Travel & talking to strangers: tips for managing social anxiety

Travelling solo in Paros, Greece

By Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Two years after the onset of a global pandemic, we have all received the clear message that we should keep our distance from other people. Many of us have been working from home for a long period and have not had the same opportunities for small interactions socially and in the workplace. In my clinical work I have seen this have a huge impact, with many people experiencing some degree of social anxiety which for some has been a new experience.

Travel inevitably involves meeting and talking to new people to some degree, whether this be checking into your hotel or ordering in a restaurant. The aim of this guide is to help you to understand the value in these small social interactions that may seem unimportant, and to help you manage any anxiety you may experience in these situations.

The value in social interaction

Most of us know and understand that having relationships and connections with other people is crucially important for our well-being. However we often don’t appreciate the value of everyday interactions with people that we don’t know or don’t know well. In our productivity focused culture, chatting to your barista in a coffee shop for example, is not perceived as a ‘valuable’ activity. Whilst our drink is prepared we may be checking the social media or the news on our phone and have minimal interactions.

In fact, there is some evidence that tells us that these small interactions can be beneficial for our well-being. Dr Gillian Sandstrom and her colleagues set up a study which involved asking participants to order a coffee under two conditions; being as efficient as possible, or intentionally trying to make small talk with the barista. It was found that making small talk had a positive impact on participants’ well-being. You can find out more about this research in this episode of the Speaking of Psychology Podcast.

From a travel perspective specifically, speaking to locals is a great way to get insider information on the destination you’re visiting. On the whole hoteliers enjoy providing information to their guests to help you to get the most out of your trip. Perhaps it is a British thing to not want to bother the staff with our questions, but in my experience they are almost always happy to help! On my recent trip to Skiathos and example this involved the friendly owner of the Bourtzi Hotel giving us detailed information on which beaches to visit in the morning and afternoon based on the wind direction on that particular day. If that is not expert advice I don’t know what is!

Barriers to making small talk with strangers 

In their research Dr Sandstrom and her colleagues found a number of reasons that people don’t make small talk. These included fears about our own skills in making conversations, and worries that the other person won’t like us, or that one or both of us won’t enjoy the conversation (Sandstrom & Boothby, 2021).

Other barriers might include anxiety about making small talk and fears about wasting other peoples’ time. Not seeing the value in these kinds of interactions and feeling that we don’t have the time are also important. Where you are and the local culture is also very relevant; you are much more likely to chat when you live in a small village than in a big and fast-moving city like London. With all of these potential barriers it is clear that unless we are intentional about small talk, it is very easy for it to be overlooked despite the potential benefits for us.

So now let’s move on to some tips about how we can manage any anxiety related to these kinds of situations:

Tips for understanding and managing anxiety

Gradually building confidence 

If we haven’t made small talk for a while, it is normal to have lost confidence and to feel anxious and awkward when you first get back to these kinds of situations. One of the simplest and most effective things that you can do to start to rebuild confidence is called ‘graded exposure’. This involves you identifying situations that are anxiety provoking for you and organising them by least to most in terms of how anxiety provoking they are. Think about a ladder with the most difficult situation you would want to do at the top. You will start with the least anxiety provoking situation at the bottom. You will then move up each rung of the ladder when you have gained confidence on the step you’re on. This sounds very simple and can be a really effective way of reducing anxiety and gaining confidence over time. Remember that it is normal to feel anxiety at each step on the ladder, but once you have practised a few times the anxiety will usually decrease.

Building our conversation skills 

Those of us who experience social anxiety may have low confidence in our skills at making small talk. We may assume that others who appear more confident or extraverted always naturally ‘just know’ what to say. This often isn’t the case and most people will find it a little difficult to know what to say keep a conversation going. The difference is that people who are more confident will generally feel ok if there are awkward silences or if they don’t immediately know what to say. As a result they are more likely to persist rather than to avoid conversations. Over time if we persist we build confidence and skills in knowing what to say, and how and when to end the conversation.

As a way of helping to prepare yourself for these situations, think of three responses in advance in each of the following categories. Firstly, when the conversation has stopped flowing, one possible thing to say might be “have you been busy today/this week/this season?”. When you want to end the conversation one response might be “I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Enjoy the rest of your day”; Having responses like this ‘up your sleeve’ can help you to feel more prepared and less anxious when these situations arise.

Looking back on conversations

Some of the research in this area suggests that we often underestimate the extent to which other people like us and enjoy conversations with us (Boothby at al., 2018). It is important to remember this! Most of the time we will enjoy conversations, especially when others are polite to us or take an interest in what we have to say. It is unlikely to be helpful to look back on conversations and overanalyse or try and evaluate whether the person liked us.

When things don’t go well

When the conversation doesn’t flow, we don’t enjoy it, or the other person doesn’t want to engage it can be disheartening. If we are not confident we can tend to take this to heart and think that perhaps it is something to do with us. This is usually not the case. Often when things don’t go well, it might just be that we are not compatible with the other person in some way or that there is some other reason that they might not want to chat to us. They my have a lot on their mind or other difficulties that mean they are not in the right headspace to chat, or maybe they are just having a busy day. This is not personal so try to remember this, and that there will be others who will want to chat.

Considerations for women travelling solo 

When we as women are travelling alone we will often want to immerse ourselves in a culture and to meet new people. Unfortunately the world is not as safe as we would like it to be and sadly there are situations where being friendly can be misinterpreted. The best advice I can give is to trust your gut with regard to having conversations with people you don’t know. If it seems polite and respectful, these are of course good signs. If someone seems overly interested on you, is pushy, focuses on your appearance, or doesn’t take a polite no for an answer then these are big red flags. Don’t ever be afraid of saying no, being impolite or leaving abruptly.

Summary 

We can see that small talk has some important benefits for our well-being and indeed for the well-being of others. However because of the limitations of time, the potential for anxiety in these situations and because we may not feel like we have the skills, it has the potential to be missed. I hope this article helps you to understand the value in these interactions and to be intentional in making them happen.

References 

Boothby, E.J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G.M., & Clark, M.S. (2018). The liking gap in conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742–1756.

Sandstrom, G.M., & Boothby, E.J. (2021). Why do people avoid talking to strangers? A mini meta-analysis of predicted fears and actual experiences talking to a strangerSelf and Identity, 20(1), 47-71.

Speaking of Psychology: Why you should talk to strangers, with Gillian Sandstrom, PhD, and Jon Levy on Apple Podcasts

If you liked this article check out How can I travel solo with social anxiety?