Welcome back, friends and friends-to-be, to another piece of travel psychology! In this series, I answer your questions about the psychology of travel with a proper scientific background. Today I’m talking about making friends on the road – how do we meet people while traveling? And why is it that we sometimes connect so easily and deeply, compared to acquaintances at home?
Got a topic you want covered? Let me know in the comments!
While you skype your highschool buddies maybe once in two months, you find yourself having the time of your life with a bunch of strangers, somewhere on an exotic beach, sharing that bottle of rum full pirate style.
How come that we tend to form close relationships on the road so much easier compared to home?
You would think that going to the same school for 5 years would simplify initial approaching and relationship building, compared to randomly being thrown into the same hostel dorm.
And for some that might be true. But this goes out to the perpetual wanderers among you.
I discovered that the majority of my close friend’s today connect to my travels. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel homesick or value my friends back home less.
I just wondered… So we meet people while traveling, and this entire interaction seems to follow different social and psychological rules. Let’s have a look behind the scenes.
What is friendship?
Friendship is understood as a supportive and caring behavior between two or more people (Foster, 2005). While I, frankly, consider my backpack, a cold beer and dark chocolate my closest friends, but let’s leave that aside.
Friendship means reciprocal affection and sharing. A committed relationship of loyalty and, to a certain degree, selflessness. Foster (2005) found the nature of adulthood friendships to be a critical determinant of self-esteem, hopefulness and personal happiness.
But what influences whether we become friends with someone?
How do Friendships form?
Research has shown that there are a few essentials to form friendships (Friedman, 2014; Schneider et al., 2012).
First of all: A friendship will hardly develop while you’re sitting on different continents. This doesn’t mean, long distance friendships or relationships can’t work – but I mean, it’s beneficial if you at least had opportunity to shake hands before. In particular, the proximity effect explains an increased liking of another person, based on physical closeness and psychological commonalities (Schneider et al., 2012).
Additionally, the mere exposure effect describes the fact that by simple repeated exposure, people tend to like each other more (Zajonc, 1968). I’ve become close to the most unlikely people, just because circumstances put us together again and again.
Well, that’s clear, right? I give you, you give me. Friendship is no one-way street.
This doesn’t have to mean being physically attracted. But well, there obviously has to be some kind of mutual interest into each other.
Peer & Family Acceptance
Acceptance can be an important factor. Ever had that girl- / boyfriend your parents disapproved of? Doesn’t really make things easier. But present them their dream child in law, and they’ll suddenly share their deepest relationship tips and secrets…
Get to know each other, spend time with each other, some mysterious friendship magic, and boom you’re inseparable. No but seriously, you have to allow time and energy to get to know each other’s sense of humor, your idiosyncrasies and preferences to become fond of each other.
Meanwhile, similarity isn’t limited to physical, emotional, spiritual or personal similarity. It’s simply based on the fact, have something in common, have something to talk about, have something to understand about each other (Parker & Seal, 1996). Being empathetic, and half the job is done.
Last but not least, sharing a few intimate details about each other is a sign of trust. That you can rely on each other instead of just talking shop, and are thus able to connect on a deeper level. Interestingly, this is true across situations. For work or study environments, friendships or romantic relationships – and thus also transferable on people bonding during travel (Sias & Cahill, 2009).
And a last tip on the side: As always, mum was right. If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. The boomerang effect of gossip is a thing. Researchers have found that when you attribute negative traits to someone, your listener will often attribute those same traits to you (Skowronski et al., 1998). BUT same goes for positive traits – so, be nice 🙂
So, you meet people while traveling. What’s different?
I did not find any specific research on the psychology of friendship in a travel environment. Thus I’m again combining fundamental psychological research and personal experiences to find an explanation.
As we learned before, one important factor is similarity. And as travelers, we already have a lot in common.
You constantly expose yourself to novelty, and chose this environment over the familiarity of home. You’re already open to meet people while traveling. Most likely, that is.
Meanwhile, at least in the first years of our lives, we’re not choosing where we are going. We are being put in a particular school in a particular class, and our classmates are all we have. It’s more arbitrary.
Of course, the above mentioned mere exposure effect still applies, and research showed that the majority of strong relationships originates from the classroom (Hruschka, 2010).
Yet, by freely choosing a life of travel instead of a life at home, we start off with a whole different mindset.
