Tips for Travelling with Social Anxiety

The world of travel is a scary one, whether it’s going up tall buildings, flying in airplanes or simply trying to cross the road in Vietnam. There’s plenty of things out there to fear.

One of the greatest fears for many of us though is something that we’re confronted with every day – even at home: other people.

Whenever I have to socialise, I get a sinking feeling of dread in my stomach. My body physically shrivels just at the thought of some social situations. My stomach gets tight and my head swims. I look for excuses to get out of it.

All I want is to escape.

lonely sad monkey in lopburi thailand

For many of us, the act of socialising isn’t a problem. Those lucky extroverts amongst us spend all day, every day interacting with others. They live to socialise and couldn’t ever imagine being scared of their favourite thing.

Introverts – like me – aren’t so lucky. We often go out of our way to stay away from social interaction. When somebody invites us to a party, all we can imagine is being stuck in the corner, standing awkwardly alone while others around us think, “Who invited that weirdo?”

No matter what type of person you are, the work of socialising very rarely matters. We all live our lives in a bubble. If we’re honest with ourselves, how many new people do we actually meet? We go to work with the same people, come home to the same family, keep the same friends.

monkey grooming another monkeys butt in lopburi thailand

Sure we might talk to a random shop assistant from time to time, but it’s only ever small talk. Talking to strangers is something frowned upon. When we’re forced together, shoulder to shoulder on public transport we try our hardest not to even make eye contact with others. It’s too uncomfortable. Heaven forbid somebody actually talk to us, it’s almost too much to bear.

japanese women ignoring each other on tokyo subway

When we travel, these rules are all thrown out of the window. Suddenly we’re forced outside of our bubble. We meet new people, and for once in our life at every turn we’re confronted with the fact that we have to do some work to socialise.

Now, since we’ve been living in that bubble, we actually haven’t learnt how to properly socialise. At no point do we learn how to meet true strangers. At every point in our lives we are thrown together with peers and introduced to each other by our teachers or managers.

We never have to do the hard work ourselves.

Anxiety When Travelling

daniel about to get eaten by a giant monster

When we go travelling, we’re outside of our bubble and it can scare the shit out of us. Why? Well, for a start we just don’t know anything. If you’ve never been travelling before you don’t know how to react in certain situations. You have no knowledge.

No knowledge is the food of anxiety. Without any basis for rationality, it’s easy to slip into the irrational. Easy to imagine ourselves in terrible situations where we embarrass ourselves. We assume the worst will happen until we’ve thought about it so much that it ceases to be an assumption and instead is a certainty. We will fuck up, we will embarrass ourselves, and we will look like idiots.

This certainty makes us nervous, why wouldn’t it? If you tell any person that they’re going to embarrass themselves, they’re not exactly going to look forward to it.

Now, here’s the bad news. If you’ve never gone travelling before, it’s almost a certainty that you will mess up socially in some way. Either with other travellers or with locals.

The good news is that social situations are something we can prepare for and social skills are something we can learn. Much like any other skill, we’re going to fail at first. But this is how you learn something. Nobody was born a master of conversation, so it’s unfair to judge yourself to that standard when you’re just starting out.

Instead we should go into travelling with the mindset that those social skills are there for us to learn and that failure is just a bump in the road on the way to success.

I believe most people, even the social experts among us, feel some misgivings before travelling for the first time. Those who are social back home have the confidence to take on these new challenges in front of them immediately, so they adapt quickly. But those of us with less social skills aren’t so confident.

Gaining Confidence

daniel sitting on a rhino outside hancock museum newcastle

Confidence is our perception of how successful we’ll be in a situation. High confidence simply means we’re incredibly sure of success. Low confidence means the opposite – that we’re sure of failure. It’s important to understand that confidence is a matter of perception. The best footballer player in the world can still believe he’s the worst.

So how do we gain confidence? Well the easiest way is to challenge our perception. Prove to ourselves that we can do certain things that we tell ourselves we can’t. This means gaining skills. We gain confidence in our skills by learning those skills and increasing our knowledge. That means more bad news: the best way to gain confidence in our social skills is to learn…which means socialising. We can’t become a master at home, we have to do it for real!

Practice Makes Perfect

Not long ago, I wrote about the pains of trying to find a job here in New Zealand. Thankfully a few weeks afterwards I managed to find some work. Unfortunately the majority of the job includes phoning people up.

This was a nightmare for me. Talking to other people is bad enough. But on the phone?! FUCK NO! I immediately started to think of a way to get out of the job, but I needed to be making money so I forced myself to do it.

For the first few days I got away with not using the phone. Each day I was going into work on the edge of panic. I was rushing to the bathroom every 10 minutes as I felt ill. Then I was told I had to start calling people. “Is that ok?” my manager asked. “Of course it is”, I said, faking confidence. I couldn’t allow anybody to know that deep inside I would rather be walking through hot coals all day than working on the phone. My fake smile didn’t falter until I picked up the phone and dialled out.

