Hostel in Beirut

Why Have Travelers Stopped Talking To Each Other?

Derek Perspectives 142 Comments

Hostel in Beirut
Yesterday I received the following email from a close Australian friend of mine…

“So I’ve just arrived at Broome Backpackers [a hostel in Broome, Australia], staying four nights in an 8-bed mixed dorm room. It’s 9pm and there have been five of us in the room for the past hour. The other four have been on their laptops or mobile phones. Nobody has spoken. At all. Not one word.

I’ve been sitting here reading a book the entire time and now I just had to write you an email as I cast my mind back to our travels through India, Thailand and beyond several years ago, to a time when travelers actually conversed with each other.”

Fellow travelers, or those just starting out, that’s a sad email.

There indeed was a time when barely five seconds would pass between checking into a hostel dorm room and finding yourself talking with the other travelers in the room. People immediately introduced themselves, not with just a nod of the head and quick grumble of a ‘hello’, but by standing up, shaking your hand and asking some questions.

And inevitably, this would lead to more conversation, to other travelers joining in, to hanging out with these strangers who instantly became your pals. There was a time when every traveler was thoroughly excited about these interactions, realizing just how lucky they were to have such an opportunity to meet people from all over the planet.

Before we all became so caught up with technology, we instinctively spoke to those around us. Now we often just head back to the hostel in the evening, sit on a cushion or at a table or lie in bed and type away on our keyboards or mobile phones, keeping our heads down as we spend hours surfing the internet just for the fun of it.

Another Lifeless Hostel

I’m not saying that travelers don’t interact with each other at all these days. Of course we do. It’s just that I have also experienced countless situations such as the one my friend described above and I have also had a similar conversation about this very topic with so many travelers that there is no way to deny the fact that technology is seriously harming our ability to be social.

And when we travel, being social is what leads to the most rewarding experiences.

Travelers I Met in Syria

When I traveled to the Romanian town of Sighisoara last year, I noticed that the hostel owner was not exactly in the best of moods for a couple of days. When I finally had a chance to speak with him, he told me that he no longer enjoyed owning his hostel and was thinking of selling it. He said that he had originally created the hostel as a place where travelers could congregate and share and learn from each other but instead, it turned into a bunch of rooms where everyone just played on their laptops all day long.

He told me stories of not so long ago, maybe 3 or 4 years, when every single night a dozen or more travelers would gather in the common room, interesting conversations about an infinite number of topics would take place, everyone would cook together, drink together, have fun together, creating an atmosphere that the hostel owner simply labeled as ‘perfect’.

And now, that no long happens at his hostel and even worse, it no longer happens in many hostels, hundreds and thousands of them, around the world.

A Balance Between Technology & Socializing

I’ve written before about the death of random travel experiences due to technology. Instead of asking a shopkeeper in a foreign city for directions (and who knows where that might lead, possibly to an invitation to meet his family or enjoy a home-cooked meal), we just jump on Google Maps and off we go, missing out on that human interaction and its potential benefits.

Travelers I Met in Beirut

And in my opinion, we also miss out when we don’t interact with our fellow travelers. It’s a shame that things are changing like this. It’s an even bigger shame considering that we are often on our laptops or iPads or phones while traveling not because we actually have something we need to do, but because these days, we almost don’t know how to do anything else. That’s a bit extreme I know, but it does seem to be heading in that direction.

So, what is it that makes us so willing to turn on the laptop instead of socializing with the other travelers around us?

Are we so eager to upload our photos and share our experiences with the entire world, a world that probably isn’t as interested in our travels as we would like to believe, that we’d rather choose an entire evening in front of our laptop over one filled with conversation and activity with interesting people we would never have met had we not been traveling in the first place?

I’m just as guilty as everyone else here and I’m not trying to deny that. I work online and so I spend a lot of time in front of my laptop while traveling. At the same time, whenever I am faced with a decision, which happens every day, as to whether I should be on my computer or whether I should look up, shake someone’s hand and get to know a new person on this planet, I like to believe that I do choose the latter option the majority of the time.

Again, I’m not saying we should all toss our laptops into the river…

To those who work online, as I do, keep on working online and making your travel dreams a reality.

To those who share their adventures on a blog, continue with that blog!

To those who upload photos and send frequent emails to family and friends, telling them all about your travels, don’t stop doing that either.

What I do believe is that we should always be aware of how much time we are actually spending in front of our technological devices while traveling and to make sure that we are not missing out on the greatest reward that travel is prepared to give us – meeting and interacting with new people.

