If there’s one thing about backpacking culture that I never shut up about, it’s the incredibly easy and organic way you meet people. Regardless of how you travel -- solo or otherwise -- it’s impossible not to meet people from all over the world who have different languages, dialects, cultures and experiences. During my first solo trip, for example, on the first day, I met six other travelers -- an Italian, a Brit, a German, a Belgian, and two Americans -- that I wound up traveling with for three weeks. These friendships are not only incredibly fun because of the activities you all do together, but they last far longer than the trip does. They’re special and unique in their context, and they’re a fundamental part of my travels. But they beg the question: How do I manage to make such close friends when I struggle with social anxiety?
People are always curious about how this works -- how do you meet a stranger and wind up being best friends for two weeks, especially when the fears of rejection, awkwardness or misaligned vibes are so prominent at the start? I personally have struggled with social anxiety for a large part of my life, purposely avoiding acquaintances in public, dreading small talk and the awkward silences that come with it, and feeling like I don’t exactly belong in the groups I’m chatting with. But the funny thing I’ve found about backpacking is that breaking the ice with strangers is so much easier than it is in the real world, and there are a few important reasons why:
Hardly anyone wants to do anything alone
Humans are social creatures, and despite popular belief, so are solo travelers. Aside from a very small margin of people, everyone wants company, especially when they’re in foreign and unfamiliar environments. I can’t tell you how many times I met someone in a hostel and wound up on a hike with them an hour later. People don’t want to eat alone, hike alone, drink alone, or take buses alone. They’re generally more than happy to meet you, and more than happy for the company you provide, so try not to assume that you’re bothering them when you break the ice, because chances are, they’re happy you did.
People WANT to talk to you
If there’s one thing I learned about traveling with social anxiety, it’s that people want companionship, but don’t want to break the ice. Countless times I’ve sat next to someone in a hostel and despite wanting to strike up a conversation, I chickened out because of the possibility of rejection, awkwardness, or unmatched enthusiasm. Hours later when I finally worked up the courage, they were always more than happy to chat and swap stories. People, as a whole, are afraid of these awkward moments -- the moments where you have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable for a minute. But the truth is, regardless of how the conversation goes, if you stay silent, you never had a shot of making a friend, whereas if you speak up, chances are you will.
You already have things in common
This one is a big help for people who fear those awkward silences more than anything else in the world. When you’re traveling, you literally have so much to talk about with others, that those awkward silences don’t even have the chance to exist.
Where are you from?
Where have you been so far?
Where are you going next?
What’s been your favorite part of your trip?
Any crazy or weird stories from your travels?
Any recommendations on what to do here?
These are just some of the many, many, questions you could ask other travelers -- and believe me, they’ll be thrilled to answer them. I absolutely love this particular phenomenon, because when you’re talking to people from clear across the globe -- whose lives have been entirely different from yours -- you still have so much in common, and can form a bond that would have been much more difficult in any other context. I think it’s fascinating that the only reason you have so much to say to each other is that at that exact moment, you’re both in that exact location in the world. It’s bonkers.
You can opt out at any point
Weirdos and rude people are everywhere, and they exist on trips as well. There may be some people in your hostel or tour group you don’t exactly jive with, and that’s okay! For socially anxious people like me, the idea of ghosting these people is horrifying. You don’t want to hurt their feelings; you don’t want to be brutally honest; but you also don’t want to be forced into doing activities together. The incredible thing about backpacking, however, is that you don’t owe anyone anything. If you meet someone with whom you don’t feel any chemistry, just politely finish up the conversation and excuse yourself. You're traveling -- it’s your vacation -- and you’re not obligated to spend it with anyone you don’t want to. This is an unspoken rule among backpackers, and people definitely respect it. Everyone has their own idea for what they want their trip to be like, and if something -- or someone -- doesn’t exactly fit the mold, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sacrificing an ounce of discomfort to ensure your trip is the trip you want.
Hostels are built to make interaction easier
I found this point particularly awesome on my first trip. Hostels know the kind of demographic they attract, and they often go to great lengths to help you interact with others. Whether it’s through communal spaces like lounges, pools or ping pong tables, or through events like trivia, beer pong, or theme nights, hostels are constantly looking for ways to build interaction and warmth between guests. They know you may be scared to talk to others and they know you want to make friends despite it. Take advantage of these spaces, and use them as a way to break the ice with your fellow travelers, because the unique friendships you make with them are 100% worth the one second of discomfort you sacrifice at the start.