I didn’t speak to another person for the first five weeks of my solo trip to Southeast Asia. I hid in private rooms in hostels, made shy smiles at other people, but never took the initiative to approach anyone and start a conversation. I was only 18 years old, fresh out of high school and quite frankly terrified. I cried the entirety of my first night away from home and wondered what the hell I was doing by travelling alone. I’d never planned to be undertaking this trip alone; I’d originally planned it with my ex boyfriend and broken up with him two months before I left. My heart had yearned for the pure freedom and learning experience of taking on the world alone.
I grew up as a shy, introverted child. I remained mostly silent at family gatherings and spent several years playing soccer where I didn’t make a single, real friend. I had plenty of friends at primary school, but was decidedly part of the ‘weird’ group in my year level. I spent a few weeks at the start of high school hiding in the library or walking around the yard in circles when my two only friends were busy. It took me a long time to make more friends and never felt like I could talk to new people. I always felt boring, overwhelmed, and above all, anxious.
Whenever I thought about talking to someone new, it was like my body shut down. I would feel waves of nausea and panic crashing over my body, and my brain would race at a million miles an hour. Consequently, I would just remain silent. No one can hate you or think you’re boring if they don’t even notice you. I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, wishing I had more friends and wishing that I was invited to more social events. In my late teens, I learned to lean upon alcohol as a crutch, but hadn’t yet learnt the lesson of moderation.
After spending those five weeks of not talking to anyone, I felt so crushingly lonely that I was desperate to try anything. Through trial and error, I slowly learnt to use these tips that helped me to initially pretend that I wasn’t anxious.
Open body language. It can be really easy to sink into yourself and seem closed off or standoffish if you are anxious and not monitoring your body language. I learnt quickly that if I held eye contact and genuinely smiled at people, more often than not, they would approach me first. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I was so initially terrified that my body language made me seem unfriendly.
Mental pep talks. I usually plan when I am going to try and socially interact with other people in a hostel. Before I enter the bar or common social area, I usually take a moment for myself in the bathroom or somewhere private so that I can focus myself. I think about how I am going to enter the room and where I am going to walk. If I don’t have a plan of action, I run the risk of getting stuck in the middle of the room and looking desperate and afraid. I remind myself that everyone else there likes to be social and that if someone is unfriendly, I can just try again.
Breathing exercises. During these pre-socialisation sessions, I also take a minute or so to focus on my breathing. I have always failed at proper meditation because I find it hard to completely empty my brain of thoughts. But I have found that deep abdominal breathing and soothingly rubbing my inner arms helps to reduce my heart rate and at least lessen the physical symptoms of anxiety in my body.
Picking the right people to approach. I carefully select the people who I approach. People who are on their own are my first choice because they are generally open to a conversation. It is harder to approach pairs and any more than two people is a last resort for me. I find groups particularly intimidating. I also look for people who seem to be of a similar age to me and who have open body language.
Asking lots of questions. I’ve noticed that one of my main sources of anxiety is that I believe I am boring and have nothing to add to the conversation. An easy way to get around this is to make the conversation mostly about the other person until I feel more comfortable within myself. This puts the other person at ease because they feel like you are genuinely engaged and interested.
Banter. Sometimes I find it easier to use humour and playful insults to hide my fear and anxiety. This is a very Australian-style of humour that not everyone will respond to, but more often than not, people respond positively to playfully being paid out a little. It generates familiarity and breaks the ice a little.
Signing up for activities. If all else fails and you genuinely feel like you can’t approach people in a more natural setting, I find it beneficial to sign up for group activities. It places you in close proximity to people with similar interests and gives you an initial topic of conversation. It takes away some of the initial anxiety around choosing what topics to talk about and allows you to relax into the process a little more.
I came back from my first solo backpacking adventure a changed person. My old friends hardly recognised me. I would walk up to complete strangers in the bar and start talking to them as if they were old friends. I had no issues talking to anyone, anywhere, about anything. I felt this huge surge of confidence in my ability to be funny, interesting and engaging. From forcing myself to pretend that I was confident so much, it has gotten to the point that I feel reasonably comfortable meeting any new people. I still feel sick in my stomach sometimes, but I just trust in myself and my ability to trick people into thinking that I am confident and extroverted.