Look up, say hello, put the laptop down every now and then and go have a drink with a stranger from your dorm room. Try to gather a few travelers together and cook a meal in the hostel’s communal kitchen. Or just go for a walk around town with a new friend instead of typing away on your keyboard in the corner.

While you might fall behind slightly in your work or with your blog or with your emails, or you might not have time to conduct random Google searches for things such as ‘yoda bat‘ and ‘talking oranges‘, you will be benefiting in ways you simply can’t imagine from the time you spend with your fellow travelers.

Any thoughts on technology and travel or on the change in hostel experiences that’s taking place? Have you noticed that many of us travelers are more interested in their gadgets than we are in interacting with each other?

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Comments 142

  1. Jayne

    Great Article! I did my first backpacking trip in the late 90’s when I traveled New Zealand, Australia and SE Asia. It was the days before smartphones, IPads and hardly anyone had laptops. If you wanted to go on the Internet then you went to the Internet cafe! The social life in hostels was great, everyone talked, we would spend hours playing cards and just exchanging stories. In 2012 I went back to New Zealand and stayed in a hostel in Queenstown and the first thing I noticed “no one talked, they all had there faces buried in their technology” the place felt like a morgue, it was a very sad sight to see. Last year we traveled for a year and the same again in those places that had decent WiFi, the best interactions we had were with people our generation (Gen X) or older who still remember how to socialise! Overlanding through Africa was good too, no WiFi so everyone had to talk!

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  3. greg

    Great article. I have just started my travels in south east asia and I unfortunately agree wholeheartedly. Ironically im writing this from my smartphone which I bought for the purposes of not getting lost and I hate to admit- to fit in with my distracted generation. I minimise my use of it though but it just doesnt help. My generation are impossible to communicate with and everyone ive had the pleasure of getting to know havr all been significantly older than me. Very sad. I wonder if it will ever change.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Greg – We shall see but you can at least do what you think is right and keep on limiting your time on your phone and I’m sure you’ll have far more rewarding travel experiences than many others.

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  5. rené

    i used to work in the same hostel in greece twice. 2003 was the first time and 2007 the 2nd. … and that is already 7 years ago. i could defintitly see exactly the same happening. more and more laptops showed up, wich was almost not existing in 2003 with backpackers.

    2011 i made a journey to the middle east by road and it was already much more common that people were sitting in the common area and just everyone had a laptop on their laps, that was very strange for me, as this were the places were people usually used to chat, laugh and exchanged their adventures.

    imagine a time were hostels bann wifi from their properties. you might think that wouldn´t be your first choice then, but also imagine the comments and review that might come up. “of ´cause they offer no wifi, wich sucks! … but we had sooo much fun and enjoyed the company of those fellow travellers soo much, that we wouldn´t think twice, wether we choose it agian or not”

    if owners really find it sad that that changes come upon them, than there is also a way for them to change that, if they really belief in the “good old times”, wich are actually just an blink of an eye away …

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  7. Amy

    Coming from the other side of the coin, people travel for different reasons. Some to get away and even find some solitude. Now I know a hostel isn’t the best choice for that, however, you can be out fr six weeks staying at hostels at the same price as a week (or two) at hotels. Some just want a place to sleep while not looking for interaction. I feel if they’re all paying the same price for the bed, why purposely restrict wifi to small areas, or try to get people away from fbing on their bed. If they’re being rude that’s one thing, but why is keeping to yourself looked at as a “crime”?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Amy – I’m not saying keeping to oneself is a crime, it’s just a shame that 10 years ago there was much more interaction between people (which I do feel is what travel is all about) because we didn’t have all of these devices to spend time on. And now, having our phones, laptops and iPads makes us keep to ourself more often. I’m quite sure that if all the devices disappeared, we would be interacting with each other again in such places as hostels.

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  9. Forest Parks

    I’ve been meaning to come back to this post as I have just finished a month working at a hostel. I was actually surprised at the amount of interaction and also realised as my shyness faded that people are up for talking on the whole. I’m now realising that much of the unfriendliness I felt staying in hostels before was just me being shy! Just talk and people will talk back. Sure they have phones and computers but they’ll soon put them down if they are just on FB or reading the news.

  10. kb

    I stayed in a bacpackers in New Zealand in the year, and woke in the middle of the night in our 12 bed drom to notice a strange blue glow coming from somehwere in the room. Even when in the middle of night at least 3 of my roommates couldnt stop staring at their laptops (surfing in the dark). Though the yspent much of the day doing this as well.