You surely realized that most of the people you meet have similar ideas about life, career, dreams, ideologies. Without making this a political post, but I haven’t met a single American (or any nationality) in favor of Trump. You share a lot, the good and the bad, you know travel is never just coconuts and rainbows.
Some might be more adventurous. Others more thoughtful. More the city or the nature type. Racing on a motorbike through South East Asia or stop and stay for a few weeks at every place. You meet people while traveling in all kinds of settings, yet you always have something in common.
Here’s what I believe: This passion for travel unites us. A new place is out geographical version of a crush. And this excitement goes way deeper than randomly meeting someone in a bar at home. This is what ties us together, and what makes us go beneath all our layers more quickly.
But let’s go further.
Research has shown that behavior changes in different environments (Tam et al., 2005). Meaning, you’re not necessarily behaving the same as you do at home. Personality is not carved in stone, but influenced by a lot of internal and external factors. And this goes pretty far: Students rate a hypothetical person as “warm and friendly” when they held a cup of hot coffee just before, opposed to holding ice coffee (Williams & Bargh, 2008).
So the novelty-filled travel life might just do the same to us: Helping to converge our behavior, our personality, to come closer to each other.
I have trouble to meet people while traveling – what can I do?
The secret is actually quite easy: Do what you love, and you’ll meet someone you love (in a comprehensive meaning). That pretty much applies any aspect in life (Byrne, 1969). Trekking tour, surfing lesson, cooking class, shopping trip, weekly date with a beer in your favorite bar.
Whatever suits YOU. There will be people doing exactly this. And boom, you have a base. Pursue what drives you. This one’s backed up my by own experience.
I have been sitting in bars dwelling over cocktails or stargazing on the beach by myself. I am an introvert, hence it’s never been easy to make the first step getting to know people. In groups, I’m mostly the quiet one, suddenly losing all my wit and sometimes even torn by self doubts.
But don’t worry my friend. There’s many of us out there. Go on, things will be fine. As Liz from YoungAdventuress says:
If I want my own travel stories, I can’t be shy. This is probably the best lesson I’ve ever learned. So while I still remained inherently introverted, because that will never change, I learned to not be shy. There’s a big difference.
Here’s a few practical tips
One of your easiest bets will always be staying in a hostel. If you don’t want to share a dorm, a private room is still cheaper than a hotel, but comes with all of the hostel’s advantages: Community areas, activities and other travelers also looking to meet people while traveling.
Another option is to go on a (multiple) day tour. Throw a bunch of people in the same boat (literally) and they’ll start talking. No biggie, I promise.
What helped me a couple of times is to just connect to friends of friends. I had the best time in Budapest, Geneva or Bali, just because a friend introduced me to their local friends and – tadaa – I had a whole new bunch of people to hang out with. And based on the mutual friend, we immediately had something to talk about.
Another time I volunteered in a hostel in Jerusalem. The people I met were so amazing that I stayed 6 months instead of 8 weeks!
The last resort? There’s an app for everything. Really. Whether it’s Couchsurfing Hangouts, travel related facebook groups or MeetUp – you won’t have tomorrow’s cocktails by yourself if you don’t want to.
These are a few of the things that worked for me. Wanna know more? Check out these 20 tips for more tips to meet people while traveling solo.
Hey you – let’s be friends!
Made it all the way down here? Guess we have something in common already. Let’s connect, so our search to meet people while traveling becomes easier – by meeting each other! Feel free to email me or get in touch on facebook or instagram 🙂
Byrne, D. (1969). Attitudes and Attraction. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 4, 35-89.
Foster, G. (2005) Making friends: A nonexperimental analysis of social pair formation. Human Relations, 58, 1443-1465.
Friedman, R. (2014). The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. TarcherPerigee.
Hruschka, D. J. (2010). Friendship: Development, ecology, and evolution of a relationship. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Parker, J.G., & Seal, J. (1996). Forming, losing, renewing and replacing friendships: Applying temporal parameters to the assessment of children’s friendship experiences. Child Development, 67, 2248-2268.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Sias, P., & Cahill, D. (2009). From coworkers to friends: The development of peer friendships in the workplace. Western Journal of Communication, 62(3), 273-299.
Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T., (1998). Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 837-848.
Tam, L., Witt, M. G., & Wood, W., (2005). Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 918-933.
Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A., (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Science, 322(5901), 606-607.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal Effects Of Mere Exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2), 1-27.