Coming out of high school I had below average (at best) social skills, and I knew it. I was starting university in two months and wanted to make friends and sleep with girls.. two things that are impossible without good social skills.
I had read a whole bunch on the topic and improved while still in high school, but I still needed a lot more practice.
So that summer I went travelling for about five weeks, almost expressly for that purpose. I backpacked alone through Western Europe, meeting new people every step of the way and as often as I could. By the end of it I had probably met 100+ and was about a million times more confident in my social abilities.
Backpacking is—in my experience—the absolute best thing you can do to improve your social skills. There is literally no better (easier) environment to practice and improve social skills than in a backpacking hostel. In fact, it’s almost as if backpacking was built just for this purpose.
You are constantly meeting new people
Hostels are very communal, and when you are around other people all the time it’s only natural to meet and talk to them. If you stay in a dorm you’ll rarely, if ever, be alone. The social interaction is intensive – you can easily meet 5-10 new people a day or more. At the very least, a day will not go by that you don’t meet at least one new person.
Even if your social skills or social anxiety are so bad that you can’t start a conversation with someone you don’t know at all, in backpacking hostels you often won’t even need to because someone will just talk to you. There’s almost no other situation in life where it happens this easily.
Backpackers in general are young people off work or school, travelling to see sights, have fun and get drunk together. The average backpacker has no responsibilities and very little stress, and is quite a bit happier than they would otherwise be in the middle of work or school.
Groups as well as individuals are all looking for people to party or see sights with. Even if you are naturally introverted like me, you will find it hard not to make friends.
This is just a guess, but I also think that a small-but-not-insignificant number of people – like I did – go backpacking expressly for the purpose of getting out of their comfort zone and being more social. So you may also meet people who just want to talk for this reason too.
There are no preconceived notions about you
When you want to improve your social skills or yourself in general, there’s often fear about acting differently around people you already know. People come to expect certain behaviours from you and get attached to the old version of you, so when you act in a way that challenges that image they may criticize or ostracize you.
(Alternatively, they might not. If you have friends/family who are open-minded like that you should be very grateful.)
Either way, it’s much easier to act differently around people you don’t know. And when you’re backpacking you don’t know anyone at all – you can “be” whoever you want. This is very liberating and you are free to behave in any way you wish and no one will blink twice because they have no point of reference.
The conversation is laid out for you, and there’s plenty to talk about
Every backpacker conversation goes something like this:
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from ___. Where are you from?”
“I’m from ___. How long have you been travelling for?”
“___ weeks/months. What about you?”
“___ weeks/months. How long are you staying in [current country/city] for?”
“___ days. What about you?”
“___ days. Where are you going after this?”
And so on…
This gets tiresome after a while, but it makes for easy conversation. It’s like there’s a blueprint that everyone has agreed to follow when meeting someone new. So to talk to anyone, all you have to do is follow the blueprint.
Some other super basic and easy conversation topics/questions are:
- How long have they been travelling for
- Are they travelling alone or with friends
- What have they done/seen in the country you are currently in so far
- What have they have done/seen on their trip in general
- What has been their favourite place to visit so far
- What is their home country like
- Have you ever been to their home country/have they been to yours
The conversation can then easily go in many different directions because:
- You’re both doing the exact same thing in the exact same place
- You already share experiences
- You don’t know anything about each other
- You’re both having new and interesting experiences every day
It is literally the easiest thing in the world to strike up a conversation when you are backpacking. And it’s almost impossible to screw up (which is the scary part of socializing when you don’t have a lot of practice) because it’s all laid out for you there already.
And if you do screw up, don’t worry because…
You have room to mess up
If you fuck up socially when you’re backpacking… it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in ‘real life’ either – but this is hard to realize if you don’t have a lot of social awareness or experience.
But when you’re backpacking it really doesn’t matter – you’re probably never going to see these people again in your entire life. What’s more, you may also never visit the same country or city again either.
Even in the imaginary worst-case scenario of some catastrophic social fuck-up where everyone hates you and wants to avoid you at all costs, you’ll still be OK.
This kind of thing doesn’t really happen – except in the minds of weirdos like me – but let’s pretend for a second that it does. Within 3 days of your social ‘mistake’ you and all the people that witnessed it will be thousands of miles away from each other in completely different parts of the world. No. Consequences. At. All.
Changing your physical environment is mentally liberating (for some reason)
I don’t think there’s a name for it, but there’s always a certain feeling of freedom and excitement that comes with being in a new place for the first time. When you travel this is heightened to the extreme.
Something about dramatically changing your physical environment also changes your mental space, and you feel fresh and renewed being somewhere brand new. When you backpack you experience this again and again, every few days or at least once per week. This – for me at least – translates to a carefree attitude and better social ability.
There is no better way to meet people and improve your social skills than backpacking. You will meet people, you will meet more people, and you will keep meeting people – non-stop. It’s the best social practice available.
And it’s the same as practicing anything else – you meet someone your first day and your interaction is a 6/10. Then you meet another person – the same day – and your interaction is a 6.5/10. You meet another person and your interaction is a 6.75/10, and so on. If you are self-aware and can learn from your experiences, the improvement happens incredibly fast.
By the end of even a few-week backpacking trip you will have met 100+ people – young, friendly, open people who are all doing the exact same thing as you – and you will have greatly improved your social skills.
P.S. Check out Succeed Socially if you want more information/advice on improving your social skills – it’s a great site that was very helpful to me and I highly recommend it.
Have you been backpacking? Did you go with a goal in mind like I did, or just for fun? If you struggle with social skills, what do you do to improve? Let us know in the comments below.