Is it just me, or is anyone else tired of answering the same goddamn questions each and every time you set foot in a new city? Each and every time you arrive at a new hostel? Each and EVERY time you meet someone new? I mean, I get it…meeting a potential new soul mate, or new best friend for life, or new best friend for the next hour on the road is exhilarating and nerve-wracking all at once…sometimes all it takes is opening our mouths just a crack before the word-vomit begins to spill out. But we sound like broken records when we repeat ourselves all the live-long day, and at the end of the live-long day we can’t remember a single conversation we had because they were all EXACTLY. THE. SAME.
Right, I had a feeling you felt the same way. So I’m here to remind us all why the questions we ask when we’re stuck on auto-pilot inherently suck and to offer a few suggestions as to how we can all do better.
Sucky Question #1: “Where are you from?”
I know you’re probably wondering “…but WHYYY wouldn’t I want to ask where they’re from? That’s, like, totally essential information in getting to know someone!”
Except it’s not.
This is likely the first question out of your mouth after asking a person’s name (at least I hope people still engage in such formalities?) and it’s not easy to un-train yourself of this habit, but I urge you to try.
Another traveler explained to me many moons ago why asking this question is a bad habit, and in the interest of saving time, I’ll summarize:
a) The “Where are you from?” question blinds you from seeing that person for the unique individual they are and instead leads you to see them through a filter of [insert toxic and hurtful national stereotypes here]. It allows your mind to subconsciously jump to conclusions and make presuppositions about the person that are likely not warranted or deserved, and you run the risk of dismissing someone based on those assumptions before really getting to know them. And speaking as an American, I can verify: this happens. “Oh, you’re American? Never mind.”
b) It’s not always an easy question for people to answer (“Uhh, I’m from everywhere?”) When someone was born, raised, and has lived in several different countries around the world or has been traveling most of their lives, it can be difficult or even impossible for them to identify with a particular nationality, and asking them where they come from insinuates that they should. And knowing where a person was born and raised doesn’t necessarily enhance your understanding of that individual anyhow, because, as we remember from point a), people are not their country’s stereotypes.
No matter how seasoned a traveler you fancy yourself, how immune you think you are to stereotyping or how open-minded you might be, I challenge you, the next time you meet someone for the first time, to avoid the “Where are you from?” trap and see how it affects your interactions with others.
You’ll probably find that after a few minutes of conversation you’ll be able to glean the answer anyway (if their accent doesn’t immediately give it away), but at least you’ll prove to them (and to yourself) that their country of origin is not a determining factor in the future of your budding friendship.
Sucky Question #2: “How old are you?”
I find this question comes up with much less frequency than the first, but it’s still a dangerous one that should be avoided if at all possible.
The reasoning is largely the same; we associate certain traits with people of different ages, and these assumptions are not only unjustified, but flat-out wrong most of the time. As a late-twenty-something, I tend to fall right in the middle of ages I encounter when traveling. I can also tell you that some of my absolute best memories have been made with people DECADES away from me in age.
Ageism tends to disproportionately befall young travelers when older travelers assume them to be immature, inexperienced, or incapable of holding a conversation outside the realm of Justin Bieber and Pokemon and unjustly exclude them. Some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I’ve had have been with people many years younger than myself.
It goes the other way too, though; look me in the eye and tell me you’ve never avoided the mid-50s solo traveler on the grounds that he or she seemed to only be hitting on the younger crowd or clinging with futility to their youth by staying in backpacker hostels…hmm? Can’t do it, can you? This one’s equally unfair, and I know that when I’m at a more mature age I’ll still want the option of kicking it in the super-social hostel environment rather than a stuffy hotel and to do so free from judgment.
Sucky Question #3: “How long are you traveling?”
This question bothers me purely because it encourages comparison of your trip to that of someone else and creates room for long-term nomads to get braggy and self-righteous, as if not all travel is created equal.
Some of us travel for the long haul, and that’s great; some of us can only manage a few weeks at a time away from our responsibilities at home, and that’s fine, too–in fact, maybe that’s exactly what the short-term traveler wants–but their excitement to be traveling at all can be easily deflated by an unsupportive reaction (Long-Term Traveler: “Only two weeks? That sucks” *sad face.* Short-Term Traveler: “…Uhh…” *deflating balloon*).
I know it’s not always easy to avoid these questions, the “Some weather we’re having!” equivalent of the traveler. If this one can’t be avoided, at least have the decency to keep a level head about it. One year doesn’t trump five months doesn’t trump four days…traveling for longer doesn’t somehow make you a better traveler or a better person, we all just have different priorities. And it’s not a competition, after all.
Sucky Question #4: “What do you do?”
It became laughable to me how often I got this question during my 8 months in South America and equally hilarious that I persisted, to no avail, in trying to answer it.
I was just traveling. Full stop.
I didn’t “do” anything, at least not in the sense that was implied in the question. I had no job waiting for me at home, no career path I was on, no great contribution to society or creative masterpiece that I was building in my downtime between city tours.
I could have rambled off a long list of jobs I used to have, what I studied at Uni, or the career I almost had–but I’m not that person anymore, and there’s a reason I left that life behind.
Not having a thing I “did” made me feel awful. Like my life was on a trajectory toward nothingness, or like I was 10 years behind everyone else who’d already figured out what they wanted to “do” in life. It gave me anxiety and self-doubt.
For those who do have a profession or a career, it might be how they make money, sure–but if that’s what you actually want to know, then phrase the question that way (“What do you do for a living?” might be better). Although typically, this doesn’t tell us any more about a person than the country they were born in; people are not defined by what they “do.”
Instead of this old stand-by, I’d prefer it if someone asked me: “What are you passionate about?” That, I can answer.
Sucky Question #5: “How do you fund your travels?”
This one should be an obvious no-no, but just in case it’s not, let me be absolutely clear here:
How you fund your travels is none of anyone’s goddamn business.
It’s only natural, when you meet that traveler who’s been on the road for what seems like eternity (to me that constitutes anything longer than one year–not living in one place, but constantly moving), to wonder how in the fresh hell are they able to do this?
Everybody has a method to their madness; some people are ultra-efficient at budgeting, others do work exchanges to cut down costs, others quit their high-paying office jobs with plenty in savings to see the world, others are digital nomads who’ve unlocked the secrets to earning money on the road, and others still are on a gap year funded by their generous parents.
Whatever the case, it’s nobody’s right to know the details of your method, and its not within your rights to ask anybody else the details of theirs. In the rare instance someone offers the information up freely, ask away; but more often than not, the question feels intrusive and makes people uncomfortable.
There are plenty of travel bloggers out there who are happy to share their secrets of funding long-term travel, but if you ask me, it’s not a topic that should be breached within hostel walls.
And to those truly persistent in their quest for confidential information or the non-travelers in your life who are chomping at the bit to know how you’ve been able to afford “living in luxury” (if only they knew), you owe them nothing more than a diplomatic response of: “Savings ;)” (winky face optional).
I know its unrealistic to think that these banal courtesy questions will ever go away, but if we put our minds together we can shake the travelers’ scene out of its repetitious funk and start creating interactions that are meaningful, not monotonous.
What questions are you tired of hearing on the road? What should be asking each other instead?