Meeting People Here and There

By Nomadic Matt | Published August 5th, 2010

meeting people in australiaOne of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting so many people. Meeting them in hostels, on tours, on buses, sitting at cafes, or at bars. On the road, it’s easy to make new friends. So easy that sometimes you feel like you have friend overload. On the road, you find very little pretense. No one has their guard up. No one questions your motives or wonders what you are after. Saying hello is all you need. In the world of travel, everyone is open to meeting new people. A simple hello and before you know it, you are traveling with people for months.

Yet back home, I’m finding it’s not like that. Out at the bars or on the street, saying hello or engaging strangers in conversation is usually met with a stare. “Why is this person talking to me? What do they want?” People put up barriers. No one is as open as they are on the road and there’s always a supposed motive. Once, I was home in Boston and my friends and I had gone to a bar. While there I spotted a guy wearing the quintessential Vietnam backpacker shirt – a red shirt with a yellow star on the chest. Anyone who has ever been to Vietnam has one and you’ll spy hundreds on any trip around Southeast Asia.

Among travelers, there is a certain comradery. We understand each other. We’re used to talking to strangers and think nothing of doing so. So I stopped and struck up a conversation about backpacking Asia. It’s not often you meet Americans who have done it. I think I can count on both hands the number of Americans I’ve met. While we talked, I glanced over at his friends and could see the confusion on their face. Why was I talking to their friend? Did I know him? Was I hitting on him? When our conversation ended and I returned to my friends, they asked the questions out loud. No, I didn’t know him. We were simply talking about Vietnam. My friends, perplexed by this, replied with a word: weird. I had broken some social rule simply by doing what travelers around the world do every day.

meeting people in ko phanagn thailandTalking to girls is even worse- the first thought is always “what does this guy want? Is he trying to sleep with me?” An innocent conversation at a bar is never innocent even when it is. Yet on the travel trail, I have and see tons of innocent conversations between the sexes that revolve anything and everything. Striking up a conversation with a girl isn’t about a hidden agenda, it’s simply about making new friends.

Coming back home into this mindset has been difficult. You’re used to the openness of travelers and the conversations with perfect strangers. It’s a friendly environment. But back home these situations aren’t easily replicated and people always think there is a hidden agenda. Every Sunday, I go to a bar in New York City‘s East Village to watch HBO’s True Blood. Once after the show was over, I tried talking to some of the people about it. They seemed in a rush to leave. I got the hint.

Then I think maybe it’s me. Maybe this is in my head or I’m just really socially awkward. Maybe I smell. But when I ask other travelers who are reintegrating, they speak of the same thing. They speak of the weird looks they also get and the walls people put up. They speak of it with a heavy heart. Readjusting is already difficult. This just makes it harder.

One of the greatest things about traveling the world is that it makes you comfortable speaking with strangers. It makes you more outgoing. It’s either talk or be lonely. It’s do or die. There’s a very jovial spirit about travelers. We leave to meet new friends and put ourselves into new situations. People interest us.

Coming back home to the opposite line of thought has been quite an adjustment. One I don’t really like. It’s off putting. You have to work to break down barriers. People always think the worst. Few people seem interested in just having a conversation for the sake of having a conversation. Being on the road, this is never an issue. And after seven weeks back in America, it’s making me long to get back on the road.

comments 41 Comments

That is something that I am looking foreword to when I travel, meeting people. I’m a bit of an introvert when it comes to social events or just simply talking to people I don’t know.

I’ll be on the road for a while and I don’t want to go crazy, I’ll have no choice but to be social.

Well said. Going back always involves some adjustment, but its these encounters in bars or coffee shops that make you feel like a stranger in your own town.

@Nick: I’m an interovert too and found that I was more open while on the road although not as much as I expected. I found myself being disappointed with myself but then I realized I was already stepping out of my comfort zone. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

@Matt: I find the same thing. I love that stare that I get! I think they are missing out for sure.

Hey Matt,

Meeting new people is also one of my favorite things about traveling. But I find most folks have trouble with it: they lack the social confidence or social skills to easily make friends, so they prefer to stick to the friends they already have instead of meeting new people. This makes traveling on your own quite lonely. That’s why appreciate the people who are sociable enough to pull it through and actually enjoy solo traveling.

Nah, you’re just in the wrong region of the country. Head down South, and they’ll be talking your ear off so quickly, you’ll long for the silence of NYC!

There is a sense of excitement and comradery amongst travelers. We are all in this together and out of our element when on the road. At home, you don’t have that. Everyone is too defensive and engrossed in their own lives.

