One Skill Travel Has Really Taught Me

One Busy Crowd at a barDuring the summer, I went out to a bar with my new friend Nicole. I didn’t know her that well- we had only met once before. We were going to Mini Bar. Mini Bar is where all the people who want to be hip and trendy go to be hip and trendy. Not having known my friend a while, we chatted away and she fired out the relentless barrage of questions about my life and travels, one of which touched upon this subject of being able to “read” people.

“Oh yeah? OK. Read the people around us then.” she said to me.

I proceeded to rattle off my opinion about her friends I had just met and the other people in the bar, and finally, at her behest, her.

“How did I do?” I asked.

“Wow.” She replied in shock.

While I can only guess if I was right or wrong about the people in the bar, she was amazed that I had pretty accurately guessed the personality of her and her friends. I didn’t know any of them that well but just through their actions and speech, I was able to figure out a lot about them. There were no parlor tricks involved or mind games. I simply read their body language, their actions, and how they conversed with me.

Why? Why did I get those people at the bar right? Why can I always tell who will be the asshole and which ones I will enjoy talking to? Because, after spending enough time on the road trying to communicate with non-English speakers, seeing so many different people and personality types, and watching how they interact, you pick up on clues and hints about how people express themselves.

In short, you begin to learn how to read people and situations. And that is a skill, no matter how judgmental it may come off to some people, which will help you through life.

Travel teaches us and changes us in ways we never really realize. But, after a conversation with Happy Hotelier, I realized that this is the one thing I can say I only learned from traveling. Yes, I have learned other life skills but this one thing- the ability to read people and situations – came solely from my travels.

Traveling around the world for over three years has introduced me to people from every walk of life and seemingly every different personality. When you travel, you can’t always understand what people are saying as most travelers don’t speak English so non-verbal communication becomes really important. How people act, move, express emotion in their face, carry themselves, the tone in their voice- all of that can help you figure what the heck that Italian with three words of English is really trying to say to you. Or figure out how a person really feels about something by the way they are standing or looking.

The longer you travel, the more you interact with various people, the better you get at this. It’s a skill. A lot of times saying you “read” people is viewed as something bad. It makes you seem like you are casting judgment on people right away. I don’t think that is true. Knowing how to read people can help you determine if that cab driver is really “taking a shortcut” or if that shop owner is giving you the best price or if the people you just met at the hostel are being serious or funny with that joke they just said.

People are a book and, while you should never judge a book by its cover, you can usually count on your first impression to be fairly accurate. We project ourselves and how we feel during our interactions with others. I wouldn’t call someone a nervous person because they were anxious if they walked up to a girl or were meeting the new boss. But in an everyday setting, if someone seemed anxious and nervous and jittery, wouldn’t you think they were a bit like that? Could I be wrong? Maybe. Maybe not. Usually not.

Traveling around the world has taught me a lot about how to read people and situations because you see so many different people in so many different interactions on a daily basis.

  1. I had never thought of it that way, but you are right. My guess is this skill begins with first taking a closer look at yourself, understanding who you are and what you project, and then applying that same logic outwards to all experiences.

  2. Matt,
    I tremendously enjoyed our short meet up and I do remember you as a people oriented person as opposed to so many others who are things oriented persons. Is that the part of the conversation we had you’re referring to?

  3. Hi Matt, I agree that travel does improve one’s ability to read people. Like any sense that is deprived, lack of speech requires heightened performance from our perceptions. I don’t view this as a negative trait. Reading people does not lock you into that assessment if you find out you’re wrong.

    Happy travels!

  4. Kristin

    Fabulous skill to pick up! People argue that placing people in boxes (stereotypes, not literally in boxes) is a bad idea and that ‘reading’ people is the same thing. It’s not. What is it, like 10% of communication is verbal? The rest is all physical, being able to read that physical communication will do wonders in your ability to understand and relate to other people.

  5. so true! living abroad and traveling has definetly helped me build this skill as well because I had to constantly analize how different cultures act, react, deal with humor, express themselves, etc.

  6. When I started reading the article, I thought along the lines of “judgmental asshole” … but then you explained it pretty well, and I think you’re right. You definitely learn to pick up non-verbal clues if you spend lots of time navigating your way around countries where people don’t speak your language. Picking out the meaning from among a few gestures and rudimental English – it’s a skill I’ve learnt that others around me don’t have. And it does help me guess people’s true intentions even when they have said very little; it helps me sense when people are uncomfortable about something & too shy to say etc. etc. It helps me predict that there might be a problem with something that somebody has promised, that somebody is being dishonest, that something fishy is going on behind the scenes … or on the other hand, helps me decide that I can trust someone. In other words, when you travel, you become a better communicator and observer, your instincts sharpen … although I find it doesn’t quite work with everyone; some people are more receptive than others.

  7. Jorrit

    Good, provocative article. I ranged too from “he’s being very judgemental” to “he’s completely right”. Well done for saying it as it is. The only thing I’d add is that sometimes I think that one can be over-vigilant about other people when travelling through fear of getting ripped off. So perhaps the tendency in some situations is to think on the negative side.

  8. Stephen

    i found this, definitely resonate with this. this is the type of stuff i’ve been reading a lot lately. Travel and tourism are different things. tourism is a luxury, a vacation, a splurge of money. Travel is the highest form of education one could wish for. travel teaches you life skills that can’t be learned from books, as you can see with this article. I have also noticed this ability, to a certain degree, in myself since traveling. this and other abilities are ones that i want to develop more

  9. I completely agree, reading people is one thing that comes out of meeting so many. Plus I when traveling I think you have a bit extra guard up or the opposite none at all. If you read people well then usually it’s easy to find the balance.

  10. Sean

    I began learning about this in college where I majored in Psychology. I have become really good at it, but I still make glaring errors sometimes when it comes to dealing with American women. I always wonder if it’s me or them? :)

  11. reading people is a lot easier when they talk a lot (whatever language is).
    silent people who rarely express themselves are hard cases! ~ they can either be fun but shy, or simply lame.
    i think travel also grows your instinct on people. because, you connected with a lot of them, right?
    well that’s what i feel.

  12. Awesome Blossom.

    Dear Nomadic Matt,
    This blog, it truly inspires me in more ways than anyone can ever imagine. It’s like a drug, an addiction i’ve acquired, and very recently.
    I’m 16, going on 17, and i dream of someday living a nomadically wonderful life, no different from yours, SOMEDAY.
    Coming to the point, all i want to do is to thank you for fueling the fire in me, and showing the world how amazing traveling really is.
    Here’s to meeting you out there, in some country somewhere around the world, barely speaking an unknown language, in the midst of the many culturally-different strangers. And here’s to the wanderlust that runs in every dreamer’s veins…

Leave a Comment