If You Are a Socially Awkward Nomad and You Know It…Clap Your Hands!

Derek Personal Stuff, Perspectives 76 Comments

Socially Awkward
“The norms are different in my society and we don’t need special places to socialize. Every house, every street corner, everywhere is a pub here.” – an Indian friend of mine.

You know what I’m talking about. Don’t you? Please tell me I wasn’t the only one clapping?

Here’s my problem. Back in July, I was in Brooklyn visiting two of my closest friends. One Friday night we ventured over to the popular outdoor bar “Habana Outpost” for a few beers. Without hesitation, my two friends began socializing with the crowd of young New Yorkers, chatting away with the people at the next table and even introducing themselves to several young ladies that happened to walk by.

As for me, I sat there and tried to count how many people walked in and out of the pizza place across the street.

Traditional social scenes have become difficult for me to handle. I don’t know how to behave and I don’t know what to say. I’d be fine if you threw me into a small karaoke room in the middle of Thailand and told me to start singing “Stuck on You” with a group of Thai people I didn’t know. But put me in a room full of people I’m not acquainted with back in the USA and I’m as lost as a falafel sandwich in Papua New Guinea.

After years of traveling, I definitely have wild stories to tell, I’m more open-minded and I’m more comfortable among a diverse range of people…but I’ve discovered that this means diddley if I’m unable to actually begin the socializing process in the first place.

Maybe it’s because the traditional, and more formal, sense of socializing that occurs at home often begins with questions that I struggle with – “What do you do for a living?”, “Did you see Kobe Bryant’s dunk last night?” or “Did you catch that episode of Lost?”. My answers would be ‘I’m not actually sure’, ‘No’ and ‘No’, putting me immediately on the outside of many a conversation.

How Did This Happen?

I’m certain that my current social awkwardness is related to my nomadic lifestyle. By spending so much time away from traditional, young-adult forms of socializing, my ability to mix and mingle with people in the real world has vanished. (Spending an excessive amount of time on tiny islands and remote beach communities probably hasn’t helped much either.)

When a person travels in lands far away, they often don’t have to give any thought to socializing as it tends to happen naturally. As stated in the quote at the start of this post, in many parts of the world, the people don’t need special places to socialize. EVERY HOME, EVERY STREET CORNER, EVERYWHERE IS A PUB. Whether being invited by strangers to join their family celebrations or sharing a meal with people you just met in the street, you just don’t need to plan or seek out your social interactions. They come to you. Heck, it is even much easier to strike up a conversation with the bikini-clad Swiss girl in the hammock next to you on some beach in Vietnam than it is to converse with a friend of a friend in a bar back home.

“How many times during his adventures does the traveler meet a stranger who invites him home to meet the entire family and is then invited to stay there until dinner and then the invitation is extended to include staying the night, and the night involves socializing with the family and many other relatives and friends from the neighborhood who have joined them as well?”

If you’ve spent much time traveling, you know that some version of the above happens quite regularly. As a result, this has become my idea of socializing.

But how many times has such a scene played out when at home? Never.

In the end, the number of interactions a traveler has with strangers on any given day is infinitely more than what would occur in a normal month back in the USA. And that one fact makes all the difference. When traveling, you don’t need a support group of your peers to accompany you to a special location in order to try your hand at meeting new people. All you need to do is return the greetings you receive from complete strangers.

Where Did You Get Your Pants?

When I was in Delhi back in June I needed to buy some pants. As I was roaming the streets of Connaught Place, I noticed a group of young Indians sitting in a small park. There were two females and one male and they were all wearing what I considered to be pants of an unusually high quality for India. I walked straight up to them and asked them where they bought their pants. Not only did they tell me, but they ended up taking me around to their favorite clothing shops over the course of the afternoon as I tried on different pairs of pants. We engaged in interesting conversations, spent a lot of time laughing, shared some chai and street food and became friends. There was no awkwardness involved from beginning to end, it was as natural as a Mexican pouring Worcestershire sauce on their pizza (it’s what they do and yes, it tastes as terrible as it sounds).

Where To Go From Here?

Be the change. That’s what everyone always says, so I guess it’s time.

In five days I’ll actually be heading back to the USA for a short visit, so I’m going to try and change my approach to socializing. My plan is to turn “everywhere into a pub” and be more social with strangers. I’ll start by talking to as many strangers as I can every day – on the street, in the elevator, in line at the grocery store, while stopped at a traffic light. Perhaps I’ll even invite a stranger to join my friends and I for dinner or at least for a drink.

I want to meet new people through the normal interactions of everyday life, not by having to down a few whiskey shots in order to build up enough courage to look away from the pizza place across the street.