Bengü

I totally agree with you Matt…even if I haven’t really met lots of people on the road, I always felt that it’s much easier to do so … anytime I take subway & see all those people with sad faces ignoring eachother, I re-feel that I’m lucky enough to know what’s actually important & precious…& I smile while they keep looking at me with all emotion-free faces & think “why is this stupid girl smiling about?”…As you said, let’s lower down our guards anywhere…

I was telling some friends the other day that one of the best skills I’ve picked up from traveling is that I’m not afraid to approach strangers and ask something or start a conversation. My friend – who had traveled with me cross-country 13 years ago – joked that I have always talked with strangers everywhere. But, I do think that when you spend so much time on the road, the inhibitions about striking up a conversation melt away. You realize the benefits of meeting people and expanding your circle.

I can see New York City being a tough place to strike up conversations in the same haphazard way it happens on the road. Like Camels & Chocolate said, maybe give a try to an area in the south or out west.

Actually, whilst I agree with what you’re saying, I’ve also found myself less reluctant to strike up conversations when home. I’m also an introvert by nature, and there is a certain (non-logical) fear when starting a conversation with someone new here. But I never got it on the move. You just know you have something in common with everyone in your hostel and they’ll never shoot you down for asking what to do locally or a good place to eat/drink.

Oh, and how big is that guy next to you in the top photo? He looks massive.

NomadicMatt

that’s my Dutch friend. He is massive. Maybe 6 ft 8?

I was gonna say the same thing as Kristin.. You have to move to the South (but not Florida) then you will be chatting up in the grocery line, restaurant, bar or anywhere.

You are so right! Meeting people is probably one of the best things about traveling. You can learn so much from them.

For me being in the US is travelling, since I’m not American. To be honest I’ve found a mix, maybe there is no fixed rule. I popped into a hairdresser’s in NC to ask directions and was met with indifference almost to the point of rudeness, so it ain’t always friendlier down south. NY isn’t all that friendly either, but most people I know adore it. The energy and vibe, I guess, outweigh the unfriendliness. Then again, I’m on vacation and most folks I meet are working and don’t really have the time to chat. It does border on being brusque, though, but then so do attitudes in London and Paris, cities are notorious for being that way, aren’t they. One thing you have in common with other travellers is that you have the time, that’s what you’re doing, taking the time to observe, learn, enjoy……ooops bag that as a book title!

As for others understanding, I have lots of friends who don’t understand. Me, I don’t understand their need for security and routine…..it seems awfully boring. So I suppose “it takes all sorts to make the world go around” as they say in England.

I live in NYC as well, and while it’s bad it’s not nearly as bad as Long Island. I would reckon Long Island is one of the most hostile, anti-social areas of the country that you will EVER visit. Do not venture out past Brooklyn if you dare. Trust me.

On the road though, it’s a completely different story. There are times when people won’t talk to you, but you easily forget them because there are so many MORE that do. When I’m home I feel myself stagnating and rotting away, but on the road it’s like a huge weight is lifted off my shoulders and I can enjoy life once again. I’ve even revamped my blog to reflect my new direction as a journeyman constantly looking for his next traveling adventure. My next trip will be a major road trip spanning at least 12 different states. It’s only the thought of that trip that has kept me from going insane during this miserable summer.

I think it’s true that traveling lowers our guard, especially as solo travelers. We need the interaction of others and so we can’t afford to be closed off. When you bring a lot of people together with this mindset, well, you get a lot of fast friendships. It makes me wish life could always be that way. It makes me love travel even more for it.

Katie

I couldn’t agree with this more! I would also add I am likely also more closed off at home than when I’m travelling – I’m focused on my friends and who I’m with and not really looking to meet new people. When I travel, even if it’s just to New York from my hometown of Chicago, I think I send a different vibe and seem more approachable. I think I get hit on way more when I travel! :)

Great Article Matt. I think we’ve been in a bit of a funk since we’ve been home, I haven’t been able to quite put a finger on why. We’ve experienced these social barriers home as well, which is probably part of what’s contributing to the negative vibe. Oh, and maybe just because we’d always just rather be traveling. Funny, I definitely would approach someone wearing the classic Vietnam shirt too. I wonder how different it’s for Europeans or Australians at home once they’ve returned from backpacking abroad?

ev

ahhh, how true this is! i just returned from a year away and totally get what you mean.

matt, it was great meeting you last night…. funny how we just missed meeting each other in fiji:)

I totally agree, though it also depends on where you are in the US. Cause I lived in NYC and there were definitely walls and barriers up everywhere, but now that I’ve returned to the South everyone loves to talk to strangers.

Excellent post Matt! It’s definitely easier to socialise with other travellers if it’s clear you are one too.

I usually try to get to know locals and there is a lot more work involved in making them feel that you aren’t some weirdo. I find going to the right social situations (not bars, but dance lessons, chess clubs that kind of thing) makes people a lot more open since they know they share something interesting with you. You don’t have this in bars and such so people have to be sceptical (depending on the culture; definitely in American culture!)

