The Antisocial Traveller – is it just me?

Hubbie is not happy at the Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa
Hubbie is not happy at the Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Am I really the only antisocial traveller around?

I can still remember her name. Ena. From Ireland. She was the sort of girl who had the enviable charm of being at ease with everyone she came across. Ena certainly wasn’t an antisocial traveller. The confines of the rickety chicken bus made friendly chatter amongst passengers inevitable, and thanks to it being Independence Day in Guatemala, we were taking a rather long detour on our way to the markets of Chichicastenango. Two hours later we felt like we had known Ena for weeks. As mountains of quetzal-embroidered ponchos and woolly hats festooned with llamas heralded our arrival, it became apparent our new friend was expecting to tag along with hubbie and I on our day at the market.

Now it wasn’t that we didn’t like her company. On the contrary I admired her courage at travelling solo around Central America, and although I was secretly jealous that she managed to pull off the local headscarf look rather better than me, I thought she was a lovely lass. It’s just that we’re not keen on unanticipated company. Hubbie and I are unashamed antisocial travellers.

So we abandoned her.

She popped into a camera shop and by the time she came out we were gone, lost in the bustle of colour and incense and chickens. To this day I feel terribly guilty about sneaking off, and although she probably didn’t even blink an eye at our behaviour, I wish I could go back and apologise. Sorry Ena.

Two's company, three's a crowd!

Two’s company, three’s a crowd!

The Social Code of Travellers

There seems to be an unspoken rule that as travellers we should relish the idea of meeting new people, spending quality time with strangers and getting down to some communal dining. Stepping boldly outside that box, hubbie and I are unashamed anti-social travellers, and feel frustrated at being made to feel like our approach to travel is wrong. We travel to experience the land, not to increase our social circles. Is that really so bad?

So what is this unspoken code?

Rule 1 – Communal dining

Guests will embrace the opportunity to mingle with others over canapés, dinner and a couple of bottles of wine.

The hosts will ensure there is at least one suave Belgian in a cravat, an awfully well-to-do family from the English home counties, an ex-special forces chap with a chip on his shoulder from Zambia, and an overly-flamboyant artist of uncertain sexual orientation from Scandinavia. All the ingredients for a good murder mystery evening. Except for the 2 terrified British travellers trying to hide behind their soup bowls at the end of the table. During the evening guests will discuss politics, religion and sex, making the unfortunate Brits feel ignorant and uncomfortable in equal measures.

Treating ourselves to dinner at the world's most famous roof restaurant - Vertigo, Banyan Tree, Bangkok

Dinner is fine with just the two of us…especially when it’s at Vertigo Restaurant on top of the Banyan Tree in Bangkok!

Survival tactic: learn how to eat quickly or brush up on current affairs before you travel. Get in character and be whoever you want to be for the evening. Have a bit of fun with it (but just remember your storyline or there could be repercussions at breakfast!).

Rule 2 – Group tours

Tour participants will find their experience enhanced by sharing it with strangers, and will really appreciate the constant chatter and close physical confinement often involved.

On land, participants must walk slowly, befriend every single stray dog they encounter and talk loudly so that any semblance of tranquillity is shattered. They should ask questions so dumb that the other guests will be embarrassed to be classed as part of the same group. If possible, guests should throw in a few mildly offensive comments regarding how civilised the area is, and thrust their cameras in the faces of locals without asking for photo permissions.

On boats, guests should adhere to a regimental schedule and leave all misconceptions of being an individual back on shore. The crew will ensure that there is a least one chronically sea-sick guy who likes to discuss his bowel movements at meal times, as well as two college graduates who don’t know the difference between a sea turtle and a tortoise.

The only way to experience places like the Galapagos is on a shared boat tour - definitely worth it though!

The only way to experience places like the Galapagos is on a shared boat tour – definitely worth it though!

Survival tactic: Private tours are the way to go! And if that isn’t possible, just sit back and enjoy the benefits of anonymity that come with being just one of many. You don’t have to make as much effort to constantly come up with intelligent questions for the guide, and can sit sniggering quietly in the corner when one of your fellow guests does something stupid.