  11. jake

    i am as bad as anyone. for my month of traveling.. i got sucked in countless number of nights to return to my hotel and check my mail. fortunately many hotels that i encountered in vietnam dont offer internet.. but those that do i will quickly discovered.

  12. CY

    Spot on !

    This is one of the reasons I like Myanmar and Mongolia. The internet connection is very limited, everyone is literally forced to go offline 🙂

  13. karen

    Great article, couldn’t agree more, which is why I only use my cell phone for texting not talking and not as a substitute for actually meeting up with people. The best thing for me while travelling is to wile away the hours on a bus staring out the window and chatting to people rather than listening to music or playing on a computer. You miss so much just by not LOOKING at what is going on around you. People work hard to earn lots of money to buy things and do stuff but you actually don’t need much money to live a great life. I have found the simple things when travelling, like simply sitting in a plaza and watching people far, are far more rewarding and memorable than rushing around and doing activities and tours.

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  15. Mike

    Hi Earl,

    I came across your site and this post just today. This post especially grabbed my attention. I left my cubical job in July 2011 (my third attempt) to travel, grow and meet people and have found the goal increasingly more challenging. My first attempt was in 2004 backpacking through Europe. The way you describe the camaraderie in this article before so much technology was my first experience of extended travel and it had me hooked. I’ve since been trying to find that again, yet as of my latest trip I find myself feeling more isolated now then ever. It’s taking a tole on my soul. Any advice for someone who is finding them-self slipping more and more into being an introvert and would like to find the joy in life again of engaging people but no longer knows how? I don’t even know if long term travel really suites me anymore or if it ever did but I miss the interactions I had on my first trip years ago and realize that even if I choose to settle in somewhere I’ll still face the same issue of isolation if I don’t relearn (especially in today’s world) how to engage people again. Thanks ahead of time for anything you can suggest that might help!

    1. Earl

      Hey Mike – I think the best thing to do is to really try and force yourself to speak with as many people as possible. And this includes those in the hostels/hotels where you stay and people that you come across while wandering around. One good thing to do is jump on and look for people in the destinations you’ll be visiting who are interested in meeting up for a coffee/drink. I do this myself and it’s a great way to interact with a local and enjoy an experience that you otherwise wouldn’t have if you were on your own. I can highly recommend this in order to help get you interacting with others again.

      At the same time, every trip is different and sometimes we just don’t ‘feel’ it and we end up in a mood in which we just don’t want to interact with many people. This happens to me as well from time to time and usually, when it does occur, I stop what I’m doing, decide on a destination that I know would make me very happy (usually a beach!) and head there for a while in order to re-group and re-energize. After such a break, I’m typically ready to explore again, feeling much more sociable.

  16. Margaret

    In London recently, I had an experience that reminded me how important it is to just ask people simple questions. I had been using my phone for directions, but I couldn’t get a signal, so I asked. Of course, that was much better. The person knew a better route than the GPS and even told me some places I could stop along the way. I just began always asking for directions and then asking if there was anything interesting to see or if there was a good cafe or whatever nearby. I saw a lot of interesting things in London I wouldn’t have otherwise.

  17. Lee M

    Hi everyone, this is a good topic and a situation that I myself am affraid of due to the fact I will be doing a short 2 months of travel on my own around ‘SEA’.
    I am a social kind of guy but do worry that people will be so glued to their social media that they will ignore people like myself and TBH I am looking forward to meeting some strange, funny, intersting and may be the HOT female when i travel(i say that laughing as a red hot blooded male and not as a creep)… I did 4 weeks in Oz last year but with 3 other friends and found people to be really nice and we got on great with a few solo travellers.
    I just hope its the same when I travel in Nov,Dec,Jan this year as I would be seriously gutted if this is whats happening……

  18. Augustine

    I think some people are too reserved and shy to start a simple conversation. Some people feels too ‘ royal’ too big to be nice to other people. (a.k.a Too Rude ). The last reason might be cultural differences, which I understand.

  19. Arianwen

    You make such a good point. I think people use technology sometimes to hide behind, when they don’t feel up to edging their way into already established social groups or when they haven’t got the drive to chat energetically with another set of people. But it’s a shame because, as you say, the people you meet when you travel are part of the main attraction of travelling in the first place. I’ll be blogging on the road for the first time soon and I hope I’ll be able to strike a good balance – making use of the quiet times, long journeys and nights spent in private rooms to get as much work done as possible.

  20. Bex

    Interesting to look at it from this angle. Similar to you, I use FB and the computer for a quick update and leave the longer stuff (such as updating my blog) in a quieter time, maybe late at night when everyone else’s asleep and I can sit undisturbed in the common room. I much prefer speaking to people face to face. We miss out on the present moment and the beauty around us. I was guilty of that recently: went to an incredible Greek island and had to stop myself from constantly tweeting or FBing about it!