That post really made me seem like a social reject! Although I’m no Hugh Jackman, I’m no Mr. Bean either. I just find it troubling that there is such a lack of human connection in so many ‘advanced’ countries that socializing with strangers is so difficult and full of absurd pressures.

But out of curiosity, was anyone else clapping their hands? Has anyone experienced the differences in socializing while traveling versus when at home?

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Comments 76

  1. I find this to be a problem once in a while, particularly in groups of “normal” people who live “normal” lives and have “normal jobs.” Luckily, I travel with the husband so we always have each other, but just recently at a beach bar at a hotel in Doha, we sat on the comfy sofa and watched the group of people who all knew each other and all had normal expat lives chat. Everyone was nice and the conversations we DID have were good, but I just felt strange and out of place. I also sometimes get tired of feeling like I have to apologize for being a perpetual nomad, or for living in a place like Bali. My point is that if you can afford to spend $40 on a single drink in Doha, you could save enough money to stop working and start traveling, so stop making me feel bad for my lifestyle. Thanks for letting me vent on this one Earl.

  2. Hey man,

    Very true indeed! I think it’s the ‘awkward’ culture of socializing in the West, and perhaps the ‘developed’ world in general. I felt this strongly after spending 3 years in Thailand – being back to Australia was an enormous culture shock!

  3. Hey Earl,

    Great point you made in this article. I think its because not many people have been in the same shoes as those travellers. Therefore, its hard to relate.

    I also want to add that it could be more of a “reverse” culture shock they have due to the long term exposure being abroad, in which the social culture is different. Its similar to having been in another country for a long time such as having been in peace corp. Have you considered that?

  4. As always, true and inspiring.
    I’ve recently come back home after three years living abroad and I’ve experienced exactly the same thing. Even more, I feel I don’t have much to share with my old friends anymore and even less with friends of friends and other people in my hometown. I’m quite sure that I’ll soon leave again to go live abroad somewhere new.

    ps: your post also made me think of my favorite tv program, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMuXphRp_YI

  5. Great post! I always feel this way. Glad I am not alone in that I miss the human contact that you find around the world opposed to everyone glued to their iphones now a days, or only able to have conversation about sports, game of thrones, other stuff I don’t care about, etc. I hate feeling pushed out of the conversation because I have no clue and then feel socially awkward.

  6. I’m that awkward and I live the “normal” lifestyle lol. Whoops! I find those same questions mind numbing but then if you try to have an interesting conversation right off the bat you’re a weirdo…asi es la vida. I need to travel.

  7. I’m so glad I clapped when I saw this post!

    I was beginning to think there was something wrong with me as I’ve just come back home for the longest time I’ve been here in a few years. I’ve found myself in similar situations and was unsure what was happening but you explained it perfectly. Thank you!

  8. Pingback: Engaging – With Other Travelers | A Mindful Traveler

  9. I once realized how common and easy it is to go running naked through the streets of any foreign town but when it comes to doing it at home.. suddenly you just think about it too much. When on the road its so natural to ask any random about any random thing but the whole don’t talk to strangers thing always creeps back to me when im home. How about a push to be travellers in our own cities!?

    1. Hey Greg – That sounds great to me. It’s hard to do sometimes, but being a traveler in our own towns and cities certainly has its own set of incredible benefits.

  10. this article made me think about my time in the US…
    i’m an italian, living in london. I went to NY for a short trip and i had the feelings that americans were REALLY friendly towards strangers! looks like as a general rule we are more relaxed when it comes to deal with people from different nationalities? Maybe because we don’t have to act strictly as the social conventions want us to be…
    Or it is just because, on holiday/trip/away from home we are all more open, relaxed and friendly? I still don’t know what is it exactly, but i also noticed that i was more relaxed when i arrived in London the first couple of months, after living there for a while i became “one of them” which means less spontaneous…

    All i know is that we are strange social animals indeed 🙂

  11. Great post! You’ve put your finger on things I’ve experienced as an ex-pat (I teach at an international school in Korea) who travels frequently but couldn’t quite explain. Thank you Earl!

  12. This article is great and so true! At the moment I’m in Caye Caulker, Belize where I’ve been for four days and it’s been great primarily from the people. So far I’ve been hanging out with a couple from Iceland, two chicks from London, another from Osaka, and another from Germany. The connections that I’ve experienced while traveling have been stronger than anything back home stateside and that’s something that continues to amaze me. I think to travel you have to be open to people and different situations, but social awkwardness is something to embrace as well.

