One of my former managers and favorite human beings has a magnetic personality. Let’s call her Rachel. When Rachel walks into a meeting, she sets the tone. If she’s wearing a wry grin, it spreads quickly around the room. Inside jokes are exchanged in glances and you know it’s going to be a fun discussion. If Rachel looks tired or distracted, people start quietly reading the typo-laden documents in front of them and thinking about the things they meant to do today but haven’t gotten around to.
Rachel speaks rapidly and articulately, whether she’s talking to two people or twenty. She forces conclusions, cuts through tension, and keeps everyone on track. She’s fearless. If you don’t know Rachel personally, her force-of-nature personality can be intimidating. If you don’t know her personally, you’d think Rachel was an extrovert.
Rachel is actually an introvert. Traveling for her is a very different experience than it is for an extrovert. If you know where you get your own mental energy, it might help you prepare for the psychological trials of travel, whether alone, with your family or even colleagues.
The simplest definition of introversion/extroversion
You can’t always tell the difference between an extrovert and an introvert until you know a person well enough to know how they spend their free time. Rachel is an effective manager with a talent for communication. She knows what it takes to succeed in her environment and conducts herself accordingly. It’s just that at the end of the day, Rachel will curl up with her S.O. and a Law and Order marathon. Unlike an extrovert, Rachel is exhausted rather than invigorated by the exercise of her people skills.
Of everything I’ve read about extroversion and introversion over the years, the most applicable definition I’ve found is that it costs an introvert energy to interact, while extroverts gain energy from interaction. Does alone time recharge you, or does interaction recharge you? Knowing this one thing about yourself is incredibly helpful for planning travel.
If you’ve never taken a test, there are some helpful and not-so-helpful ones out there, but here are some general descriptions that are applicable to me and other introverts/extroverts I know.
Introverts interact as much as extroverts. They just prefer to do it in smaller groups.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to be an extrovert (so please tell me if I’m wrong), but I imagine that in a group of people, an extrovert is stimulated by the threads of energy around her, by the variety of personalities and viewpoints, by the lovely synergy of a group. The extrovert maintains a broad focus and enjoys the opportunity to meet new people and connect people to one another. Like the cliched social butterfly, extroverts enhance the group on a macro level.
My experience in a large group of people is very different. I also enjoy meeting new people and conversation, but I find myself focusing intensely on whomever I’m speaking with. I’m trying to ferret out the root of what the person is saying, and explore it, relate to it, or apply it. I’m very aware of this person’s mood, body language, and comfort level. If I’m trying to focus on this person but the music is too loud and we keep getting bumped by the crowd, or interrupted by introductions to other people, I feel overwhelmed by all the stimuli.
I don’t host parties very often, not because I don’t enjoy them, but because a good hostess navigates the energies of all of her guests at once. She sees the people who are standing uncomfortably on the fringes, and talks to them, making introductions. She senses when the music is too loud, or when people are getting bored and it’s not loud enough. She keeps track of the various personalities, and brings people together when she knows they have something in common. As a good hostess, she spends a little personal time with each of her guests, continually working the room.
Both introverts and extroverts can perform these functions. When I do it, I need two days to recover. My brain has exploded in a million directions, and for someone who likes to focus deeply in a single direction, this is exhausting. I would rather give a speech to 300 people than host a party. When I’m speaking in public, it’s actually a 1:1 interaction between myself and the audience. Susan Cain talks about this revery in her book Quiet.
How does this nuance apply to travel?
Introvert vs. Extrovert: Traveling with a Tour
People who identify as introverts might write off a tour group as too much interaction, while the reverse could actually be true.
When David and I were walking around Hong Kong by ourselves on a layover, I came as close as I’ve ever been to having a panic attack. As soon as you walk out of your hotel you’re accosted by an overwhelming combination of sights, smells, and noises. There are hundreds of people in the crosswalk, bright pulsing advertisements on the gigantic skyscrapers, women cooking under overpasses, thousands of conversations happening within your earshot. You have zero personal space. On that first day, I barely made it across the street before my chest clenched and I found it hard to breathe. I was flattened by the firehose of stimuli.
A tour group acts as a buffer between you and your environment. Knowing that your tour leader is watching out for you, herding you along, calling your attention to one specific detail at a time, can help anchor an overwhelmed introvert. Two of the travelers I admire most, my aunt and uncle, have been traveling in tours for over a decade. When I asked them what it was like to travel in a tour, they were quick to point out that even large tour groups break down into smaller groups fairly quickly. My aunt and uncle connect with a few likeminded travelers, and make very personal, in-depth connections that often endure once the tour is over.
Introvert vs. Extrovert: Staying in a hostel
Likewise, both introverts and extroverts can enjoy hostel stays by taking advantage of different parts of the hostel dynamic. Hostels are especially malleable for that majority of ambiverts, people who enjoy interaction but find it draining after a while, enjoy alone time but seek company after a while. In a hostel you can tailor your sleeping arrangements and social time to your personal needs.