  21. Emily @ Maiden Voyage

    That is a really sad email. And that poor hostel owner! I hate seeing people so laser-focused on technology. It’s the definition of not living in the present! How can you enjoy the people or events going on around you if your head is down on a phone or laptop? I also hate when people are at an event and spend all their time tweeting or Facebooking about it, but aren’t actually enjoying it in the present moment. I went to a yoga retreat at Peace Retreat last October, and I took a big break from technology. It was so relaxing (it also helped that I was in the jungle in Costa Rica), but it also allowed me to form close bonds with other people there. Nobody was distracted with phones or social media. We all wanted to truly be present and enjoy the experience, and I made some lifelong friends from those few days. Cheers to taking a digital detox from time to time!

  22. Nicolas De Corte

    Hi Earl, I have noticed this too the last couple of years, and I think it’s sad. To me, traveling is at least as much about the human interaction as it is to visit places, see things,…
    But what annoys me most, when you walk around in the common room and have a look what everyone is doing on their phone, tablet or pc, most of them will be playing games…
    So I have a theory: unlike most people think, a lot of travelers (including myself) actually have an introvert personality. Being on the road forces us to get into conversations, which actually makes us feel better and more confident. Also, you are not often the new guy in the group. Since there are a lot of solo travelers, most of the time everyone is the new guy.
    But now technology gives us again a way to hide ourselves, it keeps us busy. Where in previous times we got into conversation because we were either lonely or bored like hell, now we have the opportunity to fall back on our tools.

    This is why I normally don’t bring a lot of technology, although I have to admit I start taking more and more things. But I’m very careful that I only use it for the necessities: upload photo’s, read mail, quick mail to mom, and that’s it.

  23. Erin

    This post has a good ring of truth. I worked in a hostel part time in University, and the owner tried to combat this anti-social behaviour by only having WiFi available in the common areas (kitchen, lobby, etc.). The WiFi was also from a free service to the hostel so it timed out every 20 mins or so and people would have to refresh their connection.

    It helped a bit in the sense that rather than lying in their beds on Facebook alone, at least they were together in the lobby on Facebook, providing the opportunity for people to chat if they wanted. However, the amount of complaints we had regarding the WiFi not being in the room/not being efficient was astronomical, albeit this was mainly from long-term guests.

    I think hostels can be laid out strategically to encourage guests to communicate – I find SMALL, clean, and comfortable common areas the best for this. Small common space gives ample opportunity for guests to bump into each other and chat, if the space is too big people keep to themselves rather than trying to introduce themselves to a group in the corner. The importance of activities and energetic staff (especially at check in to set the mood) as icebreakers also helps wean people off technology in a hostel. Hostels with the best social experience and happiest guests have this down to an art.

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  25. RunAwayHippie

    hey Earl, nice post…it kind of boggles me that this is what it is coming to…as i am planning to head out and travel next year, i hope things don’t go entirely in this direction. A major part of why i want to travel is because i want to meet new people, it would be a shame if that wouldn’t be possible. Of course i understand though that this is not all travelers, just some that you, or your friend, may have met. Thanks again!

    1. Erin

      A general tip would be to check out the ‘fun’ rating on reviews of hostels on sites like hostelworld and hostelbookers. See if the hostel has regular activities and small common spaces where people have to bump into each other.

      Most travelers are like minded to you, and you will manage to meet people no problem! Don’t be afraid to put yourself out on a limb and speak to random people, you’ll find they are just as nervous!

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  27. Loz in Transit (senses)

    I made it a point to travel without a laptop, buying a cheap phone and not bothering to replace my camera (the 1st was stolen, the 2nd broke). I had the camera for less than the 1/3 of my year abroad.

    Its a tricky balance but the main thing is you just learn to let go. I know its not for everyone but you don’t know what you’re missing out on because you don’t know any better. It makes you live in the moment more and forces you to engage with your surroundings. It heightens the senses.

    Its somewhat ironic that you’re Australian friend didn’t engage his roommates with this topic rather than emailing you from his laptop.