The first few phones calls were terrible. It felt like everybody in the office was listening in. My voice was trembling, I was stumbling over my words. When the person on the other end asked me something, I didn’t know how to answer. I ummed and erred. It was painful. Those first few calls just made me feel worse and more self-conscious because I was so awful.

sad dog next to telephone

As the days went by though and as I did more phone calls, I started to get into the rhythm. The more I talked on the phone, the more I started to learn how to deal with situations. My voice stopped trembling, I stopped stumbling over words.

Eventually I’d messed up in most ways possible and after each mess up I decided on what I could do to prevent it happening again. Each failure actually helped me to gain confidence because I now knew how to deal with that failure in future.

Now, a few months later, I’m a lot more comfortable at work. I barely even think before I pick up the phone, I can have most conversations without thinking. There’s a script in my head for most eventualities. I have the knowledge and skill to feel confident.

What I want to show from this example is that learning is a process. But the more you do something, the better you get at it and the more confident you become in your abilities. At first you can feel overwhelmed because there’s so much to take on. In that case we need to break down the skills we want to learn into goals.

I didn’t set out with the giant goal of learning how to talk on the phone. I split it up. How do I introduce myself? How do I end a conversation? How do I deal with certain problems? Splitting it up gave me manageable targets, which eventually built up to the major goal.

Socialising while travelling is far too big a goal to focus on, so instead I believe it’s better to split it up. Learn how to approach strangers, learn what to say to people you’ve just met. As I’ve said, the best way to learn is by doing.

Thankfully though, I have a couple of tips that will help you before you set out travelling. You can use my knowledge to your advantage to at least allow you to start out on the road to social success.

Social Travel Tips:

Ok, so I’ve already written far more than I planned to, so I’ll try (try!) to keep these tips short and sweet. If you’re wanting more in-depth tips for socialising, I can recommend two books. Dale Carnegie’s classic, How To Win Friends and Influence People and Leil Lownde’s book, How To Talk To Anyone (which is the perfect toilet book as it’s divided into bite-size chapters!)

Here are my favourite tips though:

1. Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it.

Dan playing jenga and looking miserable

Ok, this is a bit strange for the first tip, but I think it’s important. If you don’t want to socialise, if you hate it and you’re a huge introvert, don’t force yourself to do it. Do whatever makes you comfortable and don’t be ashamed of it. Travel doesn’t mean you have to socialise. I’ve spent many trips by myself, keeping to myself. I don’t feel bad about this because it’s my life, so why shouldn’t I do what makes me happy?

Social interaction isn’t actually something I often enjoy doing. In truth, most of the time I find it to be a little meaningless. How many times do we need to talk about the weather per day? It’s just a waste of energy. If you feel the same…don’t do it!

2. Script it, baby.

The first lesson you’ll learn while traveling is that many social interactions are very similar. You’ll meet another traveller and what will commence is the “Getting to Know You” stage. This consists of almost always the same questions.

What’s your name?
Where are you from?
How old are you?

The good thing about this stage is that it takes very little effort. You know what questions are going to be asked, and you’ll be asked them so many times that you’ll unconsciously script answers to these questions.

I’ve been asked where I’m from so many times over the past few years that I say almost the exact same thing every time. “I’m from Newcastle in England…that’s why I’ve got such a strange accent. Haha. Sigh. Off to kill myself because that’s the thousandth time I’ve said this sentence.”

3. Build Rapport

Now, as I mentioned earlier in the article, most of our life is spent in a bubble where social interaction is easy due to shared experience. When we meet friends at school, university, or work we automatically have something to talk about because we have something in common. At school we can talk about school, at work we can talk about work.

So the easiest way to build rapport with travelers is to talk about your shared experience. What does this mean? Well…that travelers love to talk about travel. Again this means you’ll end up talking about the same subjects with everybody.

Where did you travel from?
Have you been to <place> yet?
How long have you been in <place>?
How much was your <item>?

These questions pop up all the time. But also similar conversations based on more immediate shared experience come up. If you’re on the tour, you talk about the tour. If you’re in a hostel, you talk about the hostel.

In this way, conversations become predictable. But predictable is good. We don’t like surprises.

4. Parroting

daniel with kaka parrot on back

Parroting is one of my favourite techniques. It keeps another person talking (so you don’t have to) and it’s a natural way to progress a conversation. All you need to do is act like a parrot.

Basically you sit on the person’s shoulder, eat lots of nuts and squawk in their ear a lot.

Ok, that’s a lie. Parroting is actually repeating part of a something somebody has said back to them in order to keep the conversation going. In simple terms it works like this.

Wow, I just had an amazing time in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai?
Yes, it’s a city up North, it’s so exciting.
Exciting?
Yeah, you can go and ride elephants!
Elephants?
Yeah, giant animals that shoot water out of their noses!
Noses?
Are you on drugs?

The trick is in not sounding like a robot. Good conversations flow naturally. Pick up on what somebody has said and allow this to form the basis of another subject. If somebody mentions a city or place to you, it’s not unnatural for you to ask what you can do in the city or where that city is. The conversation is linked with a subject (the city).