Introverts who are intimidated by the idea of staying in a hostel can follow the tour group dynamic by befriending a small group of travelers and palling around with them. Extroverts will find hostels helpful for combating loneliness and the need for interaction. Group dining, parties, and group excursions are much easier to find out about when you’re staying in a hostel than when you’re staying alone or with one or two friends you already know well. If I were traveling alone rather than with my family, I would definitely stay in hostels, make some close friends, and travel with them as long as I could before moving on and finding a new tight-knit group. You can see how this happens organically in Brook Silva’s documentary A Map for Saturday.
Introvert vs. Extrovert: Traveling with Family
As an introvert, traveling with my family makes life easier. I have constant deep and focused interaction with two people I know very well. My role as a partner and as a mother mediates the otherwise overwhelming stimuli of a new location. By paying attention to my son and husband’s needs, I can tune out the noise and clamor that used to overwhelm me when David and I traveled alone.
At the same time, I need to watch out for my tendency to avoid meeting new people by using my family as a shield. Both introverts and extroverts need interaction. Both introverts and extroverts get lonely. Because I’m with my family, I never feel the need to seek out new people and experiences. I have to force myself to get out because I know that new experiences are incredibly beneficial to your brain, creativity, and general well-being. (Check out this NYT article about brain flexibility)
On the flip side, extroverted family travelers might have to go out of their way to seek out destinations and events where they can meet other families. Families probably aren’t staying in hostels, going to bars as often, or frequenting the other places that make it easy to get to know other travelers. Joining the Digital Nomad Family Facebook groups is one way to find out where other families are congregating and how you can meet up with them.
Other Ways Introverts and Extroverts Experience Travel
In my own experience, travel isn’t harder for one group than another. On the contrary, travel offers both introverts and extroverts a chance to balance themselves and step outside of their comfort zones. A few scenarios to consider.
The long bus ride
A long, boring trip is in the introvert’s wheelhouse. Because I’m most comfortable by myself, there’s nothing I enjoy more than a chance to sit still for eight hours with something to read, something to write on, and a distant view of passing scenery. Long trips are often where I recharge and reflect. On the other hand, I’m forced to interact with strangers on these trips as well. The closed environment of a bus or airplane is a great place to practice my social skills without being overwhelmed by the other stimuli around me.
By the same token, extroverts may enjoy the chance to reflect when they’re forced to stay in one place for a long stretch of time. To the extrovert who will be social when given a choice, lack of choice is an opportunity to do other things they enjoy but might not otherwise get around to, like editing and uploading photos, getting a bit of reading done, or swapping travel stories with a single other fellow passenger instead of a group.
The whirlwind tour
The introvert/extrovert spectrum speaks to where we get our energy. It also speaks to how we respond to stimuli. While introverts can be easily over-stimulated, extroverted brains have to work harder by pursuing more risk and adventure to achieve a normal state of mental stimulation. This difference has a huge impact on how introverts and extroverts experience fast and slow travel.
Like everyone else, I need new experiences to feed my well-being and creativity. But when I have too many new experiences, my capacity for healthy stimulation is numbed. If I travel too quickly, I take nothing away from the places I visit. Ideally, I’d spend spend twelve months in only two locations. I travel because I seek a deep understanding of place and people, and I see less value in travel if I can’t learn the language, be a part of the culture, achieve a deep understanding of a different way of life.
Although David also identifies as an introvert, he’s a little closer to the center of the spectrum. He likes to travel more quickly. He doesn’t have to force himself to meet new people. He’s less personally invested in his surroundings and more interested in what those surroundings allow him to achieve internally. He might want to hop on a plane for the chance to meet up with a colleague in Bali, or to try a coworking space he’s read about. David’s an entrepreneur, I’m a reader and writer. You can see where our interests will naturally diverge.
Someone more extroverted than either of us might distill a completely different poignancy from travel. Personal development through travel for extroverts might be the chance to take a scuba diving course, to climb a mountain they’ve always read about, to run with the bulls, to battle scam artists in Barcelona. Faced with less time and more goals, extroverted travelers might love whirlwind trips that leave introverts catatonic.
Lack of Control
One of the things I love about this Introvert/Extrovert article is the infographic about how to care for both types of people. I strongly relate to the reminders that introverts hate to be embarrassed, jostled, publicly called attention to, or otherwise forced into interactions. It’s hard for me to explain the intensity of my annoyance when someone knocks into me. You can imagine how often this happens to travelers. I’ve naturally gotten better at chilling out when I’m embarrassed or jostled around. Introvert travelers are forced to get out of their own heads and realize that it’s not the end of the world to be stared at or judged.
While extroverts flourish in the independence and opportunity to dive right in as travelers, they sometimes chafe over the lack of options and the lack of reassurance and affection in the big, unfamiliar world. There’s no better practice than travel for extroverts at learning to feel small and unimportant, to appreciate the times when they have no options for a period of time, and are sometimes forced to go with a quieter flow.
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, I hope your self-awareness helps you to push your own boundaries and find your own pockets of comfort out there in the jumble.