  13. Earl,
    I have really enjoyed your website and this article made me remember a conversation I had with a missionary during my 9 hour lay over in New Deli, on my way home from Nepal. He told me about being raised by missionary parents and the awkwardness he felt when he would go back to the States. He didn’t fit in because he didn’t have an upbringing to shape his culture to match his peers who looked like him and shared the same color of passport.
    Its like the ever dreaded question “Where are you from?” how is someone supposed to answer that question in a socially acceptable allotted amount of time?!
    I have returned to the States to make some money (working contract travel nursing for 3 month in North Carolina, add that you your list of ways to fund overseas adventures) before returning abroad. I have found that it is more difficult to adjust to the Bible belt of the south that it was to adjust to goat decapitation or splashing cow urine on your face. But, I have also found that the people who I do connect with are usually others with interesting stories to tell, from the Kenyan woman who doesn’t really fit in at work either, to the room mate I acquired from my first day of hospital orientation (who’d never heard of Michael Jackson after being raised in Ecuador).
    I was awkward before traveling, but I have a new appreciation for awkwardness more than before. Thanks for sharing your stories, I plan to tell my friends about your website!

  14. I agree completely with what you are saying here Earl. Whenever I return to the UK I find myself struggling slightly with the general topics of conversation. Not so much amongst my best friends (who mostly share my travel passion), but with the extended network. In general I am perfectly able to respond to questions about television or media, the main issue is that I dont WANT to. No sooner has the conversation been initiated I find myself veering off trying to expand the topic to travel, social situation, or simply an exchange of stories. This tends to either end in an awkward conversational breakdown or simply wires being crossed and resulting in gritting my teeth through a tale of how person x went on a one week holiday to a Greek island and got way too drunk.

    1. Hey Will – I know the feeling of not wanting to participate in those conversations…they just seem useless when such topics are discussed so often. The only option is to keep trying to change the subject or keep on traveling 🙂

  15. Just from reading a few of your blogs, you sound like a soldier who just returned from a tour and can’t wait to get back out there to his unit overseas for another tour..

  16. I’m definitely a socially awkward dude which was half the reason I left for Bangkok as soon as I graduated high school. Lived there for 3 years and now I’m home running my own landscaping business off the money I saved teaching kindergarten w/o any formal degree (tefl or tesol)…. Honestly you just have to find a place you fit in. For me that meant just being a golden muscled up grunge ball slingin mulch for 9/12 months with winters off for travel. You meet other people interested in growing their businesses and learning new skills (operating new kinds of heavy machinery, investing strategies with the money you earn etc…) Do what you love and the rest will follow, even if that means being a nomad!

    On a side note, I’ve always believed us “socially awkward” individuals to not be socially awkward but instead “self-sufficient”. Who has time to watch basketball games when there’s so much to do and so much money to make!! Anyone who needs and craves the instant gratification of social acceptance/approval has the “social problem” IMO.

  17. Dromomania – wow! There seems to be a name for anything out there…
    I definitely “suffer” from a mild version of it. Best disease we ever had right? 😀

  18. Hey Earl, I can totally relate to this. I’m not a permanent nomad like you but I’ve traveled a lot and encountered the same feelings when comparing life on the road and life at home. It can be a weird feeling when you have all those travel experiences and stories inside and then back in your home country most people you interact with can’t relate to all that. Instead all they want to talk about is sports, politics and celebrity gossip – yuck!
    I think some people just have this travel bug inside and a constant hunger for different, exotic experiences. Deep down, it may be a lust for adventure that you feel you just cannot get satisfied in the country and society you grew up in.

  19. I’m 17 and have begun to think about what to do with my life. All the options are really overwhelming (career wise) but I have started to think about traveling, I don’t know about becoming a nomad and all that but it sounds like something I want to do. How did you get started? Did you go to school first? If you have a romantic relationship,how does that work? My parents would think I’m crazy since they are the type to stay in one place all of their lives but I don’t think I want to to follow their footsteps.
    p.s. I’m new to your blog, sorry about asking so many questions.

    1. Hey Marisol – Thanks for commenting! I did go to university, mainly because I had no idea that I wanted to travel at that time. After school I took a short three month trip and that’s when I decided that I wanted to travel long-term, so I continued traveling at that point. As for a romantic relationship, it works the same as it would if you were at home. If you find someone you want to spend time with, you have to make decisions. What is more important to you – travel or your relationship? Or maybe you both want to travel together. Or maybe you can work something out so that you travel part of the year and stay in one place the rest of the year. There are challenges involved but there are challenges involved in any relationship!

      And no problem about the questions…feel free to ask more if you have any. You can also send me an email using the “Contact” link above.

    1. Hey Roy – In that case, hopefully we’ll meet up in person one of these days because I’m sure we’ll be able to communicate with each other quite easily!