Rule 3 – Country bragging

When travellers meet each other for the first time, the first topic of conversation should revolve around who has visited the most countries, to ascertain who is the ‘best’ traveller in the group.

Then stories should be told about who has had the most terrifying/embarrassing/humorous experience in a long game of one-up-man-ship. Beer must be consumed, and travellers should outwardly appear enraptured by the stories of others, whilst quietly bursting in anticipation of telling their own, far better tales.

Ploughing with Susuki the buffalo in Luang Prabang, Laos

We’ve been to Laos, but we won’t keep harping on about it…well not much anyway!

Survival tactic: Pretend not to have been to all the places you have, and feel secretly smug that in fact you’ve visited more places than all of them put together. Not that you’re counting! Also worth noting that it’s probably best not to talk about how certain airlines are overpriced as you may just end up sitting next to the chief operations director of that very same airline!

Rule 4 – Traditional entertainment

Hosts must put on an after dinner performance for guests, usually involving traditional singing and dancing. Guests will truly enjoy learning a bit more about the local culture and appreciate the effort that the staff put in to ensure the evening is enjoyable. But then the hosts should ask guests to join in, thus ensuring that those who do not wish to sing, dance and generally make a fool of themselves will be very uncomfortable. Guests will either feel obliged to participate so as not to offend their hosts, or else they will politely decline and sit there feeling even more foolish than they would had they joined in.

The multi-talented staff show us a thing or two about singing and dancing during dinner at Ulusaba

The dinner entertainment at Ulusaba Game Reserve in South Africa was spot on, great fun to watch, and we weren’t pressured to join in!

Survival tactic: If you can’t beat them, join them…even if you don’t enjoy it, at least no-one will be giving you odd looks and thinking you a little strange. Wine helps.

We figure these ‘rules’ are really more like guidelines, and flout them at every opportunity. We don’t really care what others may think, or whether we are conforming to perceived social protocol. After all, we’ve paid good money to be there, and are going to enjoy our time exactly as we wish.

But is it just us?

And is society to blame for our anti-social traveller behaviour?

I often wonder why we shy away from communal and social situations on our travels, and wonder whether it really is just us, or whether our companions feel the same but are just better at pretending?

Perhaps it is because we are simply used to being alone and independent, and the antisocial situation is no different at home. Hubbie and I have lived in the same village in the UK for seven years and don’t even know our neighbours. In fact it took an icy car crash through a fence to introduce ourselves to the family living across the road, and although we’ve since become good friends we still only pop over if we need to borrow some flour. This isn’t a reflection on us, it is simply the way society operates over here. It’s life.

It’s not all bad

Despite all this, socialising with fellow travellers can sometimes be a good thing.

As we were swinging in our hammocks on a deserted beach on Thailand’s Koh Yao Yai, we were befriended by an Australian couple who had come to take advantage of Bangkok’s cheap dental services. Enjoying the conversation for once we didn’t beat a hasty retreat, and later that afternoon were rewarded with a huge pile of freshly dried white bait that the chap had bought from some local fisherman just along the sand.

Thailand's beaches can be crowded but a little extra effort had us enjoying a picnic of fresh pineapple and figs on our very own island sandbar!

Fresh white bait from Phang Nga Bay was worth a few conversations with strangers

On another occasion, my girl friend and I met a couple of guys from Wisconsin whilst backpacking down the Grand Canyon. They thought as mere girls we wouldn’t make it in the blistering heat, but we did, and we beat them. Their newfound respect for us had them lending us their sandals to cross a river. They waded across first, and then threw back their footwear so we could get across without drenching our boots. The beers back at the ranch later that evening weren’t so bad either.

Hiking down the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Hiking down the south rim of the Grand Canyon we hadn’t contemplated how we would cross rivers down below.

