The Dreaded Question of Travel December 2014

There’s that first moment in a hostel where you finish getting checked in, claim your bed, and drop your bags off in the corner. You’ve probably already walked past the common room and already experienced that brief awkward moment where you see the other hostel-goers sitting around talking and you maybe even made eye contact with some of them, but you haven’t yet introduced yourself or said anything to them. You’ve got a brief window of time thereafter to introduce yourself and make some conversation before they will assume you are boring or antisocial. At the same time, it’s probably best interest to get to know those people you awkwardly made eye contact with because you’ll be sleeping in the same room as them and it will be a far better experience if you take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with them — to find who what they are up to, who they are, if they are crazy or not, if they might be a potentially friend, travel buddy, or romantic interest.

When you approach the situation, the first step is usually to find whoever will make eye contact with you first and start up a conversation. It usually begins with one of you asking where you are from. Although this is how some 78.53% of travel conversations get started, it is a terrible question to ask within the first five minutes of meeting someone. For me, it nearly always goes the same way:

Them: “Where are you from?”

Me: “USA”

Them: “Where in?”

Me: “North Carolina”

Them: “Where is that?”

Me: “Halfway between the north and south part of the east coast.”

Them: “Oh, cool…”

And at that moment, there is nearly always a brief pause where they realize they can make no use of this information as they have no way of relating to the fact that I’m from North Carolina. It’s just another place they’ve never heard of and probably will never visit. At best, they might say “ohh I met someone from North Carolina once!” and end with the same awkward pause. Naturally, I will then ask them where they are from, too. After all, if they know where I’m from, it’s only fair that I know where they are from as well.

But at the moment that I say I’m from the US, I also can guarantee that one thing will happen: they will judge me and place me into a mental categorization of “American.” I don’t say this because I’m cynical or have had a bad experience or unhappy with my nationality, but rather because it’s simply a fact of psychology. By introducing this piece of information to the person, they will become biased whether they realize it or not. And I am certainly no exception: once someone tells me a fact about themselves — any fact — I cannot “unlearn” this fact. It will inevitably contribute to the mental model of them that I am building. It will influence how I think about them.

So it’s best to leave this bias out of the conversation at least for the first few minutes of conversation where you are trying to understand just who someone is. Instead, it’s best to judge them based on their personality, based on what they are doing with their life, based on how they treat you and react to you, based on their facial expressions, based on what they are interested in — everything that makes them a unique individual. Plus, I’ve found that personality accounts for far, far more of the variance that makes one person different from another than nationality. Sure, maybe Spanish people tend to speak less English than Swedish people, or Aussies tend to be extroverted and drink more than, well, anybody… but this variance is so far trumped by individual personality that it’s almost entirely useless information from the start.

This is why I hate it when people ask me where I am from — especially before they even know my name. It is enabling them to think of me as an American before it is enabling them to think of me as Chris.