  20. read this just now. very interesting topic. i grew up in a very big westernized city and what you said applies to social interactions back home. you need to have a purpose to communicate to people. otherwise, you’ll come off as weird or even stalker-y. which is sad. when you’re traveling, however, the rules no longer apply. you can strike up a conversation easily with somebody you meet at the roti stand on the street. which isn’t to say that i do it often because let’s face it, i’m still an introvert even on the road. i do push myself sometimes, of course, because at the back of my head i know that social interactions are way more relaxed out here. again, very interesting topic, earl!

  21. Sarah Weddington was one of my government professors in college. She, who argued – and won – a Supreme Court case at 27 said, “To be a leader, you must feel comfortable being different”. That always stuck with me. In my “former life” (leading others) it came up quite often as I stuck my neck out in public and hoped people were behind me (they were).

    Now, on my own, on a totally different path, I have found new meaning in her words: to lead my *own* life, blaze a new trail, of course I will feel different. Because I am (different from everyone else).

    And, of course, we’re all so similar (which you know from travelling).

    Anywho, I just thought you might find that interesting.

    I’m glad to have stumbled upon your blog and look forward to reading more.



    1. Hey Laurie – Thank you for sharing that and I can definitely connect with her words as well. To break free from the traditional lifestyle and create your own unique path, one must absolutely be comfortable with doing their own thing. If we worry what others around us think, there is no way we can successfully ‘blaze that new trail’.

      Glad to hear you’re out there blazing away!

  22. Thanks so much I was starting to wonder about this disconnected feeling! Another side question while your here 😉 Ive noticed that being on the road it’s essential to get in the flow with people but I’m sooo why! Even with the open indeed traveler! This could be because I’m traveling the US and friendliness is a little different? Or I’m just example shy! The first is a thought..the latters a fact! The downside is that I’m starting to feel lonely because it’s hard to talk about my life with non travelers.. They miss it all.. Downsides/upsides.. Any thoughts anyone? It would be greatly appreciated.

    (: peace and love

    1. Hey Aliza – That is one of the challenges of travel, losing that connectedness with non-travelers. After all, you are experiencing things that others can’t relate to and the more you travel, the less you can relate to the lives that others are leading as well. But there are plenty of people out there who can understand you and whom you can understand…it just takes a little longer to find them! Connecting with other travelers, especially through travel blogs, is a great way to ensure that you always have people that you can chat with.

      And at the same time, don’t give up! Continue talking to as many new people as you can and eventually, you’ll discover that there is always something that you can talk about. You might not form a strong bond with the majority of people you meet, but there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy their company and still engage in conversation about certain topics that may interest you both.

  23. Hey everyone! I’ve got a question for you. I’m a newbie long term traveler I just hit my six month and am twenty years old. Something that seems to be a content struggle is feeling connects to people. I can travel and have tons of this freedom but realize I’m not connected to one set social group and am not really connected to people me and most people don’t have a common tie. No neighborhood or mutual friends.. I’m starting to feel distant from people in a sense I still interact of course but I’d like to feel.. Closer? Any similar experiences and tips t help make me travels better. Also in the places I travel there’s no language better.

    In my eyes freedom is so beautiful nessasesry but I’m defently not doing this in some kind of anti people and lone ranger coalition! Im defently not on a screw you society sojourn!

    Love and hugs

    1. Hey Aliza – Thank you for the comment and I can definitely understand what you’ve described. And I started to feel this way as well, which is why I decided to change my travel style a few years back. These days, instead of moving around constantly from place to place, I prefer to pick a new country and set up a base there. I rent an apartment for anywhere between 3 – 6 months as this gives me a completely different experience. I’m able to meet more people, spend time with them, find social circles and build better friendships and bonds.

      And of course, I still take side trips around the region every now and then, but I love having that base and the rewards it brings!

  24. When I was around 10ish (i dont really remember) My dad got a cruise vacation as a gift from his work for a good job on a project (or something like that). At the same time my great grandmother passed away and left a small inheritance to my mom, so they combined their gains into a trip that lasted a few weeks or so. A cruise from California (where I used to live) to Alaska and a train ride through a small part of Canada. But I remember I was a very socially awkward child, I had childhood epilepsy so I was constantly outcasted at school at home. But I remember on that cruise my parents let me wander wherever I wanted on that ship and my sister did her own thing too. I really just did whatever I want and it was the most liberating feeling in the world I loved it! I even for the four days that I was even on that ship met a girl around my age and wound up having a friend to hang out with. So even in the brief time I knew I was traveling it is so true that you meet people more than at home. I think it opens up your mind to forget about the preconceptions you think others might think of you for the way you look, dress, or anything else for that matter. You become more open and almost as an instinct of nature you reach out to others to find some common bond with someone, anyone, who crosses your path.