The bottom line is we want choice, to be able to decide for ourselves when and with whom we interact. I’m sure we can’t be the only ones…are we?

40 Comments

  • Chau says:

    Actually, I stumbled upon your post by googling “anti social travel”. So, you’re absolutely not the only one! I love travelling with my loved ones, of course, but it always seems like I’m the only meannie shying away from strangers….Do you know how hard it be when being depressed plus stressed plus miserable and still have to pull all remaining strength to act like normal? Somehow I just want to yell “hey guys, I travel to relax, not to get more stressful social interactions!” Of course, we all want to meet new people who we can be comfortable around, but that’s really rare! Anyhow, thank you for writing this post and making me feel less lonely 🙂

    • Heather Cole says:

      I think lots of people are in the same boat, it just isn’t talked about as much as ‘social’ travel. It’s definitely ok to just want to travel in your own way, and being comfortable with your situation and surroundings is the most important thing when it comes to enjoyment. It’s different for everyone, so you are not alone! 🙂

  • Christine says:

    Haha. I love your writing. And I totally know what you mean. Jules and I love meeting people on the road, but we find that sometimes it’s hard to just tell people you want to be alone for a while! Haha.

  • Frank says:

    We are so much alike. Firstly, we don’t travel like most people and don’t relate to many tourists. Secondly, many are so DESPERATE – they’re overseas, maybe nervous, and they want to cling to you. I don’t know many times we’ve been in a restaurant overseas to have the people next to us looking over or asking a question (trying to draw us in). I hate communal dining, we had to do it in a lodge in Costa Rica. No privacy and stupid conversation about the lady horse riding. The last 3 nights there we had food brought to the room 🙂
    Once in a while though we’ll meet nice people and have interesting conversation. Rare though. We’ve learned to always have an ‘out’ that we can resort to. Diarrhea usually solves any problem.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    • I’m so glad it’s not just us who HATE communal dining, and there’s always a horse riding lady isn’t there! We’ve often taken to having ‘room picnics’ to avoid such situations too, only trouble is the crumbs you find in bed later in places where crumbs have no business being! Love your ‘opt out’ excuses, although diarrhea isn’t always just an excuse when we travel 🙂

  • Victoria says:

    What an insightful piece, Heather. I find myself in the “compartmentalized” group with Corinne. I can only have my close family around when I am taking in the sights, the sounds etc of the new places- but I actually LOVE company for dinner afterwords to share travel stories! now- how to find similar-minded travelling “dinner” companions is another story:)

    • Thanks Victoria! I think the key to happiness is choice, so everyone can choose which ‘compartment’ they wish to be in at different times. Dinner company can be really entertaining if you’re lucky with your companions can’t it. Funnily enough I’ve just taken a wine bar tour in Venice and actually found I got on really well with the group, it really does depend on the company (and perhaps the amount of wine involved!).

  • BonBon says:

    I so can relate:) But now since I travel with my lil ones …. it seems like I can’t get that “me time” anymore:) LOL My kids are extra friendly; they made friends in a sec and started talking about their fave toys:) I love it though:)

    • Little ones do make you have a different perspective on things don’t they 🙂 I always envy how easily they chat to strangers and make friends, oh to be young again 🙂 Must be great being able to show them the big wide world though, what an education!

  • Beth says:

    This rings so true for me! While meeting people can be fun, I travel to see new places. I’m happy to sit back and observe! I feel it does make sense for solo travellers to join up along the way, but it’s just not something I want for myself. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if someone just invited themselves along on a day out with my boyfriend either!