However if a person mentions a city or place to you, and you then start talking about the new Transformers movie, there’s no segway to the subject so it’s unnatural.

(Side tip: Don’t talk about the new Transformers movie at all because it’s more than likely completely shit and not worth talking about.)

The good thing about this tip is that you’re the one in control of the conversation, you’re the one asking all the questions so you can guide the other person into talking about things that you already know how to talk about.

5. Drink beer

flight of beer from speights alehouse

There’s a reason so many travellers enjoy getting drunk. Doing so allows us to lose our inhibitions and relax in situations that would otherwise make us want to cry. I’m not suggesting you spend every night on a bender, there can be negative repercussions to drinking to cope with social situations. However a little bit of Dutch courage never hurt anybody. Personally I’m not one to drink lots of alcohol or to go out partying. Generally I’m in bed by 10pm reading a book!

6.  Be yourself…or somebody else

daniel having sex with a statue of a naked woman at loveland jeju korea

Cheesy, I know, but travel is one of the few times when you’re away from friends and family. So you finally have the opportunity to be who you want to be and act how you want to. There’s no expectations on your shoulders from others, so enjoy being who you like being. No need to be self-conscious as it doesn’t matter how people feel about you as they’ll soon be long gone!

When you’re travelling you should be open to taking more chances because there are very few repercussions to failure. Don’t be scared to approach strangers or try new things. If you fuck up, you’ll never see those people again. You have more to gain by taking these chances than you gain to lose. Worst case scenario: you embarrass yourself. Best case: you make a friend for life. I think it’s worth the risk.

7. Take it Slow 

tortoise walking

Remember, the first few conversations are the hardest. They can be awkward and uncomfortable.  Each conversation is a learning experience. If you fuck up, don’t beat yourself up over it. Use that failure as a lesson to teach you to improve.

Many people say they’ve grown from travelling. What they mean to say is they’ve learnt something new. They’ve gone out of their comfort zone (meaning, putting themselves in situations where they don’t have the required skills and knowledge to feel comfortable) and they’ve learnt how to deal with new situations.

Travel can help us to gain skills while also experiencing new places. Get excited about how your trip will turn you into a better person. And don’t forget the most important tip of all:

Have fun!


Photo of Japanese subway by Aurelio Asiain published under a CC license.
Photo of sad dog by Stuart Heath published under a CC license.
Photo of tortoise by Aaron Logan published under a CC license.
All other photos by myself and Jamie!

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5 thoughts on “Tips for Travelling with Social Anxiety”

  1. I think this is an interesting topic! I think social anxiety can keep a lot of people from traveling — whether they are introverts or extroverts. I think a big worry of a lot of people is: “Who will I talk to? Will I be lonely?” And of course, the questions continue from there.

    It’s strange, because unlike a lot of our society which is made up of introverts posing as extroverts, I’m the opposite. I’m an extrovert who lives like an introvert, but I do have to say that I am much more outgoing and find socializing while traveling way easier than normal everyday interactions. I think because if you’re traveling, you already have a common ground with people or if you’re talking to natives, they tend to have a natural interest in people coming to their country. I just feel like there’s an openness that comes from traveling that’s kind of different when you’re at home.

    I think this is good advice, though. I think traveling is all about opening our minds… and sometimes that results in more quiet time than we thought we would have and sometimes more. I think it’s just about being present and not worrying so much… but I get that that’s hard for us anxious travelers.

    I also think something that helps conversations to be less awkward is just listening — instead of freaking out about what to say next or where the conversation is going to go. I think your scripts are a good starting off point for the conversation to go in its own organic direction. But honestly — I think if people just ask other people about themselves, they’re mostly set because most people like talking about themselves. I mean, it’s what they are experts on, right?

    Anyway, I love the topic of your guys’ blog and I can definitely relate to so much you write about! 🙂

    1. Thanks once again for your comment, Erika. I was just reading your latest blog post yesterday and I think we’re both at the same stage in life (and have a lot of the same thoughts!) Sorry for not commenting but it was getting late at the time and I was sleepy, hah.

      Socialising while travelling is definitely easy, as you say there’s so many people that are sharing your experience so it’s easy to gravitate towards them. I do feel like you don’t need to socialise to travel though. The best thing about travelling with Jamie is that I have an excuse to ignore other people. Plus whenever I’ve travelled alone I’ve tried my best to be truly alone. I don’t really get lonely. I think it’s important for people to realise that socialising is a choice, not something you’re honour bound to do.

      I completely agree about listening and being interested in people though. That’s really one of the most important things that I should have mentioned. If you change your mindset from thinking about conversations as work (something you have to do) and focus on the fun of them you can get a lot more out of them. Like, don’t think “Ugh, I have to have a conversation” but rather “Ooh, what interesting things can this person teach me.” However I hate when the conversation turns on me as I often feel I have nothing worthwhile to say or that my opinions are invalid! Ho hum!

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