    1. Kathryn, you hit it on the head! my 13 year old is the same way and i believe that traveling will open up and change his perceptions of people and reality. thanks for your post Earl! love it!

  25. Clapping right now… months later… Very interesting subject and one I think about very often.

    I’m from Canada but I traveled a lot in the US and I think there are similarities. What I realize more and more in my travels is that North Americans have a different sense of community than other people around the world. This is especially obvious in Asia but I saw it in Europe, where neighbors meet on the street for a drink after work. This will sound cheesy but we live in very individualistic societies and I feel “community” means “friends and relatives” to us. Everybody else does not exist (I’m pushing a bit, for the sake of my argument). This has to have an impact on how we interact with strangers. It is generally regarded as weird to start talking with a stranger without any “purpose” back home. For the same reason, we get all suspicious when a stranger starts talking to us while travelling, thinking “he has to have something else on his mind”. But he does not (not always, in any case). He is truly curious and wants to know you a bit more. Why can’t we do that in NA without feeling awkward?

    I agree with the comment on standing out while travelling. Same for me. 6 feet, blue eyes, long hair gets attention in Asia. But in the other direction, my own hesitation comes from how my social interactions were conditioned back home, where a simple smile in the subway is very daring.

    Thanks Earl

    1. Hey Andre – You’re absolutely correct and I always have found that to be one of the strangest differences between North America and other parts of the world. I used to do an experiment whenever I would be in the US visiting family/friends. I would walk around the streets and try to make eye contact with people. Then I would just say ‘hello’ and see their reaction. Almost nobody would say hello back to me of course. We don’t have that ‘community’ at all…it is an ‘every man for themselves’ kind of lifestyle.

      Luckily, the more we travel, the easier it becomes for us to interact with strangers as well, especially when spending time in countries that do this so naturally.

      I remember being on a bus in Bangkok a few years ago during rush hour. At one stop, about 25 high school students came onto the bus as they were on their way home. The bus was so crowded that they had to squeeze together and there was no room for their backpacks or the books they were holding. So, the people sitting in the seats on the bus would just grab the books or backpack and keep them on their laps so that the students could have more room and hold on so they didn’t fall over. Nobody even said a word. The students didn’t ask for help. The people in the seats just did it on their own. Imagine if someone grabbed your backpack on a bus at home! There would be quite a big incident I would imagine.

  26. Praise Stumble! for bringing me here! And you bet I clapped my hands, I stared at the ground wishing I could just say hello to everyone but then sat under a bridge laughing with homeless I just met. That was my cue.
    I’m twenty, I’ve never had a real, stable job, not due to laziness but fear that I might become entrapped (and interviews of course) I am from head to toe a nomad, the travel channel to me is like a dirty magazine I can’t help but binge on. I love what cannot be owned but experienced (except knowledge but…) and I believe myself to be not only desiring to do what you have done, but desperately needing to. Though the seeds were always there, your posts are like tropical rain, quenching them, your story and encouragement like sunshine.
    Thank you for leaving footprints to follow, and keep it up, I’ll be reading and preparing to make the plunge.

    1. Hey Jeremy – It’s great to hear from another person so interested in getting out there and living this nomadic lifestyle. And as you prepare for your journey, if you ever have any questions or need any advice just let me know. You can always send me an email through the Contact link at the top of the page.

  27. Yes, I was clapping my hands loud and clear with you. After years of traveling and living abroad, I’ve mostly had to use broken English or tourist English to communicate in order to be understood. I didn’t notice that my speech had been reduced to that of a 5 year old. Imagine my shock when I went back home to hang out with my friends…I speak like a kindergartener compared to those who are going to medical school or working for NASA! This just made me really self conscious while speaking to them. I consider this a big hinderance in socializing.

    1. Hey Kim – Well, there you go…we have another one 🙂 It can be a hinderance but I doubt that you would be willing to give up your travel experiences in order to talk a little more clearly among your friends. I know I wouldn’t…we just need to create a social group of long-term travelers so that we don’t feel so self-conscious all the time!

  28. You are not socially awkward, but socially evolved. You’ve had the advantage of interacting with your fellow man on a much better plane as a daily norm for years. We’re the ones who are awkward. It’s weird to have to down ‘liquid courage’ to find the strength to make a friendly overture. You nailed it.

    1. Hey Colleen – I always find it fascinating how uncomfortable we tend to be in social situations at home. I wish, when back in the US, I could meet people as easily as in other parts of the world, just by walking up to complete strangers and starting a conversation!