  • christine says:

    I love solo travel and meeting new people. I also like going with friends but sometimes it can be more of a pain to try and make everyone happy! When you travel solo you just need to make yourself happy 😛

  • Betsy Wuebker says:

    Hmmm. I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t want to judge, but then, as fairly introverted people, my husband and I know what we prefer. We’re better off by ourselves with short bursts of interaction. Consequently, we’re not cruise ship, all-inclusive or large group tour people. Recently, returning from separate small group trips, we agreed that we’ve got a time limit (about 3 days) and then we’ve had enough. Certain types of people tend to want to talk about themselves – a LOT (whether it’s a form of nervousness or one-upmanship). You’re right, it can be trying. On the other hand, I can understand a solo traveler getting sick of their own company and reaching out, too, as we do enjoy meeting people on our own terms. And Elaine is right, too. Sometimes you’re just engrossed in what you do as a photographer or a writer, and there’s no room in your brain for others. Bottom line: know thyself and respect thy ways!

    • Agreed! The thing is everyone is different, and it’s so important not to presume people all enjoy the same level of socialising. 3 days sounds like a good threshold to me too!

  • Elaine J. Masters says:

    Excellent points. I don’t think it’s antisocial behavior but setting personal limits. If a situation, social or not, doesn’t work for you, then it’s more honest to remove yourself. Then again, I think because I’m a travel writer constantly looking for the angle or an image, I tend to be more anti-social than ever!

  • Crysta says:

    Oh how I love this. I have often had many of the same feelings. SO many of them.

  • Michael Huxley says:

    I think that’s the difference when you travel as a couple as opposed to travelling with friends or travelling solo. It just depends on the type of trip you are on, not the type of traveller you are. I mostly travel solo and I meet up with and travel with other backpackers all the time. But then I also take trips with my fiancee too, and then my attention is all on her.

    • Totally appreciate that it’s a different ball game for solo travellers, but I think at heart everyone is a certain ‘type’ of traveller…even when travelling on my own, although I do make more of an effort at interacting, I still often prefer my own space at times.

  • Monica says:

    I feel just the same as you do, and love to just be on our own (we travel in couple). We tried a group tour, and I don’t think it’s for me. I love to do whatever we want to do exactly when we wanna do it, and I want to do it our way!

  • Milosz Zak says:

    I work as part of a team, so I am very much a little bit more introverted when I travel, it is completely understandable considering the working environment and many of us living in large metropolitan centres.

  • chrysoula says:

    I haven’t thought of that. Personally sometimes I enjoy just being with my boyfriend or on my own and sometimes mmeting new people. I love hearing other people’s stories!

  • Nic Hilditch says:

    Interesting thought! I do think we are sometimes pressured into thinking we all must be best friends out there as travellers and it is true that you meet some great people out there. But when you travel as a couple sometimes it’s nice to just experience things together as a couple. I think if you travel alone then being social is probably much more important to your well being!

    • I’m sure travelling as a couple has influenced my feelings on this, and if it was just me I’d no doubt want to be more sociable. It’s just the pressure and assumption that everyone loves mingling etc that really pisses me off! Glad to have someone else on board 🙂

  • Veronika says:

    Hey heather, another antisocial here! 😀 I sometimes do force myself, though. Especially with locals. And when travelling solo, I was always a little too suspicious about the men that would just join out of nowhere – always on the guard! 😀

  • Dannielle Lily says:

    Haha! I’m definitely guilty of being an anti social traveler, and that’s what puts me off solo travel – how much of the time would you actually want to be alone?

    • Glad there’s more of us out there!!! I’ve never really travelled solo, so perhaps I’d be more inclined to be sociable then, but it would still have to be on my own terms 🙂

  • The Adventure Ahead says:

    This post gave me a good giggle, as I can relate to so many of your points 🙂 Well said!

  • Arnie says:

    My wife and I are very much the same. Feel uncomfortable with any group type things. And, the ticking off of countries visited, we would certainly lose. Now, counting great little villages throughout France? We might surely have a chance.

    • It’s definitely not all about quantity….quality is so much more important, and I bet all those little French villages well and truly tick the ‘quality’ box for you!

  • Corinne says:

    Heather, I feel I could have written this post…for the most part. I do love talking to other travelers, at night, during or after dinner, when I’m winding down. When I’m in the act of traveling, I really don’t like too many interruptions. I’m busy doing what I want to be doing. I guess I’m a compartmentalized social traveler.

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