughing, and talking away. Go into a setting of young backpackers who don’t know each other and it will so often be a silent zone.

      I suppose conversation is a skill that needs to be learned, as well as the arts of loosing self importance haha.

      Thanks.

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  • gar October 22, 2013, 1:52 pm

    Thanks for this article. I always enjoy seeing “my” group – that is older travelers – through younger eyes. When you wrote this, we hadn’t met yet. Had we done so, your article might have been a bit different for as you know from our meeting in San Cristobal, despite my being in my mid-sixties, I am not all that great at conversational skills. In fact, many times in my travels, I have felt myself isolated. For instance see this post on my website:

    http://seniorvagabond.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/274/

    If I drank, I would have really been hitting the sauce that night. lol

    I don’t know if you have been to Ajijic, Mexico, where I am now. I hope not. This is a town full of old (really old) gringos. Basically all they talk about is football, health problems, and how inefficient everything is here. I am not much interested in talking abut football or health problems and my feeling is if they wanted efficiency they should have gone to Switzerland.

    So, I guess what I am saying here is for a really good conversation, give me a group of young people any day.

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