  29. I absolutely resonated with that (including the cross between Hugh Jackman and Mr. Bean). I actually laughed out loud after I read the first few paragraphs! I’d never really put to much thought into it, it was just there, but on “paper” so to speak, I couldn’t help but laugh at the hilarity of the truth. Thanks for brightening my day 🙂

    1. Hey Brittany – Glad to know that you, too, can identify with such awkwardness. Let us hope we don’t fall all the way to the Mr. Bean level at some point!

  30. Just from reading a few of your blogs, you sound like a soldier who just returned from a tour and can’t wait to get back out there to his unit overseas for another tour.. and PS: your life is fucking awesome =)

  31. Ha ha so true , the last time I returned home from travelling this is what happened to me too ! People were talking about all this stuff that I had nothing in common with anymore …

  32. Thanks for this post – I stumbled upon it after a recent trip home and it made me feel like less alone in my social awkwardness while there. In my travels, I will talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime. At “home”? Even conversations with some of my oldest friends were difficult in that we didn’t have those usual “go-to” topics that we always had before i skipped town. And with strangers? Forget it – that old insecurity of “why would that person want to talk to me” creeps back in and i’m a shy, introverted girl again.
    For me, i think part of the impetus of socializing abroad is a realization – at a very low, nearly subconscious level – that if i don’t act more extroverted, I am not going to talk to anyone but myself for long periods of time. it also feels less awkward; in the U.S., we often need a reason (other than just wanting to know another human being) to talk to a stranger, and so I worry “oh dear, does that man/woman/child think i am hitting on them/want something from them/am going to hurt them?” whereas in another country, those worries drop away and curiosity takes over. And it is true, as a foreigner, the social scene comes to me; i simply have to respond, to be open, to say “yes” when it feels right.

  33. I absolutely, totally relate to what you’re saying about the social awkwardness of being back home after you travel. The truth is, while humanity and people are fundamentally the same everywhere, I think everyday life in North America in particular, and many places in general, numbs most people to the beauty and wonder of the world. For instance, I’ve stopped even talking about my travels to anyone at home, not because I wouldn’t like to share what I’ve learned and in turn hear about some of their experiences in life, but rather most people simply can’t relate. And the truth is that I can’t relate to their lives being defined by the work they do, what happened on “Lost” or a reality show or something. Even if people wanted to talk about local culture, arts, or anything like that, chances are I’d be able to engage in a meaningful conversation. But after you’ve travelled a bit and had certain experiences that change you profoundly, it’s basically impossible to engage in the kind of conversation that most people engage in, in North America at least. It exists other places as well of course, but my context is North America since I’m from Canada.

    A natural thing happens. You start to attract a different type of person – whether you’re at home or elsewhere in the world, especially as you realize the whole world can and is ultimately your home. Very few people want to talk about universal truths or even realize they are important to talk about sometimes, and very few people can generally relate to things that are outside their sphere of lived experience. So you end up only talking to people based on values-based conversations. And wouldn’t you rather do that instead of relating to “America’s Top Model” anyway? A funny thing happens when you travel – you see the world, you experience it, and in some ways you move beyond some of the material aspects of the world that define so many people. So naturally, you can’t have those kinds of conversations anymore and in fact you can be thankful for that! In some ways maybe you have fewer interactions with fewer people when you get back (compared to when you’re in other countries), but my experience at least, has been that those interactions have been far more meaningful and of higher quality than if I’d tried to “fit in” to the mainstream in North America.

    1. Hey Indrani – I think the last line of what you wrote is the most important. I’ve also found it better to simply accept that your life is different than those who have not traveled extensively and instead of trying to find a way to fit back in, look for others who you may be able to connect with. It doesn’t mean you have to shut everyone out of your life, but the reality is, just like you mentioned, it does become increasingly more difficult to communicate with people whose lives are so different.

      Luckily, there are other travelers out there to connect with and even better, an entire world of like-minded people on line. So these days, you’re never too far away from a good conversation, even if it is only over email for a while 🙂

      1. When you travel to other countries, especially off the beaten path, aren’t some of your most interesting encounters with local people that may have never travelled very far and have a day to day life that differs from yours? The connections come from a shared humanity seen through eyes that accept the differences. While it is more difficult to communicate, we do so because we are curious and the rewards are many. Although it is nice to share notes with fellow travelers, and much can be learned, it is the unexpected meeting up of minds with people who’s lives are so different from mine that open the mind and heart. That shared humanity can also be found with western people who are into American pop culture; when talking to them, I try to pretend I’m in a different country, meeting someone that has a different life from mine. Also, many people overseas are very curious about American pop culture and will ask you about, so it helps to have some knowledge about it.