Travellers don’t necessarily have something more open about them (even though travel does open your mind), it’s just that we know we can relate to that person because they are a traveller too. Once you find the link, whatever it may be, making friends in any situation is easy ;)

Luke

I think that one of the contributing factors to the difference in the ease of social integration you have found between travellers and people back home is the fact that, when travelling, nearly every interaction is a short-term thing. When you are travelling, people feel comfortable striking up a conversation because, beyond that moment, there is no commitment or expectation for anything at all. When you are back home, surrounded by static people, because they tend to see the same people time and time again, there are alot of assumed expectations which can arise from a friendly conversation. For instance, it is polite to remember/acknowledge someone you have met or know when you see them again – on the road, that may not happen, or, if it does, it will be a 1:1000 shot, when you are home, you will probably run into those same people again, and again, and again.

The want to avoid these socially awkward situations is closely linked to the feelings of connective overload which I believe alot of people are suffering from. Whereas, BFB (Before Facebook), you would have a small circle of close friends, a wider circle of friends and an even wider circle of acquaintances, people are now dealing with (around) 100 people socially on a regular basis. This tends to make people feel overwhelmed and, ironically, isolated in that they either experience a social open-house or nothing at all. Adding yet another person to the legions of people who they would rather try and avoid further social contact with is something they would prefer not to have happen.

That is to say, “it’s not you – it’s them”. Don’t take it too personally, or worry about it too much, the social shunning is just a side-effect of people who (though choice or necessity) are stuck in a static lifestyle when they would probably benefit from being able to cast off the shackles of oppression (and constant internet connection) and just have what we, as travellers, often enjoy – passing moments of fun and engagement for no reason other than that moment, and the memories which remain thereafter.

Interesting post, Matt. I think there is a certain amount of truth to the fact that travelers are inevitably more social and outgoing than non-travelers. I do question whether it is in part the area of the US (or the World) that you’re in.

I’m an Iowa boy. I Midwesterner through and through and I recently spent 8 months living in DC. I found Washingtonians – and Easter Coasters if I’m forced to generalize – somewhat … cold. As a whole I feel they’re busier, more in tuned to their own lives, themselves and their close friends. It’s often tough to break that bubble.

I firmly believe if you spent some time in smaller town Iowa – or even Chicago, you wouldn’t have these same feelings.

Dylan Lowe

I met a German girl when I was coff-ing it in the Queens Street Starbucks, here in Auckland. We somehow manage to strike up a conversation and talked for hours about travelling – she was in the middle of her backpacking trip around the world. I then invited her to come along to fencing training with after-training drinks – the confusion on my fencing mates’ faces, when I explained how I met Semhar (the German girl), isn’t something I’d forget any time soon. It struck me that, even here in New Zealand where the kiwis boast 2 degrees of separation and what-have-you’s, where a reputation for being a travellers’ haven blossoms, people find serendipitous encounters and ‘random’ befriending of strangers an unfamiliar concept.

Oh, and this post also reminds me that back in London, whenever I head out to meet people I befriended during my travels or through travel talk, my housemates automatically assume that I’m out to see my imaginary friends.

Great post! Have been travelling in South America for 4 months and so far on many occasions have asked myself “would I do that at home”. For example people meeting me in a square in Argentina and asking me for to their house for tea, just to chat, nothing else. On another occasion a lady gave me the keys to her house to stay in while she went away for a few days…and in a bar in Bolivia a group of students invited me to play a dice game and drinking game with them. Each time I ask myself “would I do that in Scotland”. The answer is, up to now, no but I am very much hoping that when I go home I will change my ways and be more open to these sort of experiences which make travel the great experience it is!

andi

I love this Matt!!!!
When I’ve returned ‘home’, I always speak to family and friends of the readjustment period. It pains me to come back to a place of such familiarity and yet not quite consider ‘home’ anymore. Please don’t get me wrong, I love my family and friends, but most of them havent experienced what its like to be immersed in travel, the camaraderie found in strangers, the smiles, the high fives (come on, you know you do it too), the food. From living in Broome Western Australia to Toronto Canada, softly humming to myself in the streets and nodding simple greetings to people at the bus stop is (apparently) comparable to those in the looney bin. Straight jacket anyone? The aloof and arrogant demeanors I’m confronted with now are a constant reminder of why I decided to travel in the first place. Thank goodness my flights are booked, bags are packed and all I have to do is say my goodbyes (over many glasses of wine thankyouverymuch!)

Cheers! Keep writing!

Coop

It’s very true Matt
I met some interesting characters on a trip last year to Valencia, Spain. After only knowing them for 4 days we all travelled together for a week longer, and still keep in close contact with them. It is far easier to talk to random people in foreign countries because you either straight up have something unique about you be it your country of origin or where you are travelling to or from. This creates an instant bond and endless topics of discussion. I found on a trip to NY a few weeks ago even staying away from tourist spots it is easy to strike up a conversation with anyone at anytime. (ok maybe not the subway) but nearly anywhere else. Your right thought, back at home here in Australia people are guarded and question you as to why you would talk to them. So maybe you need to get back into the backpacker bars in NY and stay clear of the meat packing district. You will be OK.

