I recently got an email from a woman who suffers from a diagnosed case of social phobia and is worried that this might compromise her travels.
“I am afraid that my introverted personality is going to effect the way I travel, and I won’t be as opportunistic when it comes to the social aspect of traveling,” the woman wrote. “Do you have any advice? Will solo travel help me better experience my host culture and meet locals? Besides going to therapy, do you have any suggestions that may help me be a bit more outgoing when it comes to social situations abroad?”
This is what I told her:
I have always been a bit introverted, and solo travel has helped make me into a more social person. I don’t know much about formally diagnosed “social phobia” and what it entails, but I can tell you that traveling alone can really force you to break out of your shell and engage your surroundings. It’s not always easy, and there are times where you’ll be lonely and frustrated — but it’s worth it when you make connections. It is, in short, an interesting learning process, and it’s rewarding when you make breakthroughs.
My best strategy for being more of an extrovert when you travel is to go to the developing world instead of the industrialized world. In Europe and North America people might not always have time for you — but in places like Asia (which is nice and cheap) or Africa (which is not as cheap, but amazing just the same) and the Middle East, people are more likely to take note of you as an outsider and make friends. I did some of my earliest vagabonding in Asia, and it’s amazing how many people I met just by being the only white guy in a little village. There is a language barrier to overcome, of course, but that process can actually be fun, as even introverts can tackle the art of speaking simple English, utilizing a phrasebook, and/or using improvised sign language to get a point across.
Another option would be to join a formal study or volunteer program (the Peace Corps being a good example) that will give you a structured community of people you can be with, and a “business” oriented pretext to meet local people. For more info on working or studying or volunteering overseas, check out the resources at Transitions Abroad.
In addition to this advice, introverted vagabonders might want to check out Sophia Dembling’s World Hum article “Confessions of an Introverted Traveler,” including her tip sheet, “Six Tips for Introverted Travelers.”