  34. Hello again!
    As time is going on through out college, traveling the world is at the top of my list. My question is about being careful of who you interact with. If you are invited by a stranger to their home, is their a little fear that they are not really taking you some place to strip you down of your possessions. As an american, we are always told to be very cautious of who we meet in foreign places and keep your eyes open. How comfortable are you with following a complete stranger in a foreign country back to his home to meet his family. Have you ever had a bad experience?

    1. Hey Nathan – I think that fear is a little bit exaggerated and as long as you exercise simple common sense, you’ll avoid finding yourself in any sticky situations. After all, the world is much safer and friendly than we are led to believe that the chances of someone inviting you home to steal all over your possessions is quite slim. You certainly don’t hear about such incidents often, or at all for that matter! And in my 12 years of traveling, I’ve met and followed dozens upon dozens of complete strangers, into their vehicles, to their homes and in some cases, to completely different towns after knowing them for a short time. And not once have I had any trouble.

      Again, if the situation doesn’t seem right, then politely decline the invitation and once you get out there into the world, you’ll find that it becomes much easier to judge a person’s intentions. Luckily, the overwhelming majority of people in any country have good intentions and you’ll have nothing to worry about at all!

  35. I love this post! It is so so true! I sometimes regret returning home after a trip, because I dread the awkwardness of people in cities where I am from and the clique-ness of them all with poor social skills!
    I love your plans of what to do this time you return home, good luck with it, you might just inspire me to do the same! 🙂

    1. Hey Cailin – thank you for commenting! You know what, it actually worked. Ever since writing this particular post, I have really focused on speaking to as many people as possible that I come into contact with. And it really didn’t take long for it to become natural. I have now met several interesting people both at home and in Mexico where I am currently living just by saying hello and seeing where it leads. I highly recommend you trying it out, because I know exactly how frustrating it can be when returning home after some traveling!

  36. Great post Earl ~ I’m not currently a nomad, but can definitely identify….If You’re a Socially Awkward person & You Know It…Clap Your Hands!
    Jen 🙂

  37. I think its just matter of having the right attitude… I’ve been traveling for 9 years and based on my experience, I could say its just matter on working on our empathy and focusing on seeing the positive side on every conversation. You can always learn a good lesson from anyone; you just need to keep your mind open so you give yourself an opportunity to make the most out of it.

    Another important thing is: travelers have an important responsibility because thanks to their experience abroad, you can help others see things through your eyes, making them more conscious about real things that happen outside of their comfort zone. Share your anecdotes with friends or complete strangers, you might be able to make a difference in somebody’s life without even realizing it!!

  38. It depends on what I’m up for. I can dress the same way I described above and go to a country bar and get plenty of attention. If I add the kilt in with the above mix, I can stand out in most places pretty easily.

    Sometimes it’s nice to just blend in. It’s definitely an interesting social experiment to just switch things up with an extremely different look and see how differently people respond. I’d recommend playing around with it.

    I see your point on standing out just by being off the beaten path. That amplifies everything that much more. Interesting.

  39. Andrew beat me to the punch (again).

    When I’m a foreigner I get attention. I stand out. People approach me and are interested in me. I’m a rockstar.

    When I get back to the States I blend in.

    Try wearing something ‘crazy’ out and I’ll guarantee you’ll get the attention you’re missing.

  40. The invitations to dinner and other social gatherings while abroad could be the best reason to travel. It happens so surprisingly often and is the best.

  41. Nate- I really agree with you. In the back of my mind something tells me that the outcome of the situation doesn’t really matter because i’m in a strange land. But back in America I feel conscious of whatever I do i will be judged and that stops me from feeling comfortable enough to be as social as I would like.

    Earl- That’s a great point that social situations end up coming to us when traveling.

  42. I remember a very distinct moment on my last flight back to the U.S. when I realize that I no longer had a language barrier with the people around me. For a moment, I was totally relieved and a sense of calm set in. Three seconds later, I remembered that it didn’t matter because nobody talks to each other without a premise anyway.

    From a different angle… When my pasty white skin, spiky black hair, and eyeliner go out in Central America, I tend to get rockstar attention. Like… people seriously refusing to believe that I’m not a rockstar. Sometimes I try to blend in, but find I stick out no matter what. On the other hand, I can easily become a “nobody” back home. The difference between being a sort of… oddity… and being indistinguishable changes the entire paradigm for me. Sure, “people are strange, when you’re a stranger”, but that seems to make people want to engage me.

    Does any of that come into play in your awkward moments?

    1. Andrew – You definitely got me thinking. Perhaps a lack of being an ‘oddity’ is what makes socializing back in the US so difficult. Not that I’m looking for constant attention, but as you mentioned, being an ‘oddity’ is usually impossible to avoid when traveling (for me, because I travel to areas far off the normal travelers routes – that’s my spiky hair and eyeliner!). And as a result, the strangers come to me with extended hand and interesting questions.