I find the same thing, when a fellow traveler approaches me randomly on the bus because I’m alone I’m so thankful to meet someone, yet the stranger approaching me on the street seems like a weirdo.

Hi Matt,
I’ve experienced what you said many times. In fact, I am the only one to have a whole website about it at HappierAbroad.com. This is a taboo subject as the Travel Channel has taught us to say that people are friendly everywhere, even at home. But that’s not true as you know. Our society is very cliquish and paranoid. You don’t know this unless you travel a lot or live overseas.

Thanks,
Winston

couldn’t have said it better! Though I haven’t traveled as much as you do Matt, I experience the similar thing in terms of meeting people on the road and in my own city, Jakarta. But you know what, after my trip to Sulawesi where I made some new friends and met so many new people I could easily talk to, I missed that friendly feeling here, so I smile and nod more to people I meet on the street. Surprisingly, a lot of them smile and nod back. I guess I’d just have to do it more often, and maybe later try to strike up conversations. Life is so much nicer if everyone is friendly

I always meet people when I attend religious services abroad. Usually there is a “coffee hour” afterwards that provides an excellent social opportunity.

In Paris, go to the Jim Haynes dinner every Sunday (www.jim-haynes.com) and you will meet up with some other travelers.

NomadicMatt

You meet them in hostels, on buses, on tours, etc. You find each other. In some ways, it is like you are drawn to each other.

LB

I just stumbled upon this site for the first time and I must agree with you Matt. I traveled quite a bit over the years and always loved the friendships I struck up and how easy they seemed to come. The interesting part returning home is always the puzzlement I get when recounting my trip to friends, explaining how I met someone at X who was also enroute to Y so we ended up traveling together for a few weeks. How could that happen? Did I know them before? It’s strikes people here as being completely bizarre. I personally find it sad that we’re so cut off from each other that it’s so hard to accept that sometimes we share common goals and can work with people, even if they’re strangers at first. We seem to be of the opinion that someone will only reach out when they want something from you. Sadly, I suspect that’s there truth to that in our society.

Matt,
Have already commented on your top article but after a few weeks in Colombia I had some more thoughts. Back at home we have a phrase “you don’t get anything for nothing”. At base a lot of people (myself included in the past) have a tendency to think that if someone helps you or gives you something they will certainly want something in return. However, during my travels I have turned this totally on its head. Am currently travelling alone through Colombia and the people here are incredible. They actually WANT to help others. They want that I go back to my country with a good impression of their beautiful country. And what is more..they want nothing in return. This can be anything from advice on how to get to a site, to sharing local food with me in buses, to giving me a lift when the bus is cancelled, to inviting me to their houses just to chat…I actually was so impressed by the difference in attitude in the buses etc that I wrote an article about this comparing it to what would happen in Scotland if you spoke to people in the buses!!!! Obviously people are different and there are totally awesome kind people back home as well but somehow when travelling those peoplecometo the fore instead of those who look at you strangely if you say “hi how are you” to a stranger. It is certainly something I will take back to Scotland with me and at the very least if I learn this through my travel it will be a good travel!
Thanks for your thought provoking article Matt.
Angie

For me, one of the best places to meet people is at religious services. I am always made to feel welcome and I meet locals instead of tourists.

After living in a hostel for two months, I ended up working in one. For a shorter time. Ahem.

But still, it became addictive the ease to strike up conversations and meet new people. Of the places I’ve traveled, normal Argentine life is the closest I’ve experienced that resembles the traveling life. It’s in the onda.

Conversely, 7 weeks is far too long to stay in the States, Matt. The normal life in the States is the least like traveling of any country I’ve ever lived.

I hope you get to leave soon.

NomadicMatt

I’m leaving very soon! Don’t worry!

Im from Perth, West Australia. And before I set out on my solo adventure, I spent a month in hostels in Melbourne, just to see if I could cope on my own, meeting people. So, I was in this hostel bar, and I walked up and started talking to a girl. She said “you must either be from Perth or Tasmania”. I replied “why’s that?” and she said “because no one else just walks up and starts talking for the sake of conversation”. How right she was.

NomadicMatt

Now that is one of the reasons Perth is my favorite place in Australia. The level of friendliness is second to none.

Wow, so phenomenal to read this. My trips are not as long as I wish them to be, and I return to America often, and still it’s painful. I never really thought of it as you say, but it’s so true–people here are all about hidden agendas, while people on the road are all about openness and exploring. AHHHH I MISS TRAVELING!!!

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