Angkor Wat. Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram.
On June 4, 2019, I was in Hong Kong, honoring the victims of Tiananmen Square alongside tens of thousands of Hongkongers whose freedom is in peril, and mainland Chinese citizens who aren't allowed to discuss June 4 in their hometowns.
Then I hopped on a plane, traveled back in time to San Francisco, and lived June 4 all over again, this time commemorating the travesty by singing "Ohio" by Crosby Stills and Nash. Angrily repeating the refrain, "Four dead in Ohio! Four dead in Ohio! Four dead in Ohio!" I kept thinking about two things:
1. The oh-so-relevant Martin Luther King quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
2. The fact that we know four died in the Kent State shootings... but we have no idea how many innocent people the Chinese military shot and killed in 1989, exactly nineteen years and one month later.
Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram.
When we travel, powerful, eye-opening, and unforgettable things happen to us. This, combined with the fact that when you travel alone, one of the only things you think about is yourself and your own experience, means that when we get home, we really want to talk about what happened during out trip...
And it's also kind of ALL we have to talk about. It's ALL we've been doing the last week, or two weeks, or month, or year.
But according to a recent Forbes article, No One Cares About Your Travel Stories. In it, Jonathan Look Jr. discusses “The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience,” a paper by Harvard psychologists Gus Cooney, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson
In an experiment, the researchers divided subjects into small groups. From those groups, one person was given a funny video of a street performer to watch alone, while the others were given a crappy video animation to watch together. Before they watched the videos, the researchers told everyone which they were going to see: the entertaining street-magician, or the crummy cartoon.
Which... I do understand.
Like many women (and some men), I love traveling alone. I wouldn't trade my experiences surfing in Lombok
swimming with manta rays
practicing English with some of the poorest children in Cambodia
watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat
or balling at Choi Hung Estate in Hong Kong
for anything, really.
But when I see photos of all my friends going on camping trips or watching meteor showers at home, together, without me... it makes me miss them.
Travel reminds me, more than anything else, that life is sacrifice.
There are a lot of people I'd be a lot closer to if I didn't travel so much. But there are places I'd never see if I didn't.
So, sure. The one person who had a special experiences instead of a shared one is going to feel left out during story time.
But... at the same time, reading the article, I couldn't help but wonder if part of the author's problem wasn't that people didn't "care about his travels," but that he was doing a bad job telling his stories.
I'm a traveler... and even I find most people's travel stories unbearable.
A lot of travelers tell bad stories. There's a decent chance that if people don't "care about" your stories, it's because of how you're telling them.
Off the top of my head, several travel story faux pas come to mind. For example:
1. You're not telling a story -- you're reciting a list.
A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some kind of plot. Some kind of point.
But a lot of travel stories are just long lists of aaaaaamazing things you did, or flowery descriptions of places I know little about. In the article, Look writes:
You expect your friends would be excited about how you witnessed the Abu Simbel Sun Festival in Egypt or rode a boat through the Beagle Channel in Patagonia but, although they may listen politely and nod their head while they resist the urge to look at their watch, you quickly realize, they would rather be talking about almost anything else.
Okay, you did and saw those things. But is there a story there? Did you meet someone interesting? Did something unexpected happen? Did you run into trouble? How did you resolve it? Did you have some kind of goal -- and at some point, did it seem unlikely you would achieve that goal? How did you respond?
These are things that make a story a story. But if you're just regurgitating your itinerary and verbalizing your travel photos, it's not surprising that people aren't that interested in what you're saying.
2. You might need to work on your charisma.
In The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, Olivia Fox Cabane shared a story about Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's mother. Jerome had dinner with both Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, who were competing for prime minister of the United Kingdom, a week before the election.
When a journalist asked Jerome what her impression of the two men was, she famously replied:
"When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman."
Charismatic people are charismatic because they make other people feel interesting... which is hard to do when all you want to talk about is how interesting you are. If you want people to care about your travel stories, draw them in. Connect them to your story -- perhaps you were able to resolve a problem because of something they taught you. Perhaps a gadget they gave you came in super handy. Perhaps you aren't sure what to make of a situation and would love their input.