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  29. Sue EllenTodd

    Yes! I heard that the reason Atlantis sunk was because their technology got out of control. The vibration that we are in is really just love and is likely a combination of right and left brain working together to connect our “mind” up with a Higher Power that we are all part of. Back in the day, we used to say:
    We are all one! Being in cyberspace can create that oneness but it is no substitute for a 98.6 degree warm human touch. So, yes moderation within cyberspace. What we get from/in cyberspace will never be able to compare to a hug or a handshake. xoxo. Sue Ellen Todd

    Also, technology is ever-evolving and if you don’t know the latest one is not
    considered smart. I feel afraid to ask questions about this multi-layed technology sometimes because I will then reveal how stupid I am–many times I have felt technological info lorded over me. Well it is not my lord. This is all left brain, male stuff and it is not helping the patriarchy to evolve into a humanarchy. I would much rather take a walk, make love, smell a flower, climb or hug a tree, go swimming or hiking, decorate my home (my sanctuary), or sit shoulder to shoulder gazing at the beauty of the my mother earth with one of my brothers or sisters of this humanity. That makes me feel connected to my soul! The internet feels soul-less to me, but perhaps that is just my personal preference and personal feeling about it. There certainly are many “personalities” within cyberspace but it does not attract this pagan goddess and yes, I believe we are all divine lovers and there is a coldness to technology that is really off-putting for me–yet I am trapped and have a hard time putting it off–it can certainly be all-consuming!

  30. Julia

    Wow, this is such a bummer of a topic – but I also think that it’s a bit of an exaggeration. I am also a fairly chill traveler, even if I am not on my computer (damn thing’s too heavy anyway, hate traveling with it!), I prefer to hang by myself often, and explore on my own, and be introspective. So maybe I’ve never really been the typical backpacker anyway!

    1. Earl

      Hey Julia – I usually spend most of my time traveling alone as well but I’m still able to do that and greet those staying in the same hostel/hotel as well. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not talking about spending your travels or even your day with those you meet in the hostel. I just think there is a huge decrease in general conversation among travelers and I find it slightly crazy that people don’t greet or talk to each other simply because they are glued to their devices.

  31. Oliver

    Hi Earl,

    some more greetings from China!

    Remember how we met in Sarajevo last October in that hostel down town? Both of us sitting at our netbooks updating our respective blogs 😉

    I met a 69 year old traveler while in Turkey and he taught me a lot about how the Turkish rely on oral communication, while European countries (and I guess North American as well) rely much more on written communication. For example, have you noticed that in Turkish bus stations they usually only advertise destinations, but no schedules? No wonder the Turkish are such sociable people.

    It’s great to stay in touch with the people at home using today’s technology, but most trips come to an end and you will see your loved ones soon enough. IMO there is usually no need for a constant update…

    Love the technology, but don’t forget that no technology will replace meeting people face to face! The argument is not only valid in hostels, but also the fact that we tend to plan everything in advance, not to make any mistake and optimally use our time while traveling. My best memories stem from occasions, where I had nothing planned and just went with the flow, having time to talk to people and spending quality time with them.

    To me, traveling is not only about nice photos and having been there, but about meeting locals and learning about their culture. This is not to say that meeting fellow travelers is fun as well 😉

    Keep letting people know about the wonders out there


    1. Earl

      Hey Oliver – Great to hear from you!! And I guess things are working out well for you in China so far?? It would be great to hear more of an update when you have a chance.

      And as for the comment, there absolutely is no replacement for a face to face interaction with another human being. I love technology as well but I sure won’t choose it over meeting other people…and hopefully it will stay that way. As long as I keep meeting interesting people on the road I’m not too worried!

  32. Waegook Tom

    YES to this post, Earl, yes! My latest hostel experience was in Kuala Lumpur. I was in a six-bed dorm room with three other travellers – a couple, and a solo guy. The couple chatted very briefly, but then holed themselves up on their laptops. The other guy said nothing to me when I greeted him, and only spoke to me to enquire if the plug socket was by my bed. The owners of the hostel were grumpy and unfriendly, maybe for the same reasons that your guy in Romania was for a couple of days initially.

    When I was in Fethiye, I stayed at an amazing hostel called Ferah Pension which had a great vibe, with everybody hanging out, going out drinking together, trading tips on where to go, and chilling out in the pool. That was in 2010. Since that trip, I’ve only stayed in the hostel in Mawaslaysia…I’ll be off round the world next year, so I’ll have to wait and see how that is.

    Like you’ve written here, it IS all about moderation. People should make an effort to be a little bit more social, especially if you’re sharing a bedroom and bathroom for a few days! You never know who you might meet if you just say, “hello” and ask a few questions 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Tom – I like to repeat that as well…you really don’t know who you’ll meet or where such an interaction may lead and so in my opinion, I always think it’s best to talk to as many people as possible. Even that ‘hello’, like you said, could change your life…you never know 🙂

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