      Since you rarely come across a true ‘oddity’ when back home, due to the diversity, there is no initial attraction that makes people want to engage with each other (such as appearing to be a rockstar). As a result, we spit out empty small-talk and have difficulty getting beyond that point, and that leads to awkward moments for me, because I don’t know how and am not interested in such interactions.

      When you’re at home, do you do anything different so that people will want to engage you or are you content to become a “nobody” until you get to leave the country again?

  43. You know what….there is a sense on anonymity when you travel. You’re the foreigner. People might not understand where you come from and have a full understanding of your culture. Because of that, it’s just easier to socialize. There are no preconceived notions of who you have to be.

    I imagine you might be an introvert of sorts…well, I am too. Introvert isn’t a dirty, four letter word either. I’m fine with the fact that I can sit in the corner and observe. I don’t feel the need to engage in conversations that are of no interest to me. At the same time, I do try to push myself and talk to strangers more and engage in meaningful conversations with them. I think you’re learning to do the same, which is awesome!

    1. I would agree that the lack of preconceived notions plays a role when traveling. Generally, nobody cares what you do, where you’re from, how you look or why there is a orange rabbit tattooed on your back, they see a foreigner and feel that is a good enough reason to invite you to join them in their socializing. And as you mentioned you’re doing, I’m hoping that talking to strangers more often will lead to the interesting conversations that I seek, but that I feel are not possible in many traditional social settings where the conversations don’t interest me. Thanks for the comment Nate!

  44. I read every single word in this post from beginning to end, and related to every single thing you said. Just last night I was with a group of people here in the U.S., and upon being asked what I do…I just don’t know what to say. And then I end up looking like I’m the idiot! Same with TV shows and movies. No clue.

  45. Hey Mixmaster E,

    A good friend of mine once taught me that “you need to ask a second question of everyone you meet”.

    I’ve taken this to heart and now it leads to amazing interactions everywhere from an elevator to an airplane. A quick question beyond the obvious boring ones breeds the most amazing conversations.

    You’re awesome. Keep it up.


    1. Alright Si, I’ll start doing that myself. The idea is definitely to get beyond the standard first questions that are asked (not for the answers but just to fill the time or because we’re supposed to ask ‘what do you do?’. I’m sure a lot of people don’t expect those second questions (assuming they’re interesting, which I’m sure they are coming from you!) and as a result the conversation turns from small-talk to something with more substance.

  46. Thank you for this post!

    Coming back to the US has always been a disheartening process for me because of the “social awkwardness” you described. I’m a very outgoing person and I have no trouble making great friends while traveling, but back in the US I sometimes feel that I have nothing to talk about even with the people I call my closest friends.

    It makes sense that when you are away from US pop-culture your ability to make small talk will diminish, but I think this disconnect can be attributed to something deeper than that. In my experience, people who see travel as a lifestyle tend not to keep track of the latest episode of Lost, or who broke up with whom. When I returned from a 3-month stint volunteering at a birthing center in Indonesia, I might of had some knowledge of the latest buzz news, but my mind was majorly occupied by experiences with malnutrition, infant-mortality, the dangers of living next to a monkey forest…things the average 21 year-old in the US isn’t generally familiar with.

    When you travel, your vocabulary expands. You relate to people based on more common experiences like compassion or exploration. If you tried to make friends in Argentina while only talking about pop-cultural central to Brooklyn, you might not receive so many invitations to meet the family and stay for dinner.

    For now, I tend to vacillate between adopting a more “every corner is a pub” type attitude, as you said you’d try, and keeping to myself. I’ve had amazing fun inviting everyone everywhere, stopping to chat with people on street corners in NYC, and generally being far more open to interaction than the average New Yorker. In such a big, crowded city, it helped me lose sight of my anonymity and make friends with the man who lived in a cardboard box outside my apartment, the owners of the corner deli, my neighbors, my professors, etc.

    And still, all of that openness pushes me to the other end of the spectrum of “socially awkward” and I stand out anyway…

    I do apologize for the long and rambling reply to your post! It’s 5:30am and I can’t sleep, so I decided to comment. Thanks again for the post and keep us updated on the results of your changed social attitude next time you get to the US.

    1. Hey Jackie – That’s not bad for 5:30am! It is true, whenever I return from traveling, the last thing on my mind is pop-culture as I’m still processing the adventures and education that I just experienced overseas. And the longer that the traveling continues, the greater the gap between what concerns me versus what concerns others my age who have chosen a more routine path. As for always standing out as ‘awkward’, I say keep on talking to those strangers…those interactions are sure to be rewarding and inspiring for everyone involved.

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