How Traveling/Backpacking Can Boost Your Social Skills
Many people who used to be socially awkward and then worked past it can trace a lot of their improvement back to a few key choices they made. For some of them it was deciding to go traveling. Their social skills and confidence grew so much they weren't the same when they got home. Personally, it was a big factor in my own development. I visited Australia for a year after finishing my undergrad degree.
This article is mainly about backpacking, which is a specific type of traveling that more or less involves going on a longer, lower-budget trip, staying in hostels, and meeting tons of other travelers from around the world. It's also associated with a younger party crowd, though it doesn't necessarily have to be.
Obviously traveling is very fun. Everyone knows it broadens your horizons and makes you a better person. If you're young, not tied down, and can make it work financially you should go for just those reasons. But besides from that, here are some social benefits it provides:
Backpacking is an extremely social experience. It's pretty hard for it not to boost your social skills
Backpacking is concentrated social practice. Upon arriving in a new city you can go around and see most of the touristy sights after a few days. In a small town you can see everything in an afternoon. Seeing a bunch of buildings, exhibits, or scenery can get old surprisingly quickly and may ring hollow if you do it alone. You soon realize that most of the fun will come from the people you meet and the experiences you share with them.
Backpackers stay in cheap hostels which are full of other travelers. You'll meet a ton of people. You'll meet the travelers you're sharing a room with. You'll meet them in your hostel's TV room, pool, or kitchen. You'll strike up conversations at the beach or in tourist bars. I'll generalize and say that the people who go backpacking tend to be more fun, interesting, and outgoing than your average person, or maybe the circumstances just bring those traits out in everyone. More than enough of the people you'll meet will be likable and worth knowing.
Also, the people you meet feel less intimidating than the ones at home because you tend to see them as non-threatening, positive stereotypes. When you meet a backpacker from another country you tend to think something like, "Oh! A Swede! Sweet! Swedes are fun and laid back. I want to talk to them!" Back home you're more likely to size someone up first and come up with reasons why you wouldn't get along with them or they wouldn't want to talk to you. You likely have mental baggage toward your fellow countrymen that doesn't get set off by other travelers.
Backpackers are almost all eager to meet new people, so it's really easy to make friends. If you don't try to meet anyone while traveling you can feel bored and lonely quite quickly. Once you've made some travel buddies you get to hang around with them until you or they move on to the next destination. Sometimes this is just for a few days or weeks. At other times you'll travel with them for a while. Your social relationships tend to be shorter, but more intense, compared to back home. Once you arrive at the next location the process starts over again.
So, in summary, where does this all lead for someone whose people skills could use some improvement? Well...
- You're put into a situation where you're pretty much forced to be outgoing and meet new people, but the odds are on your side.
- You get practice in talking to lots of people.
- You get to meet interesting people from many different countries.
- You get to practice the process of making friends, and quickly.
- You get practice in hanging around people one-on-one and in groups.
- The people you meet are all pretty friendly and sociable and you're bound to pick up some good traits from them.
Tips for meeting people while you're backpacking
I already covered where you'll meet people. Unless you make a concerted effort to avoid being social, if you stay in busy hostels and go to tourist venues you'll run into tons of fellow travelers naturally.
- The magic conversation starting sentence is, "Where are you from?" It's mundane, but it works.
- To get a group of people together to go out with the magic sentence is, "We're going to ____, want to come?"
- If you have nothing to do the phrase to say is, "You're all are going to _____? Mind if I come along?" (In this context it's often fine to invite yourself)
Some other useful questions are:
- "How long have you been in ____?"
- "Where were you before you came here?"
- "Have you been to ____ yet?"
None of these are super creative, but they'll get a conversation started really easily. Also, you're going to hear the same questions and comments about your country over and over so it helps to have some interesting or clever things to say when the topic comes up.
Traveling makes you a more interesting person
Traveling indirectly improves your social success in all the ways outlined in this article. Your personality will change for the better. You'll come home with lots of good stories. Some people will simply be impressed that you went on the trip at all. You can overdo it, of course. You don't want to be that person who starts every sentence with, "When I was in ______" or who still constantly brings up a trip they took seven years ago.
Depending on where you go there are certain things you may even want to do just for the points they'll get you back home. For example, if you go to Australia it doesn't hurt to do something surfing or diving-related. Most countries have their equivalent experiences.
Backpacking is a great preparation for college life
Going off to university and living in residence has a lot of things in common with traveling around and staying in hostels. If you want to give yourself a head start on getting comfortable with the whole college experience, go traveling first.
Here are some things the two share:
- You're away from home fending for yourself... but you sometimes can't help but feel like you're just staying at some glorified summer camp.
- You have to do little things for yourself like buy groceries, pay bills, and arrange your transportation.
- You're in an environment with tons of other young people who don't know anyone and want to make new friends.
- You have to share your room with one or more strangers (and their various annoying habits).
- You have to use a communal bathroom.
- You have to get a feel for a new town or city.
- You have to do your laundry in shared coin or card-operated machines.
- If you're making your own food you have to cook in a communal kitchen.
- You don't have a lot of money and have to be careful with your spending... but at the same time you can often count on your parents for at least some help.
- If you meet someone who wants to hook up with you, you often don't have anywhere private to go.
- You get to stay up late having profound conversations about life with your new buddies.
- You get to go out to corny bars in giant packs with all your new friends.
I'll say it again, the best reason to go traveling is because it's really fun. Three days in another city getting in adventures with fellow travelers can be more entertaining than a month's worth of weekends in the real world. There are all kinds of other reasons to go that I haven't even touched on. The boost you could get in your social skills is just a happy side effect.
Backpacking may not be appropriate for everyone
As much as I've talked up traveling, I'd urge you to be cautious about going if you struggle with moderate to severe social anxiety. In that case being on the other side of the world may be more than you can handle. Traveling can be stressful at times, especially if you're going somewhere totally unlike your home country, and all the unfamiliar situations you find yourself may be enough to cause a flare up in your symptoms, while you're away from your support system. That's not to say anxious people should never go traveling, but they should give everything some thought first.