If you focus more on making others feel less interesting (which works best when you genuinely do think other people are interesting... but we'll get back to that in a moment) and less on how aaaaamazing you are, your stories will make a greater impression.
3. You're rambling on about something I might not care about.
I love basketball -- and I love talking about basketball with my friends who love basketball. Whether discussing our favorite socks or people we hate playing pickup with or how we can improve our games or which NBA players we love, it never gets old...
But I don't torture my friends who couldn't care less about basketball by forcing them to listen while I talk endlessly about basketball.
If there's something I think would interest them despite them not liking basketball (for example, maybe I recently found out that one of the guys I play with has a Nobel Prize in economics, or maybe I was annoyed because the guy I was guarding was bleeding all over everyone, and I was like, "What is WRONG with you? Why don't you go get a freaking band-aid?!".... but then I realized that the person who was bleeding was me!), I tell them!
If there's something I'm not sure they would be interested in but I want discuss it, I tell them anyway -- but I pay attention to how interested they are in the story, and temper it accordingly.
Balling on Mabul Island in Malaysia. Image: The Happy Talent on Facebook.
Similarly, if I've just returned from the 5-day W-Trek in Torres del Paine, I know I have some friends who want to hear every detail -- how many hours per day I spent hiking, what gear I brought, what the temperature was, how I secured my permits, etc.
These are friends who also love hiking, and who are interested in things like how much packs weigh and what gear people are using. There are some people who would be interested in knowing that I recently switched from an MSR pump, which I was mostly very happy with, to a Katadyn fast-flow gravity filter, which I ABSOLUTELY LOVE, and these are the types of people who would likely enjoy a story about backpacking Waimanu Canyon or Mt. Rinjani.
Sunrise at Ijen Volcano after a 12:15am wakeup. Image: TheHappyTalent on Facebook.
But these same friends might be totally bored by descriptions of the kilometers of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, even though they offer some of the best historical evidence we have of the history of Cambodia.
Thanks to stereotypes, we know the guys on the left are Cambodian (big ears), and the guys on the right are Chinese (pointy beards and manbuns). This carving depicts a cockfight, and offers clues into the everyday life in the 12th and 13th centuries. Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram.
What lived in the lakes and moats hundreds of years ago? Here's a clue. Image: @TheHappyTalent on Instagram.
Thinking about what makes a good travel story and what makes a horrible one, I've decided that someone isn't suddenly going to become interested in something they weren't already interested in, just because it happened overseas.
It's not really fair to expect everyone to be interested in every story.
4. You're jerking yourself off.
Maybe I'm a pot calling a kettle black. I hope I'm not. But a lot of travelers tell endless stories to jerk themselves off, because they think they are soooo amazing and soooo much more enlightened than everyone else and their experiences are soooo cool that everyone will be inspired by them.
For example, the guy I mentioned in The NYT Wants Us to Smash the Wellness Industry. This guy is sooo enlightened from his travels, where he, of course, "saw kids who sleep on dirt floors, but were so happy." (Hint: if you really think this, you are an idiot who needs to check his privilege -- sleeping on dirt floors literally kills.)
This guy, who attended the university of bumming around developing countries, drinking cheap beer and hitting on local women, thinks he knows more about science than actual scientists. He's an anti-vaxxer who blames cancer patients for their cancer, because they didn't have a positive enough mindset and have good enough marriages.
But if you let him -- if you're more worried about being polite than not wasting your day listening to this guy jerk himself off -- he will jerk himself off all day.
His stories aren't stories. They're just him telling us how wonderful and wise he is.
Are you this guy?
Maybe. In your "stories," do you use the word "should" a lot? Do you cast a lot of judgement on your friends' lifestyles? If so, you might be giving off the sense that you think you're wiser and more enlightened than others. You might be committing the single greatest social sin: giving unsolicited advice.
