Running through the streets of Pamplona years ago, amidst thousands of thrill-seekers and screaming onlookers, I found myself wanting to find a nook in which to pull back, stop time and take a long, slow look around. While other folks were trying to get as close to a bull as possible, I wanted to think it through while I was still in it — what kind of person wants to get really close to a bull while surrounded by thousands of others doing the same thing? What is going through their heads as they run, and can I see it on their faces? When the thrill is over, what do they take away from it? And what in myself brought me here to do the same thing?
Was I overthinking it? Maybe, but just as much I was indulging in a side of myself that many introverted travelers will recognize in themselves.
Traveling introverts may sometimes feel like they are missing out on the “true” travel experience, which is often portrayed as having long, meaningful conversations with locals and piling experience upon experience. Many introverted travelers are led to wonder if all they do is walk around and observe everything without actually interacting with the people that live there, have they truly experienced the place?
Maybe they have. Research on introversion and extroversion has boomed in recent years, in the process turning a lot of assumptions about these personality types upside down. One recent theory posits that introverts may be more attuned to their surroundings than extroverts, and as a result are taking in more information that they then need to process. Extroverts, on the other hand, are taking in less information and as a result are inclined to seek out more stimuli.
If this is true, an introvert who spends a day quietly watching the goings-on at a public market may be getting just as much out of his or her travel experience as the extrovert who spends all night chatting with locals at the bar — it’s just a different experience.
This doesn’t mean that introverts never talk to anyone or that extroverts are unobservant. Research has shown that the lines between the two are not always clear cut; introverts are capable of sustained extroversion (as long as they have time to recharge their batteries afterward), and the reverse goes for extroverts. But most of us do feel a strong tendency in one direction or the other.
So if you’re an introvert, don’t try to fight it. There are countless ways to enhance your travel experience without trying to bend yourself into something you’re not. Following are a few scenarios that can play very well to the strengths of an introvert, as well as some simple tactics to help assuage your introverted tendencies without sacrificing the countless opportunities for human contact while traveling.
Options for Introverts in an Extroverted World
There are plenty of ways introverts can navigate an extroverted world without seeming like they are trying to avoid meeting people or experiencing life.
For example, despite a reputation as a sport for cool kids and party people, a sport like surfing can really offer a safe place for an introvert. Paddling out into the ocean on your own board, staking out a spot in the lineup that doesn’t crowd anyone, surfing alone on a wave toward the shore, and paddling back out again on your own — this sounds like an introvert’s dream escape.
Of course, surfers chat out in the lineup, and there are plenty of opportunities to talk surfing and make friends back on the beach, or at happy hour after a sundown session — but the next time you go out, it is you and the surf again.
Travel presents many options like this one, where you can be “alone together” with a lot of other folks — perhaps when visiting a church, or putting on headphones for a museum audio tour. This way you can find the slower and quieter moments your constitution craves even while continuously engaging with the world.
Turn It On, Then Turn It Off
As mentioned above, many introverts can be extremely outgoing in bursts, but need some time to recover and gather resources for their next social experience. This can work really well when traveling. For example, if you are on a skiing trip, you might get on a lift with a total stranger and talk all the way up the hill — but when you get to the top, you both pull on your goggles, turn down the slope and head off on your own again.
For many introverts, this is a perfect scenario. The interaction is relatively short, is with a limited number of people, can be very intimate, and in most cases has a clear and predictable end.
More Tactics for Introverts
In addition to the strategies above, here are some specific and easily employed tactics for introverts who need to carve out just enough solo time to make it through a trip.
Skip B&Bs, couchsurfing, etc. Lodging that forces you repeatedly into talky communal living situations can drain you just when you need the most rest. At a hotel buffet, staring into a newspaper isn’t considered rude; at a big B&B breakfast table, it probably would be. The minutes you get to yourself in the morning, evening and in snatches in between can make a big difference.
Schedule in solo activities. If you are traveling with friends or a group, hitting the gym or going for a run is often a great “excuse” to head out alone. A solo afternoon at a museum that your companions aren’t interested in is another possibility.
Head for quiet locations. Sometimes an interlude in a park, church or other “quiet” location can make a big difference while still fulfilling the mandate to sightsee.
Order room service. I have recommended room service for many situations (saving time, getting work done in your room when you would otherwise be waiting on food, writing postcards, etc.), but it can really give an introvert some cherished down time.
Get up early. Getting up before your traveling mates is a great way to steal some solo time without anyone noticing or having to give up other things.
Use headphones. Putting on a pair of headphones is pretty much socially accepted these days; you can excuse yourself from talking to folks simply by plugging in some earbuds, even if you aren’t actually listening to anything.
Sign up for walking tours. If you are feeling lonely in your introspection, signing on for a guided museum or city tour can offer a mix of company and solitude; there usually isn’t much pressure to talk, but you can have small interactions with the group that can help you connect with other folks.
Don’t overplan. Having your day scheduled to the hilt means no time to regroup; avoid it.
Find a favorite spot. Going to the same coffee shop each afternoon during your stay will let you create what researchers call “weak” public ties with local folks without having to interact heavily. Over time these can become stronger, and you can eventually make friends this way.
If you feel the urge to hang and talk, go for it. Remember that introverts aren’t necessarily introverted all the time. If you feel gregarious and comfortable, go with it — you’ll have time to recover later.
Have an escape route. If you commit to a big social event, think about a possible escape plan. This could be as simple as having cash for a cab; that way if you are not feeling it, you can bail.
Be alone in big groups. Many introverts find comfort at being alone in big groups; think of the line from “Clerks” where one guy says to another at a party, “But you hate people!” and the other replies, “But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?” This could mean going alone to big public squares that are packed with people or visiting popular attractions on your own. It can offer the best of both worlds.
Run errands. If you are feeling trapped and want to get out and alone, make yourself useful by offering to mail a postcard, pick up food or run some other errand. The short time alone can help you recharge, and your companions might even appreciate the help.
Know when you are done. Finally, when your social batteries are fully drained, take heed and go recharge.
The way we talk about travel would often have us think that we are supposed to be piling up experiences and encounters, maximizing every waking moment with exhilarating activities, and changing the world while we are at it. In the end, you travel for what you get out of it — not someone else’s idea of what you are supposed to get out of it. This goes the same for everyone, introverts included; the world is your oyster, and so long as you don’t close yourself up in there completely, you can enjoy and experience it however you like.