It is wonderful that you enjoyed your 10-day silent retreat meditation thingie. I'm glad that worked for you. But... probably I'm about as interested in hearing about the amazing personal transformation you underwent in that Buddhist temple as you are in hearing me share the good news about Jesus. (Which, referring back to #3: if I'm someone who's interested in religion or philosophy or whatever -- sure. But if I'm not...)
5. You're being condescending -- or even just not showing the care and attention you want people to show you.
In his article, Jonathan Look Jr. wrote:
Let your hometown friends get all excited about the new grocery store opening, or the road construction project that is almost finished; and if you can, try to share their excitement too. But, if you want to bond over tales of walking the ruins of Machu Picchu with people that care, you need to find an audience that has relatable experiences.
I appreciate that he advises, "if you can, try to share their excitement." Refer back to #2 -- caring about what other people say is just good charisma. And... it's not that hard, if you have an open mind.
For example, I have a friend who's obsessed with makeup.
I do not wear makeup.
I did not care about makeup.
However, makeup is important to this friend, so when she talked about it, I listened intently.
And it turns out! I learned something!
Makeup isn't just some stupid, frivolous woman's interest.
It's a legitimate form of self-expression that requires as much practice as any other art. It's a way for women to control how the world sees them. It's a way for women who struggle with their confidence and self-esteem to step out of the house feeling ready to kick ass.
I could have been a narrow-minded prick and just tuned out, because I don't care about makeup. But I didn't... and this girl totally rocked my world. I learned so much, and kind of see the whole world differently, now. (And I didn't even have to fly halfway around the world for the perspective shift! It's like Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.")
But also. "Wah, all my friends from home care about is grocery stores!" is a really condescending way to think about people and their interests. So... if people don't like your stories, maybe it's because you're a prick?
"Wait! But doesn't that contradict what you said earlier? If they want to have good charisma, shouldn't they care what I'm saying?"
Technically, sure, I guess. But the thing is, you can't expect so much from people. You can't expect them to care. You can't expect them to have great charisma skills. The best way to be disappointed in a person or experience is to expect something from them.
Moreover, if you're only paying attention to their grocery store story so they "have" to listen to your Machu Picchu story... do you think you're actually being a good listener? Remember: people are pretty great at detecting authenticity.
6. You're not providing relevant context to make the story interesting.
Here's a story I shared on Facebook:
When I was in Angkor Wat last month, I ended up buying a book about the archeological park so I would have more knowledge and get more out of the experience.
Except when I started reading the book... I got nothing out of it. It was full of measurements, dimensions, and terminology that meant nothing to me.
So I flipped to the appendix and glossary when I encountered terms I didn't know.
After that, I found the book tremendously influenced my experience.
Even as a frequent traveler... I still don't know everything about every country.
If you don't tell me why something is important, interesting, or unusual, I won't know. I don't magically have that historical, political, or cultural context.
Just like how, if the story about the new grocery store isn't interesting to you, you might not be listening carefully enough and asking enough questions. Maybe there are some interesting local politics going on -- maybe your local politicians are just as corrupt as the ones you learned about overseas. Maybe the old grocery store has an important place in your friend's heart -- just like that Cambodian night market has an important place in yours. Maybe the reason your hometown even needs a new grocery store is because so many immigrants are fleeing there from Hong Kong, because they're afraid of Chinese rule.
Context matters, and nothing is ever simple.
If you've just returned from a trip, and you're just bursting with excitement and can't stop talking about it, one thing you could do is go to a party -- a dinner, a beach bonfire, something -- where you will have the chance to mingle with lots of people. That way, you can still tell 10 travel stories -- it's just, you're telling each one to a different person, instead of making the unreasonable request that the same one person listen to all 10 stories.
Remember: while you were gone, other people had life-changing experiences and growing moments, too. And they are just as eager to share those with you as you are to share yours with them.
What's your travel story pet peeve -- or even advice? Share in the comments below!
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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